Changelab Solutions Webinar on Food Systems and Health Inequity

by Kyle Winterboer*

ChangeLab Solutions works nationwide to bring about healthier and equitable communities through law and policy. Their ongoing six-part virtual engagement series “Uprooting the Structural Drivers of Health Inequity” is focused on ways that organizations and advocates are addressing inequity in their efforts to improve outcomes. Their recent webinar was the fifth installations of the series, was focused on food systems, and featured an expert panel discussing Policy Solutions for a Values-Based Food System.

Previous episodes can be found on their website, and a recording of Monday’s Panel will be made available at: https://www.changelabsolutions.org/product/food-systems

Below find a list of the expert panelists. Additionally, find a summary by one of the Resnick Center’s Summer Research Assistants, Kyle Winterboer, who attended the webinar on Monday, June 28, 2021.

Expert Panel:

  • Jose Oliva, campaigns director, HEAL Food Alliance
  • Karen Bassarab, senior program officer, Food Communities & Public Health, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future
  • Vinny Eng, community organizer and founding member, SF New Deal 
  • Abbey Piner, project lead, Community Food Strategies, Center for Environmental Farming Systems, North Carolina State University
  • LaShauna Austria, Founder, Kindred Seedlings Farm, and Racial Equity Coach, Community Food Strategies
  • Nessia Berner Wong, senior policy analyst, ChangeLab Solutions (moderator)

Throughout the webinar, the concept of “policy violence” was highlighted and showed how harm to communities has been perpetuated by the disciplines of law and policy being unable to address their own issues of entrenched systemic racism. Panelists highlighted how law and policy need to strive to reform and focus on uplifting dignity and protecting those who are closest to harm. Throughout the food industry, it is well documented that BIPOC farmers and workers have been systematically denied governmental aid and faced barriers that stripped them of land, resources, livelihoods, and opportunity. These policy choices and written laws have directly resulted in the built environments we live in today and continue to plague communities with inequitable living conditions and consequential health outcomes.

The panelists briefly touched on the ongoing legal proceedings regarding the USDA’s rollout of BIPOC loan forgiveness through the American Rescue Plan, and how opponents brought suit in Wisconsin and won a temporary restraining order against the USDA. For further information, further accounting is provided by HEAL Food Alliance and a number of organizations at this link. There, advocates share that while initial steps towards reform in the American Rescue Plan go nowhere near what is needed, any financial relief for BIPOC members of the food system and society are welcomed relief and a step in the right direction. The backlash via numerous lawsuits only shows how far we still have to go.

Beyond the commonly sighted issues of red-lining, Jim Crow laws, and the Bracero Program, the panelists alerted listeners to an emerging policy issue that, if left unsolved, can reinforce racial inequities. While local food policy councils and community food sourcing organizations gain popularity across the country, and may offer a viable way to reinvest in hollowed-out local food systems and address racialized food deserts, conscious choices must be made to avoid continued patterns of systemic racial policy violence. Examples have already played out where all-white councils in some cities were put in place and overlooked opportunities to invest and partner with BIPOC food providers and businesses. Without intentional roll-outs, the programs may instead reinforce the racial inequities they are trying to solve. Intentional consideration must be given to who is in put charge of making the purchasing choices.

Panelists highlighted hope and an example of how Indianapolis diverted from policy as usual by choosing to declare racism a public health crisis in June 2020. Additionally, it created a program that ensures its polices are informed first by the communities that are closest to harm. By partnering with on the ground community organizations, policy can be better informed and shaped by the diverse populations of an area and bring a first-hand account of the needs of the community. Compared to giving power to top-down councils, by assigning the levers of power to those who are already doing the work that a policy is aiming to achieve, it leads to better results and more equitable laws and policies. Such considerations need to be considered in local implementations if these programs hope to actually uproot structural racism. Otherwise, these programs will merely fertilize these structural roots and continue to perpetuate racial injustice throughout the food system.

*Kyle is a summer research assistant with the Resnick Center, and a Master of Public Policy candidate at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, focused on sustainability and food systems. He is also a member of UCLA’s Graduate Food Studies Program and the National Science Foundation’s INFEWS research traineeship program.

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