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A push for civil rights in nation's food systems

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Communities of color said during the White House’s first conference on hunger, nutrition and health in more than 50 years that they continue to be excluded from policymaking decisions. They believe it’s time for that to change.

Despite the White House’s first conference on hunger, nutrition and health in 53 years, communities of color said during the Sept. 28 event hosted by the Biden Administration that they continue to be excluded from policymaking decisions. They believe it’s time for that to change.

Tambra Stevenson, is the founder of W.A.N.D.A. (Women Advancing Nutrition Dietetics and Agriculture), a Black women-led nonprofit that educates advocates for nutrition equity from farm to health. She presented her concept for a national “Food Bill of Rights” to lawmakers and policymakers.

“We are the next generation having to push to have civil rights show up in our food system,” Stevenson said in an interview. “We need to have healthy brains and nervous systems. I don’t know what country wouldn’t want to have a full, productive workforce in its community.” 

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, an activist, scientist and author, made similar remarks during the recent Natural Products Expo East in Philadelphia about including more diverse communities in collaborating against climate change.

“All of the voices who’ve been leading this discussion have been white men in the U.S.,” Johnson said at the Expo. “And quite simply, one demographic will never have all the answers.”

The White House held its first conference on hunger, nutrition and health in 1969. President Richard Nixon convened the event to focus national attention on the nutritional needs of Americans, end hunger and malnutrition among the poor, and lay a foundation for a national nutritional policy. 

Landmark legislation, such as improvements to nutrition labeling and ingredient labeling, major expansions of the Food Stamp Program and School Lunch Program, and the authorization of the Supplementing Feeding Program for Women Infants and Children, were generated from the 1969 conference.

This year, the conference focused on:

  • Improving food access and affordability
  • Integrating nutrition and health
  • Empowering all consumers to make and have access to healthy choices
  • Supporting physical activity for all
  • Enhancing nutrition and food security research 

The fact that many critical and widespread policies derive from White House conferences is why Stevenson said communities of color “should be at the table when decisions are made, not just on the menu.”

Stevenson and other food advocates advanced at the conference a set of core policies that guarantee the freedoms and rights of citizens when it comes to the food democracy and the future of food in the U.S. Specifically, advocates are asking policymakers to:

  • Adopt a food bill of rights.
  • Create a White House nutrition security council.
  • Modernize nutrition communication, education and extension programs.
  • Include nutrition and public health in loan repayment programs.
  • Expand medical nutrition therapy coverage.
  • Ensure equitable research funding and reporting. 

The consequences of maintaining the status quo are dire for Black communities, Stevenson said. For example, she continued, they don’t get the proper and culturally appropriate medical care when seeking help for chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease, renal failure, cancer and high-blood pressure. 

While genetics may play a role, Stevenson said the “real culprit behind these health conditions may be discriminatory practices within the nation’s food systems and the standard American diet, compounded by food policies that value profits over people and the planet.

“I think a Food Bill of Rights is just like the human bill of rights,” Stevenson continued. “It’s a necessity! I think that if we can recite our Food Bill of Rights, then we can stand up for what we’re supposed to have.”

A Food Bill of Rights also equalizes food democracy across the country. For example, Stevenson said, initiatives to provide universal health care depended on the political will of individual communities. A Food Bill of Rights creates local, state and national policy, and equalizes food democracy. 

Stevenson added that Black female food entrepreneurs like Mary Blackford, owner of Market 7, Pinky Cole of Slutty Vegan and Kelly Page Jibrell, who has a cashew supply chain business spanning West Africa to America, can help lead the way. 

“Hip-hop culture is now blurring the lines and showing that Black culture also includes Black health,” Stevenson said. “It’s critical in our churches, workshops and meals served at our cookouts. We can have generational wealth and health.” 

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