How Faith and Food Can Improve Health Disparities in the Black Community
Covid-19 has placed the devastating effects of racial health disparities experienced by Black Americans on the national stage, but the Black community cannot wait for the current health system to respond.
Angela Jackson
July 20, 2020

Viruses do not discriminate. It’s an assertion that health officials have maintained throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. While it’s true that all races and ethnicities are susceptible to infection, systemic inequality and oppression in the United States have led to higher hospitalization and death rates among African Americans diagnosed with Covid-19. As of July 18, Black Americans are dying at a rate 2.5 times that of white Americans. Although they make up only 13% of the population, Black Americans account for 23% of Covid-19 related deaths in instances where race is known.

In an interview with NPR, Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, director of the Equity Research and Innovation Center at Yale School of Medicine, cites “higher rates of underlying conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, and lung disease [and] less access to quality health care” amongst African Americans as reasons for the disproportionate rates.

Racial health disparities are not new. In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released their first Health Disparities and Inequality Report. The report found that African Americans have poorer health outcomes compared to white Americans, and that from 2004-2007 African Americans had the highest rate of preventable hospitalizations due to limited access to primary care and chronic disease management.

Despite this knowledge, and the CDC’s recommendations, racial disparities within the healthcare system persist. However, as a trusted source in the Black community, Black churches can help narrow the healthcare gap through initiatives like the Black Church Food Security Network’s Faith, Food, and Freedom Summer campaign

Preventing Chronic Diseases That Complicate Covid-19

High blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke are three of the deadliest underlying conditions for African Americans. With the exception of Type 1 diabetes, which experts believe is caused by different factors such as genetics, these conditions, also known as chronic diseases, are largely preventable.

Good nutrition is essential for reducing the risk of developing a chronic disease, but for some African Americans, eating healthy is a challenge. In their study “Disparities and access to healthy food in the United States: A review of food deserts literature,” researchers found that predominantly Black communities have the lowest access to grocery stores, compared to white, “Hispanic,” and diverse communities, due to “residential segregation, poverty and neighborhood deprivation.” The latter means that Black neighborhoods are often deprived access to a supermarket, and thus have difficulty finding affordable, healthy food. Additionally, residents in Black communities often rely on public transportation, which increases the cost and time commitment of a trip to the grocery store. With these barriers in place, Black Americans frequently buy fast food or shop at neighborhood convenience stores that offer little more than an assortment of junk food and alcohol.

How Black Churches Can Help

Since their birth in the late 1700s, Black churches were the center of their communities. Their support and guidance extended beyond the spiritual. Black churches inspired actions of liberation amongst enslaved persons, and shaped the voices of many abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass and David Walker. Before and after the Civil War, they developed education programs for men, women, and children in the hope of “advancing the [Black] race.” 

During the civil rights movement, Black churches aided and implemented boycotts, served as safe havens for protestors and civil rights leaders, and helped sustain the movement through the teaching of scriptures about deliverance. As congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis remembered in “God in America,” a televised series produced by PBS, “Slavery was our Egypt, segregation was our Egypt, discrimination was our Egypt, and so during the height of the civil rights movement it was not unusual for people to be singing, ‘Go down Moses way on down in Egypt land and tell Pharaoh to let my people go.’”

The modern Black church continues the outreach work of their ancestors by providing job training, group sessions for those struggling with addiction, volunteer opportunities for youth, and meals for the hungry. Some Black churches have even partnered with local hospitals to improve the health of their congregation through patient education. But more can be done.

As hubs of the Black community, Black churches can help eliminate the racial disparities within the U.S. healthcare and food systems by building their own food and agriculture systems, and developing relationships with Black farmers to provide their congregations with access to healthy food.

To get started, there are a few steps Black churches can take:

  • Connect with Local Black Farmers: Black farmers have remained resilient, despite a long history of government-sanctioned discrimination that diminished their population from 14% to less than 2%. But they need the Black community’s support to flourish, and the Black community needs Black farmers in order to build equitable and sustainable food systems that center Black people and Black health. Local Black farmers grow healthy food options year-round. Their variety of meats, fruits, and vegetables can put balanced meals on your congregation’s table every day. Does your church host a Thanksgiving or Christmas feast? Buy your meats and produce in bulk from a local Black farmer and take the stress out of picking through grocery store options, checking if food has “gone bad.” Buying from Black farmers means your food is always fresh.
  • Hold a Farmer’s Market: While some cities are beginning to host Black Farmers Markets, strengthen your leadership role within your community by bringing a Black Farmers Market to your congregation and neighborhood. Support local Black farmers and vendors by allowing them to sell their affordable goods on church grounds. You will increase your community’s access to healthy food, and strengthen your local Black economy.  
  • Transform Church-Owned Land into Farmland: Does your church sit on acres of unused land? Consider using that land to grow food for your church. In addition to helping feed your community, farmland can be used to teach your congregation valuable agriculture skills, and about the importance of controlling land and access to food (also known as food and land sovereignty). These lessons may lead to the next generation of Black farmers and help defy and reverse a legacy of discrimination.

The Time Is Now

To quote Ashley Gripper, PhD candidate in the Environmental Health Department at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, from her article We Don’t Farm Because It’s Trendy: For Black Folks, Growing Food Has Long Been a Form of Resistance, “[p]andemics like Covid-19 emphasize why community control of food systems and land are not just important but they are quite literally our means of surviving, healing, and thriving.” 

Covid-19 has placed the devastating effects of racial health disparities experienced by Black Americans on the national stage, but the Black community cannot wait for the current health system to respond. Black people are dying today, and Black churches must utilize all available resources and tools to help their communities overcome this pandemic and the disparities experienced in daily life.

Are You Ready to Make an Impact?

If you’re a parishioner or leader at a Black Church and you are interested in improving health outcomes for your congregation through food, the Black Church Food Security Network is here to help. Click here to learn more about the benefits of church membership and apply for membership.

Support Our Work

This summer, the Black Church Food Security Network aims to decrease the Black community’s dependence on an unjust food system by organizing and building the system we need. Help us uplift the black community by donating to our Faith, Food, and Freedom Summer campaign

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