Symposium | The State of Black America

The Food System: A Harrowing Injustice

By Cory Booker

Tagged AgricultureFood PolicyInequalityRacism

“I remember the day that they started spraying hog waste on us. It was a Saturday in the mid-1990s . . . . Just as I was thinking to myself that there was no way that he would begin spraying waste so close to us, I heard a bursting sound. The sprayer had begun to pump waste in our direction.” 

Those were the words offered as testimony at a congressional hearing in November of 2019 by Elsie Herring, activist, organizer, and environmental justice advocate. I first met Elsie a few years before the hearing when I traveled to Duplin County, North Carolina, where her family has lived for generations. Her grandfather, born into slavery, purchased the land in the late 1800s and, at the time of the hearing, Elsie’s mother had lived on the property for 99 years. For much of the twentieth century, the family lived off the land, growing fruits and vegetables, fishing in Rockfish Creek, raising livestock, and drinking water from their well. 

Elsie and her family’s life started to change when the first concentrated animal feeding operation, commonly called a “CAFO,” was established in Duplin County during the mid-1900s. In a county where the hog population has grown to over 2 million, these CAFOs—also known as large factory farms—have become a ubiquitous presence. During my visit, I saw many of them organized together in rows, metal sheds no taller than a single-story house yet stretching the length of a football field, immediately adjacent to neighboring residential properties. Though windowless, I knew that within each of these massive buildings thousands of hogs were being raised in tightly confined spaces. 

Within the first six months of their lives, these hogs would be transported to a nearby plant where they would be slaughtered, packaged, and shipped as meat around the world. The majority of these hogs are owned from birth to death by a handful of consolidated, multinational corporations that make massive profits while rural communities, the environment, and public health all suffer as a result of the industrialized animal agriculture system these companies have created. 

North Carolina has over 2,100 CAFOs, many of which are located in Duplin County and nearby Sampson County. Studies indicate that these facilities are predominantly clustered in communities of color, with analyses showing that African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans are more likely to be living within 3 miles of a hog facility than non-Hispanic whites. Additional research shows that areas of high poverty and areas where a high percentage of non-white people live had seven times more industrial swine facilities. 

As Elsie’s congressional testimony reveals, the proliferation of CAFOs in these communities has led to the spraying of toxic waste produced by hogs directly onto residents’ property. In the three counties that are home to over half of North Carolina’s 9 million hog population, hog waste totals 4.4 billion gallons, enough to fill over 6,500 Olympic-sized swimming pools. 

In Duplin County, I witnessed this waste being collected in massive cesspools, commonly known as “lagoons,” larger than the size of city blocks before it was sprayed into the air and onto nearby fields. The noxious stench of these lagoons was overwhelming. Residents described feeling like prisoners in their own homes with many forced to close their windows and prevented from going outside. The spray of liquid hog manure would often land in neighboring backyards and leach into local groundwater which meant that many families could no longer host cookouts, garden, drink water from their wells or hang clothes outside to dry. Residents also detailed the health hazards they were suffering from, including serious respiratory and physical symptoms that have also been documented in several peer-reviewed studies conducted in North Carolina. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a review of these studies provides consistent support that industrial swine operations lead to the occurrence of eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, and asthma exacerbation in nearby communities. 

For much of her adult life, Elsie fought the CAFOs that had taken over her community before her tragic passing last year. Her story and the story of other Black residents living in Duplin County reveal a harrowing injustice that is seldom discussed but ever-present: America’s food system is fundamentally broken. It is broken for independent family farmers and ranchers, it is broken for workers and consumers, and it is especially broken for Black Americans. 

Early Lessons

For more than two decades, I have called Newark, New Jersey, my home. For seven of those years, from 2006 to 2013, I proudly served as the city’s mayor. 

When I first took office, it had been over a decade since a supermarket had opened in the city, and large sections of Newark were designated as “food deserts,” where options to purchase nutritious food were limited to nonexistent. To buy fresh produce, some residents commuted nearly five miles while others spent their hard-earned weekly wages on public transportation to travel to a grocery store outside of the city. The landscape only started to change in 2012 when, through a combination of grant funding and investments, a new supermarket finally opened its doors. Just a year later, we broke ground on a ShopRite and signed an agreement for a Whole Foods Market that opened its doors four years later. 

According to a 2017 United States Department of Agriculture report, an estimated 19 million Americans live in a food desert, with predominantly Black neighborhoods having the most limited access to quality food. More alarmingly, as supermarkets have relocated away from these communities, fast food restaurants have filled the void, constituting the “dominant food source in many low-income, urban communities.” 

