Opinion: Food justice for Black women

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Recognition for Black architects of change may be relegated to honorable mentions during Black History Month, but their contributions are fundamental to building the “dream” and are too numerous to count. Many Black Americans have shepherded advances that continue to benefit humanity to this day.

But the best way to recognize and honor the contributions of Black folks is to actively work to dismantle racist systems and structures, particularly the anti-Blackness that is spun into every fiber of this country and diaspora. Opportunities to do so present themselves every month. One way is to look at Black maternal health through the lens of food justice. All the ways that fresh food access can be increased for mothers matter. “Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Additionally, Black mamas were more likely to have iron-deficiency anemia requiring transfusion at the time of hospital admission (and Black babies and toddlers more commonly suffer from iron deficiency). While sunlight and bilirubin lights are good, regular access to fresh iron-rich foods like dark leafy greens, beans, meats and seafood are better. These numbers are not affected by education, income level, age, or when prenatal care is started. In general, women are at higher risk of being deficient in iron (which can only be absorbed through diet), because of menstruation. However, it stands to reason that Black women who live below the poverty line, struggle to maintain housing and experience food insecurity face a war for their health every single day. Sure there are many, many reasons for and solutions to this disparity, but increasing hemoglobin (a protein that carries oxygen through the blood to the organs) seems to be fundamental. Low iron levels can have a huge impact on quality of life, affecting energy, educational performance, work capacity, mood, premature birth, and development. 

Black mothers were over 8 percent more likely to have iron-deficiency anemia requiring transfusion at the time of hospital admission.

But it wasn’t pregnant women that got me thinking about this. Over the break from Christmas to New Year’s, I know of two women under 60 who died as a result of chronic illness. I’m not a doctor, but it could be argued that their chronic illnesses might fall in the category of diet-related disease.

I started to think of the long-term impacts of these ailments on a community that prematurely loses its mothers (and fathers too). I pondered Black women as matriarchs, how they’re central to pushing forward society, democracy, art, culture, health and wealth. Black women’s existence is not just Black history, but Black future.

So although Black Maternal Health Week is not until April 11-17 this year, we have time to think about what a practical commitment to improving health outcomes for Black women could look like. One priority: Support the Farm Bill. Renewing every five years, this single piece of federal legislation spans issues including nutrition, conservation, rural development and crop insurance through the lens of equity. It’s a way to boost fresh food access in urban communities. Although Black women have not always been at decision-making tables that impact this access, their contributions to agriculture and community food access have fed people for millennia.

Let’s share that goal.

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