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Is Food A Race Issue? Oakland's People's Grocery Examines Connection At Commonwealth Club

08/21/2013 09:06 pm ET | Updated Aug 21, 2013

The Commonwealth Club and Huffington Post San Francisco present Commonwealth Club Thought Leaders, an ongoing series of insights from the most interesting people in the Bay Area. Read the summary below and watch the video above—then share your thoughts.

By Mehroz Baig

There are many discussions about race and demographics—how race factors into crime and incarceration, for example, or race as a factor in employment and unemployment. However, one subject that may not obviously be tied to race is food and access to healthy food.

The connection is not explicitly based on race; socioeconomic factors play a major role in access to healthy food. For example, free lunches for children in public schools who qualify for them are based on socioeconomic information. However, larger percentages of African-Americans and Hispanics in the U.S. were living below the poverty line in 2011 than whites or those identified as “other.”

That means more children who are of Hispanic or African-American backgrounds need free or reduced-priced school lunches. Additionally, socioeconomic factors directly correlate to cost of living, and for many, the ability to purchase organic food simply doesn’t exist because of the higher cost associated with it.

Having access to healthy food is important, not only for survival but for long-term health benefits. Nikki Henderson, executive director of People’s Grocery in West Oakland, reminds us of that through her own story. She remembers a childhood dictated by healthy eating habits that her mother instilled in her children and demanded they follow. As Henderson grew older, she understood why: all of her relatives outside of her immediate family suffered from serious illnesses such as diabetes, and some had to have limbs amputated as a result.

Henderson shared her story during a town hall meeting at the Commonwealth Club, held with advocates, leaders and community members to discuss race in the Bay Area. The town hall was held to facilitate a discussion on race in the aftermath of the verdict from George Zimmerman’s trial in Florida, regarding the death of Trayvon Martin.

Henderson points out that the connection between food and race “lives very presently because Trayvon Martin was going to the liquor store to get Skittles and iced tea. That’s what he was doing when he was out late at night. That’s what many of our kids do.”

Henderson talked about People’s Grocery and its efforts to make it more than a grocery store. She wants it to be a place where people come to get food, but also a place that is well-lit, so that children coming to get food are not putting themselves in danger, simply by being outside at night. Henderson says that issues of food, race, socioeconomic levels, politics and policy are not distinct from one another: “Housing and health and education and policy all live close to the surface in us when our children are murdered.”

Listen to more of what she had to say in the video above. For more thought leaders, visit The Commonwealth Club of California.

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