To maintain its influence, the fast-food industry has used a marketing strategy that is geared toward attracting Black people into their restaurants. Such a strategy is not new: Chains such as McDonald’s and Burger King have historically targeted Black consumers, often using existing racial stereotypes and sometimes creating new ones. More recently, fast food restaurants have routinely purchased ads on television channels viewed mostly by Black youth. The $5 billion that a handful of consolidated food companies poured into advertising in 2019 led to Black youth viewing 75 percent more ads than their white peers. 

The growth and influence of fast food restaurants in Black communities have brought with them harmful health impacts. Nutrition insecurity and diet-related chronic diseases have soared across our nation in recent years and disproportionately affect low-income, rural, and other underserved populations in the United States. In a little more than a decade, Type-II diabetes rates have doubled for Black children between the ages of 10 and 19. Black Americans are also 40 percent more likely to have high blood pressure and 30 percent more likely to die of heart disease than their white counterparts. 

Federal policy has perpetuated this crisis. Despite the evidence that our current food system is making us less healthy, less than 2 percent of our federal agriculture subsidies go to fruits and vegetables while the United States government continues to heavily subsidize crops that eventually end up in processed and fast food. As a recent article from the USC Bedrosian Center details, “this system drives down the prices of fast food items, leaving fresh produce more expensive and less accessible to low-income areas.”

I witnessed hog waste being collected in massive cesspools larger than the size of city blocks, before it was sprayed into the air and nearby fields.

What the current status quo tells us is that diet-related diseases caused by poor nutrition cannot be ascribed as an individual moral shortcoming but are instead caused by a systemic policy failure. In rural and urban communities across America, the option to easily access nutritious food has been replaced with unhealthy alternatives. Trapped in these food deserts, Black residents and those who are poor are left with little choice as fast-food restaurant logos are emblazoned onto billboards, bringing sickness and disease while reaping massive profits.

View From Washington D.C.

Friday, March 5, 2021, was one of those long days in the halls of our nation’s Capitol building that never seem to end. 

It was just five months after the people of New Jersey had graciously elected me to my second full term in the Senate. And it was only two months after I had become a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. Because I’m a Senator from New Jersey, I was often asked why I had taken such a keen interest in food policy and agricultural issues and thus switched committee assignments. 

The answer lay in the people I’ve met during my time in elected office. During my first term in the Senate, I had traveled the country and met with farmers and ranchers in blue states and red states, sitting at their kitchen tables or on hay bales. I listened as they explained how the large corporations that were harming residents in Newark and in Duplin County, North Carolina, were using their corporate market power to eliminate competition and drive family farmers to the brink of bankruptcy. I also learned about the predicament of Black farmers who, in addition to suffering from the effects of corporate consolidation, have had to contend with an appalling history of discrimination by our federal government.

I was determined to fight back against this injustice, and that desire came to a head on that frenetic Friday. Congress was poised to pass a $1.9 trillion social spending package championed by President Biden to provide urgent COVID-19 relief. Every Senator was filing additional amendments to the legislation, and debate swirled on the Senate floor, but I was particularly interested in passing a provision of the bill that would provide debt relief to farmers who had suffered discrimination, especially Black farmers. That interest spurred me to bear witness and submit in the Congressional Record a story that highlighted the need for this crucial provision. 

 In 1991, Eddie and Dorothy Wise, Black residents of Whitakers, North Carolina, purchased land and started their own pig farm. For Eddie, the purchase was the culmination of a long-held dream that he had worked years for. 

But that dream soon turned into a nightmare. Eddie’s own government, the one that he served as a proud Green Beret years ago, soon began a series of discriminatory actions. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) refused to handle his loan applications in a timely manner and then changed interest rates on a whim, escalating his monthly payments. A loan that he applied for to improve the property was eventually approved, but funds were delayed for seven months, destroying his operation. 

Then, in the early morning hours of January 20, 2016, came the coup de grâce, as 14 federal marshals descended with guns drawn on Eddie’s home and forcibly escorted him and his wife out of their property, foreclosing their farm after the USDA failed to provide Eddie with the assistance the department regularly provides to white farmers. Dorothy, who was fighting a debilitating medical condition, soon after passed away. The 106-acre farm was sold to an adjacent white farmer for pennies on the dollar, and Eddie lost all that he worked his life to achieve. 

Unfortunately, Eddie and Dorothy’s story is commonplace in America, where Black farmers have experienced a stunning loss of intergenerational wealth and farmland due to actions by the USDA. The department, established in the midst of the Civil War, “has by its own accounting a lengthy history of bias . . . against Black farmers,” as a Politico article put it. From the 1860s to the 1990s, vital programs administered by the USDA often denied assistance to Black farmers. 

