Institutional Racism and the Geneology of Food Insecurity in the US South

Laura Kihlström & Dalila D’Ingeo


During the past 20 years, the literature on food insecurity has proliferated. Concepts such as food desert and food swamp are frequently employed, particularly in the U.S., to explain disparities in access to healthy food. Similarly, the expression ‘the new face of hunger’ addresses food insecurity as an issue that crosscuts American society.
However, these popular metaphors regarding food insecurity in the U.S. disregard the disproportionate impact it has on Black Americans. Food insecurity in low-income, segregated areas is a consolidate phenomenon, with a history, and a legacy. Its development is intertwined with episodes of violence and oppression that have impoverished Black communities for centuries.

Existing literature tends to focus on proximal causes, such as lack of access to fresh food, rather than critically historicizing the genealogy of food insecurity and the way it has impacted Black Americans across generations. As critical race theorists discuss, the history of food insecurity is connected to systemic oppression and institutional racism. Discriminatory policies today, and in the past, have segregated Black communities from wealth and natural resources and many families, especially in the South, have seen their lands expropriated and their properties violated.

This paper provides an anthropological and historical perspective on food insecurity in the U.S. South, a geographical area often overlooked by the literature, but one in which food insecurity is linked to deeply rooted and persistent social and racial inequalities. In particular, we investigate how the history of institutional racism is embodied in contemporary foodscapes and has fueled specific acts of resistance. We compare and contrast historical data on violence and material deprivation pertaining the Black population in 67 Florida counties with contemporary data on food environments, food access, and health outcomes in the same counties.
By uncovering associations between racist policies developed and reinforced de jure in the past (slavery, Jim Crow) and those perpetuated de facto until today, we track the racist “genealogy” of food insecurity in Florida. We propose that equitable and “secure” food systems are not achievable today without addressing broader social inequalities that have historically affected Blacks in the US South.