Many of us have heard about “food deserts,” or areas with poor access to healthy food. Typically “food desert” maps highlight the locations of grocery stores and transit lines, and initiatives that come out of these projects might include increasing transit access in a given area or establishing pop-up markets in a “food desert”. Considering the vital role that food occupies in cultural identity, community cohesion, place-making, and self-sufficiency, it is noteworthy that “food desert” maps reduce the role of food in our lives to merely access or inaccessibility.

In contrast, the term “food apartheid” is used to highlight the racially discriminatory political structures that past and present impact food access and control. The fight to end “food apartheid” is community driven. Efforts burgeon from local cries to redistribute power and dismantle oppressive political and economic structures which disempower communities of color (also see food sovereignty movement).

Let’s parse out why the difference between these terms is so important.

Firstly “food desert” maps carry with them a racialized connotation of “deserts” as places of lack, implying that folks living within a “food desert” are people who lack and are unable to use their agency to circumvent or resist systems of oppression, or to come up with solutions to their own problems. As a result of this misconception, “African Americans and other people of color are often reduced to bodies that need to be regulated and changed” (Reese 16-17). While well intentioned, studies on “food deserts” often further entrench the idea that “black people need fixing” in public discourse and perpetuate “the belief that these communities have little or no investment in creating their own place-making strategies toward food self-sufficiency” (Reese 16-17 also see food sovereignty)

‘Food apartheid’, on the other hand, communicates that the geographic distribution of increased barriers to food access can be explained not by a community’s lack of initiative, but by the continued legacy of racially discriminatory economic and political structures.

It is well established that Black and Hispanic Americans are more likely to confront barriers to food access than white Americans (see for example Reese, 5). In racially segregated cities like Chicago, New York, and Austin, Black and Hispanic neighborhoods experience the highest barriers to food access (Reese, 5).

“ZIP codes experiencing the highest rates of food insecurity are located primarily in Austin’s Eastern Crescent neighborhoods, and African-American and Latino communities are disproportionately affected.”

“2018 State of the Food System”

Urban flight and disinvestment from inner-city neighborhoods in the 1960s, supermarket bias against Black and Hispanic communities when choosing new locations since the 1970s, the federal government’s disinvestment from affordable housing since the 1980s, and rising property taxes and gentrification in communities of color since the 1990s are symptoms of a political system which is particularly violent towards communities of color (see neoliberal food policy, and the Farm Bill also Eisenhauer, Reese, Busch, and Holt-Giménez “Food Security…“, for more info on iterative disinvestment from communities of color in Austin see Busch City in A Garden or Tretter Shadows of a Sunbelt City).

These patterns of racial devaluation have created inequity in access to and control over healthy and culturally appropriate food.

Using the term “food apartheid” instead of “food desert” allows us to recognize and dismantle these structural inequities.

Organizers fighting to dismantle these systems

Movement for Black Lives: Reparations Platform

Freedom Food Alliance

National Black Food and Justice Alliance

Land Research Action Network

NDN Collective

Sources + more reads

Brones, Anna (2018) “Food apartheid: the root of the problem with America’s groceries”. The Guardian. Retrieved from:

Eisenhauer E. (2001). In poor health: Supermarket redlining and urban nutrition. GeoJournal, 53(2), pp. 125-133. Retrieved from:

Guthman, Julie. (2008) ““If they only knew”: color blindness and universalism in California alternative food institutions.” The professional geographer 60.3: 387-397. Retrieved from:

Holt-Giménez, Eric, and Yi Wang. “Reform or Transformation? The Pivotal Role of Food Justice in the U.S. Food Movement.” Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts, vol. 5, no. 1, 2011, pp. 83–102. JSTOR, Retrieved from:

Holt-Giménez, Eric. (2010). “Food Security, Food Justice, or Food Sovereignty?”. Food First. Retrieved from:

Jones, N. L. (2016). Eating while young and Black: food, foodways, and gentrification in Austin, Texas (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from:

Lentz, Erin, and Raj Patel. July 2016, Office of Sustainability City of Austin. (10) Retrieved from:

Matsumoto, Nancy (2020). An Intergenerational Juneteenth Gathering Shows How the Black Food Sovereignty Discussion has Shifted. Civil Eats. Retrieved from:

McArthur, Calondra (2015). “Food Justice Voices: What Ferguson Means for the Food Justice Movement: Issue 1“. retrieved from:

McClintock, Nathan. “Radical, reformist, and garden-variety neoliberal: coming to terms with urban agriculture’s contradictions.” Local Environment 19.2 (2014): 147-171. Retrieved from:

Movement for Black Lives: Reparations Platform

Reese Ashanté M. (2019). Black food geographies: race, self-reliance, and food access in Washington, D.C. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Rothstein, R. (2018). The Color of Law: a forgotten history of how our government segregated America. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company.

Sbicca, Joshua. “Growing food justice by planting an anti-oppression foundation: opportunities and obstacles for a budding social movement.” Agriculture and Human Values 29.4 (2012): 455-466. Retrieved from:

Slocum, Rachel. “Anti‐racist practice and the work of community food organizations.” Antipode 38.2 (2006): 327-349. Retrieved from:

Tretter, E. M., Sounny, M. A., & Student, S. P. (2012). Austin restricted: Progressivism, zoning, private racial covenants, and the making of a segregated city. Geography, 512, 471-5116.

United States, Congress, Office of Sustainability, and Lucia Athens. “2018 State of the Food System Report.” 2018 State of the Food System Report, Office of Sustainability, 2018, pp. 1–24. Retrieved from:

Way, K. Heather; Mueller, Elizabeth; Wegmann, Jake. (2018) The Uprooted Project. University of Texas at Austin Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic (School of Law) and the Community and Regional Planning Program (School of Architecture).(2) Retrieved from:

White, M. M. (2018). Freedom farmers: agricultural resistance and the Black freedom movement. UNC Press Books.