HAMPTON ROADS, Va. (WAVY) – When speaking of systemic racism, often people immediately point to law enforcement and the judicial system.
This week, WAVY-TV 10’s Courageous Conversation series takes on something that’s not focused on as much, but has a distinct effect on communities and the country as a whole: hunger.
Dr. Ruth Jones Nichols, president and CEO of the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia and the Eastern Shore, was candid and heartfelt as she talked about disproportionate impacts of hunger and food insecurity long before the pandemic, which are on full display in recent weeks.
You’ve probably seen Nichols any number of times on WAVY News 10 or in the community at various events beating the drum to rid our communities of hunger. But rarely does she get to peel back the layers of the issues the foodbank seeks to address like she is during Courageous Conversations.
“I remember when I started my position 4 1/2 years ago, someone asked me if they could pray for me,” said Nichols. “I said ‘Absolutely’ and they then said ‘Well what should I pray for?’ and I paused and I said ‘Courage.’ Hunger and food insecurity are consequences of systemic issues that we haven’t started to talk about as an organization or a community. African Americans and other people of color are being hit even harder because of the pandemic, so for some communities in our service area, we’re seeing a spike, not only in food insecurity rates for African Americans, but also a spike in unemployment rates which are directly related to why people are struggling to put food on the table.”
She said these are issues that illuminate some things that were being overshadowed before. And those struggles that weren’t caused by the pandemic were only further complicated when the few resources that were available disappeared, like the Save-A-Lot grocery store that recently closed in Norfolk. Redevelopment and revitalization for the area might be in the works. Right now though, people are lining up for help from other community members leaning in to make a way.
“We are seeing throughout our service area the proliferation of food deserts,” said Nichols. “And what we’re finding is that food deserts aren’t just popping up in low-income communities, but predominately African American communities. And what we know about the Saint Paul’s area is that it largely has an African American population that is struggling for a variety of reasons. So this is just another example of something happening to a community that was already struggling. This is a time when we need to lean in and not just say let’s feed the hungry, or feed the babies, or feed the children. We need to look at the systemic issues that have created the circumstances for people to live in a place where they don’t have consistent access to healthy nutritious food. We have housing segregation within our communities. We have segregation in our public education systems. And so these are some of the root causes that lead to individuals not having access resources they need to improve their quality of life.”
Those resources she’s referring to could help to break cycles and prevent people from starting off so far behind.
In her food bank’s service area one out of every five Black or African American individuals lived in a food-insecure household prior to the pandemic, compared to one out of every 12 individuals who are white. Ninety-thousand children qualify for free and reduced-price meals in this service area where the food insecurity rate is projected to rise after the pandemic to 15.7 percent. When it comes to inclusionary housing policies, a thorough review of the supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP), and creating incentives through public policy that encourage businesses to go into communities where it may not be as profitable, she says now is the time to have the courage to talk about it all.
“We have to move beyond simply feeding people,” said Nichols. “When we talk about racial disparities and inequities in our work, we need folks to join us and to not just say ‘We stand with you’ or for you. But we need folks to walk on this journey with us as we educate others about the root causes of hunger and food insecurity and then work toward solutions. I will say it’s somewhat vulnerable to be a Black leader and to talk about systemic racism. But I believe it is absolutely the right thing to do and it is the time to do it. So I’m hoping that we will continue to have courageous conversations with all people of all races and ethnicities, because this movement will require investment from everyone.”
If you’re home thinking “Well what can I do now?” Nichols says start with these four things:
- Give food. Donations are low and their grocery store partners don’t have excess right now.
- Give funds. Your $10 donation equals $60 worth of groceries
- Give time. They have a way for you to safely serve.
- And give voice to the issues that will create real change.
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