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What It’s Like Growing Up Under Food Apartheid

By Eva Maria Lewis, she/her

In 2013, when I was 14 years old, the nearest grocery store was two buses away. Our lone neighborhood grocery store closed in 2013, and it took six years and a lot of organizing for us to get a replacement. This is not unusual for a neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, in fact, some neighborhoods had it even worse. You can walk for miles and come across an assortment of chicken shops, corner stores, and liquor stores but no grocery stores. This is the geography of a food desert—the creation of which is the result of food apartheid. Despite access to food being a human right, many Black and Brown neighborhoods in urban areas and beyond do not have access to sustenance in their immediate community. 

A symptom of a food desert is food insecurity, which is not confined by geography at all. For example, even way back when my neighborhood had a grocery store, the price of the food was simply too much for my mom to regularly purchase. Thankfully I was on free and reduced lunch, a national public school program that was started by the Black Panther Party, which allowed me to have one or two meals provided by my school. Although the quality was not the best, it kept me from being hungry. When times got tough, we found ourselves turning to different alternatives for sustenance. 

I remember when my mom pulled a semi-busted grocery cart out from the basement, threw on her heaviest winter vest, and headed for our local food pantry for the first time; I was so embarrassed. I felt ashamed to be in need, not fully realizing that many of my neighbors were in need as well. She would come home with a myriad of food items, some that were regular kitchen staples and some we had never tried before. The food pantry expanded our diet and palate in ways we could not previously afford. 

I remember getting laughed at because I could not recognize a zucchini, eggplant, or avocado in person. My peers who lived in other neighborhoods could not understand how I could be so sheltered. Truthfully, some of these items were at stores I would go to with my mom, but we did not have the luxury of trying new things; we were set on survival. Plus, the inventory at a food pantry is set and unpredictable. My experience can be described as food apartheid; there was a limit in how I could engage with food because of my socioeconomic status and geography. Some of that agency was regained with the new items and treats we acquired at food pantries, yet I did not have a chance to realize how empowering a liberating experience with food could be until recently. 

At the very end of 2019, a grocery store finally opened in my neighborhood (with accessible items for low-income residents) as well as a Trader Joe’s in the neighborhood over. After I  was able to buy groceries, in addition to visiting food pantries, I got to work. I began to try vegetables I’d never had and recipes I’d never heard of. The expanded agency over what I could put into my body made me feel more in control of myself. For the first time, I didn’t feel intimidated.

As beautiful an experience as it has been to get to know myself and my body through food, it should not have taken this long to get here. By now, many have heard of a food desert. However, the symptom of food insecurity goes overlooked. So many people, like me, either cannot afford groceries, feel unequipped to navigate a multitude of food items, lack the tools to experiment with diet, and more. I’m no health specialist, but I’m confident that every human being deserves nourishment and sustenance without difficulty. Understanding these symptoms is the first step, and action is the next

Donating high-quality food items to local organizations and pantries can help close the gap for low-income folks and residents of food deserts, and create holistic food agency. It is also possible to volunteer to buy and deliver groceries to food desert residents in need. Last year I started a program called the Chicago Food Pairing Program that does just that. Donating to organizations that provide services like this goes a long way as well. Another solution includes creating and restocking food fridges in neighborhoods struggling with food insecurity. The overall goal is to mobilize to create a society where a phrase like “food is life” is evident in the landscape of a neighborhood. Every person should be able to walk to a grocery store with high-quality produce and other items. Every person should be able to access food that will bring them joy spiritually, physically, and mentally. 

I am so grateful to have survived food insecurity and now advocate and work toward the security of others. I hope you will join me. 

To combat food insecurity, donate to and get involved with the following programs:

The Free Root Operation’s Chicago Food Pairing Program

Urban Growers Collective

Forty Acres Fresh Market

City Harvest

Bread for the City

To learn more about food apartheid, listen to the following episodes of To The People Podcast:

Written by Eva Maria Lewis for Youth To The People. Lewis is an artist, human rights advocate, and socio-cultural architect from the South Side of Chicago. She is the founder and Executive Director of the Free Root Operation.