Meanwhile, the plight of Black farmers has attracted little attention. As battles were waged over busing, school desegregation, and voting rights during the civil rights era, the struggles of Black farmers hardly made the news. Many Black farmers who advocated for their civil rights, from attempting to vote or join the NAACP, were punished by county-level officials and driven off their lands. As such, the number of Black farmers has decreased from nearly 1 million in 1920 to less than 50,000 today. Between 15 and 20 million acres of land have been stolen from Black farmers alongside the monetary value that the land represented. 

Eddie’s story, as well as the jarring statistics that highlight the prejudice experienced by Black farmers, underscored to me the need to steadfastly advocate on their behalf, even as that long Friday in March of 2021 dragged into the late night hours. When the Senate finally adjourned nearly a day after it was gaveled into session, a $1.9 trillion dollar package now referred to as the American Rescue Plan had been passed. Fortunately, the provision to provide long overdue debt relief to Black farmers was included in the legislation. 

Yet, that victory was short-lived. Nearly one year later, that single provision has become mired in a legal battle, and payments remain frozen. Despite concerted efforts, achieving even the beginnings of justice for Black farmers remains stubbornly difficult. 

The Road Ahead

The question persists: Where do we go from here? With a food system so fundamentally broken and roadblocks in Congress, there is no single silver bullet. Instead, we need to embark on comprehensive reforms. Fortunately, history can provide a guide. 

Consider the issue of poor nutrition. More than 50 years ago, in 1969, President Nixon convened a White House conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health to address the urgent national concern of widespread hunger in America. What resulted from that conference was an unprecedented creation and expansion of vital programs, including the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. 

Despite the progress that conference made, we are still grappling with food insecurity and are now in the midst of a second crisis of nutrition insecurity. These dual crises necessitate the same approach that our nation took in 1969—a second White House conference of government leaders, advocates, health-care professionals, and farmers as well as ranchers that is expected to take place by the end of this year. Bringing these individuals together for this conference will allow us to determine benchmarks and propose a detailed plan to end hunger, reduce nutrition insecurity, and address diet-related diseases which are disproportionately impacting Black Americans. 

Similarly, we have a model for how we can undo the concentration that has occurred in the food and agriculture sector that allows CAFOs such as those in Duplin County to destroy Black communities. In 1921, Congress passed the Packers and Stockyards Act, legislation that provides the federal government with the necessary authority to protect family farmers and ranchers by allowing the federal government to pursue antitrust enforcement against large meatpacking companies. 

Frustratingly, however, the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission have strayed from their congressional mandates and taken a narrow approach to enforcement efforts in recent decades. Though the new Administration is embarking on a more proactive approach to address corporate consolidation, Congress can assist these measures by placing an immediate moratorium on acquisitions and mergers in the food and agricultural sectors. 

Yet, stopping future mergers and acquisitions will offer little help to those communities currently suffering from companies that dump toxic waste and pollute the air and water with impunity. As we work to prevent further consolidation, we must also pass legislation that holds large, integrated meat companies responsible for the health impacts and pollution they cause. Furthermore, to transition to a more sustainable food system, we must begin to phase out all large factory farms in the years ahead.

Finally, in the same way reforms have been undertaken to strengthen civil rights divisions in other federal agencies, we must do the same with the USDA to assist Black farmers. That includes the creation of an independent civil rights oversight board to conduct reviews of civil rights complaints filed against USDA and investigate reports of discrimination within the Department.

Steps must also be taken to chart a future for aspiring Black farmers. Congress should create a program to offer vocational training to new Black farmers, provide them with up to 160 acres of farmland, and grant them access to favorable loans and mortgages to begin operations—all of which will help restore some of the land base that was taken from Black farmers. Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which have a long history in agricultural research, must also be adequately funded to expand their courses of study for more Black students to take advantage of. 

Yet, before we can even pursue such reforms, we need heightened engagement from Americans across the political spectrum to address our broken food system. Right now, the unrelenting work of activists has forced us to confront the implicit racial biases that have long been left unchallenged in our society. It’s made us look at issues through an intersectional lens and see how all aspects of our nation have been contrived throughout history to diminish the aspirations of Black Americans. 

The food system is one such issue. It is intimately tied to the outcomes of our children, the future of climate change, and the health and wellbeing of Black people in America. Pushing it aside at this critical moment—a moment of racial reckoning—would be a grave mistake. Instead, on this topic, we must act with greater urgency, for only then will we be on the right side of history. And only then will we move forward in the right direction. 

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Read more about AgricultureFood PolicyInequalityRacism

Cory Booker is a United States Senator from New Jersey, member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, and Chair of the Subcommittee on Food and Nutrition, Specialty Crops, Organics, and Research.

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