Forging the Food Justice Path: Part 3

Forging The Food Justice Path: Part 3

Wed 11 Sep 2013

Story by Daniel Goleman, Lisa Bennett, and Zenobia Barlow

Read part 2 here.


Oakland is the sixth most dangerous city in America, according to the FBI. In 2011, an average of five to six people a day (more than 2,000 people per year) were victims of gun violence. And, as of August of that year, 199 of those shooting victims were children. That’s up 60 percent from 2006, according to the Urban Strategies Council. Some residents blame the proliferation of handguns for the violence. Others fault an understaffed police department. Still others say the problem is the city’s high unemployment and poverty rates. In 2011, Oakland’s unemployment rate was 16.5 percent, almost twice the national average.

At the same time, as Smith enthusiastically points out, Oakland is also a dynamic city with many beautiful neighborhoods, an extensive park system (11 percent of city land is dedicated to parks), trendy new restaurants, and a burgeoning arts scene that earned it the fifth spot on the New York Times list of “The 45 places to go in 2012.”

What explains the two faces of Oakland? Smith and other leaders point to systemic inequities in race, class, and ethnicity that affect such fundamentals as food, health, and education. For example, in West Oakland, which is populated largely by poor African Americans and Hispanics, there is only one supermarket for every 93,126 residents, according to the Hope Collaborative, an Oakland-based organization focusing on environmental health and food policy issues. And many residents can’t travel to the supermarket because they don’t have access to a vehicle or public transportation. So they buy their food at small stores within walking distance of home—liquor stores or convenience stores that rarely carry fresh, nutritious, affordable fruits and vegetables amid the shelves of unhealthy, highly processed (and often highly priced) food options.

Higher income whites living in North Oakland, in contrast, have one supermarket per 13,778 residents, according to the Hope Collaborative. They also have access to several farmers’ markets, where they can buy organic produce in season, while enjoying samples of healthy food and live music.

Stark health differences develop in adulthood, largely as a result of these disparities in food access. An African American resident in West Oakland, for example, is five times more likely to be hospitalized for diabetes than a white resident born in the more affluent Oakland Hills. Moreover, that same African American resident is two times more likely to die of heart disease or cancer as the white resident.

Not surprisingly, significant disparities in academic achievement also exist in Oakland. According to the Oakland School District, only 54 percent of African Americans and 56 percent of Latinos graduate from high school, while 75 percent of white students and 79 percent of Asian American students graduate, with many going on to college.

And the racial achievement gap is clearly not limited to Oakland. “It’s a pattern that plays out city by city, district by district, state by state, across the country,” Smith told a recent Chamber of Commerce meeting. “The system is producing the specific and exact outcomes that it is designed to produce if it’s this consistent across all districts. . . . It’s a tremendous waste of human potential to keep sorting and selecting the way we do, and to have this kind of predictable gap over and over and over again.”

Although poverty and other factors are surely to blame, the racial achievement gap is also increasingly being recognized as connected to the poor nutritional quality of food available to many African American and Latino students in Oakland and elsewhere. And that is one of the things Smith is trying to change in Oakland—in more ways than one.

Part 4: In tomorrow’s installment of this five-part series, the authors of Ecoliterate visit a farmers’ market at an East Oakland high school that is exposing students to fresh food.

About the authors: In the new book, Ecoliterate: How Educators Are Cultivating Emotional, Social, and Ecological Intelligence, psychologist Daniel Goleman and the Center for Ecoliteracy's Lisa Bennett and Zenobia Barlow profile inspiring educators, activists, and students who embody this new integration of intelligences as they creatively address food, water, and energy issues. In this story, Oakland school Superintendent Tony Smith shares his vision of a “full-service community school district” that provides an array of services to students and their families so that all children have an equal chance to thrive.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint. From Ecoliterate: How Educators Are Cultivating Emotional, Social, and Ecological Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman, Lisa Bennett, and Zenobia Barlow. Copyright © 2012 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.


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