Running From COVID-19: How Food Insecurity and Racial Capitalism Threaten Black America

In the age of COVID-19, traditional food systems have proven inadequate to meet the needs of low-income communities.

6 min readAug 25, 2020
Photo by Hennie Stander on Unsplash

By Etienne C. Toussaint (Assistant Professor of Law, UDC David A. Clarke School of Law) and Sabine O’Hara (Distinguished Professor, University of the District of Columbia College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability and Environmental Science)

Editor’s Note: The authors published Food access in crisis: Food security and COVID-19 in Ecological Economics (Volume 180, Feb. 2021). See O’Hara, S., & Toussaint, E. C. (2021). Food access in crisis: Food security and COVID-19. Ecological Economics, 180, 106859. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2020.106859 (subscription required)

Experts say jogging at a low to moderate pace for five to ten minutes a day can reduce the risk of heart attack, cardiovascular disease and cancer. And we’ve all been told that regular physical activity prevents obesity and diabetes. But did you know that not all forms of running and outdoor activity are beneficial to one’s health? In fact, in some cases, the health impacts are less a matter of how one runs and more a question of where or who.

For 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, running became a death sentence when he was hunted and gunned down by white vigilantes for jogging while Black in the wooded outdoors of Satilla Shores, Georgia. For Christian Cooper, birdwatching while Black in Central Park became an endangerment when a white women called the NYPD and pretended he was threatening her life.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the health benefits of daily exercise have never been more important, particularly in Black communities where the impact of the coronavirus has been likened to the black plague. However, the novel coronavirus has also laid bare the difficulties that countless Black Americans face while attempting to live a healthy lifestyle. Whether at the hands of fellow citizens or under the knees of police officers, overt acts of racial injustice threaten the safety of Black people who venture outdoors to exercise or play. Such difficulties have triggered a Black mortality rate from COVID-19 that is 2.4 times higher than the rate for Latinos, 2.5 times higher than the rate for Asians and 2.7 times higher than the rate for whites. While these numbers are shocking, they merely underscore a legacy of socio-environmental injustices levied against Black and Brown communities across the United States.

Indeed, the earliest forms of organized policing in America were designed to patrol for enslaved Africans who ran away from their masters. According to historian Gary Potter, slave patrols functioned to “chase down, apprehend, and return to their owners, runaway slaves” and “to provide a form of organized terror to deter slave revolts.” More than 150 years after the abolition of chattel slavery, Black Americans still find themselves on the run from unmitigated and brazen act of white supremacy.

Yet, aside from overt acts of racial discrimination, it is covert and systemic structural racism that perhaps most frustrates the health trajectory of Black lives. For many Black neighborhoods, a history of inequitable laws and public policies have limited access to healthy and nutrient-rich foods, while safe green spaces for outdoor exercise are often few and far between. It is no wonder so many Black communities have fallen prey to pre-existing health conditions — from obesity to diabetes and heart disease — that render Black lives vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Photo by Baron Cole on Unsplash

Take, for example, the nation’s capital, where drastic health inequities across racial and economic lines explain why Black Washingtonians account for at least 74 percent of COVID-19 deaths. In Ward 3 in the northwest quadrant of Washington, D.C., where the population is 78 percent non-Hispanic white, there are almost 10 times as many full-service grocery stores per 1,000 residents than in Ward 8, where the population is 95 percent non-Hispanic Black. Further, while Ward 2 boasts 19 miles of bike paths for its 70 percent non-Hispanic white residents, Ward 8 offers only 0.5 miles. Even more, while vacant and blighted lots comprise only 8 percent of Ward 3’s landscape, they cover 18 percent of Ward 8. As might be expected, Ward 8 now accounts for the highest number of deaths in D.C. from COVID-19.

In the age of COVID-19, centralized food systems with long supply chains and multiple hand-off points have proven detrimental to countless low-income Americans who work in food packaging and food delivery as essential workers and bear the health risks of COVID-19 without added protection or compensation.

Perhaps it is the lack of access to full-service grocery stores and opportunities for outdoor exercise in D.C.’s Black neighborhoods that explains why Ward 8 has an obesity rate of 45 percent, while Ward 3 has a rate of only 8 percent. With limited access to fresh nutrient-dense food and safe green spaces, it is not surprising that prior to COVID-19, life expectancies in Wards 7 and 8 (predominantly Black) were 72 years and 70 years respectively, while residents of Wards 2 and 3 (predominantly white) could expect to live to age 82 and 86. The emergence of COVID-19 only threatens to worsen these statistics. Alternatively, some argue that the unhealthy lifestyles of many Black Americans are to blame for their high rates of mortality from COVID-19. After all, the benefits of exercise and healthy eating habits are well documented.

Yet, as Robin D. G. Kelley underscores, the health challenges facing Black lives are far more complex, deeply tied to the structure of American capitalism and its global food system and global supply chains. Upon closer inspection, one discovers in American capitalism the commonplace subjugation of Black and Brown people as a racialized other, as “essential” yet sacrificed workers, as disposable building blocks in an economic system that Cedric Robinson called “racial capitalism.”

Now more than ever, we need innovative public policies that can dismantle the embeddedness of racial capitalism in sociopolitical life. One solution emerges from the historic “freedom dreams” of Washington, D.C.’s Black and Brown residents. During the height of Jim Crow segregation, D.C. was dotted with community-owned mom-and-pop grocery stores and cottage industry “hucksters” that brought vegetables and meat to neighborhoods across the city. Many of these stores leveraged cooperative economics to forge a pathway toward economic uplift for Black and Brown Americans weighed down by the oppressive forces of racial discrimination.

For example, the District Grocery Store (DGS) cooperative, a network of cooperatively-owned small businesses, pooled community capital to establish a localized and culturally appropriate food economy. Unfortunately, the outmigration of white citizens to the suburbs, coupled with the rise of big-box supermarkets in affluent D.C. neighborhoods and a lack of governmental support, triggered market forces that put most DGS stores out of business.

In the age of COVID-19, traditional food systems have proven inadequate to meet the needs of low-income communities. In fact, centralized food systems with long supply chains and multiple hand-off points do not serve anyone’s long-term needs. Instead, they have proven detrimental to countless low-income Americans who work in food packaging and food delivery as so-called essential workers and, consequently, bear the health risks of COVID-19 without added protection or compensation. Washington D.C.’s history reveals the power of localized food systems driven by cooperative economics, which can ignite community empowerment and mitigate external risks. When coupled with modern technologies that facilitate urban agriculture, from rooftop farms to soil-less hydroponic and aquaponic systems, to community farmers markets and cooperatively-owned ventures, such local food systems can help to disrupt an industrial-scale global food system that has fallen short.

The University of the District of Columbia’s innovative Urban Food Hubs Initiative, alongside the pro bono lawyering of the Community Development Law Clinic at the UDC David A. Clarke School of Law, demonstrates the added importance of public investment to build local capacity through innovation, training and resource development. Running in America may always pose risks for certain populations, but at least they shouldn’t have to run alone.

Clockwise from top left: stalls at UDC CAUSES Farmers Market, students working at UDC Green Roof at Van Ness campus, soil-less hydroponic system at UDC East Capitol Urban Farm, students tending to crops at UDC East Capitol Urban Farm

Building localized food economies represents at least one strategy to dismantle the structures of socio-environmental injustice that pervade low-income Black and Brown communities across the country. Perhaps by addressing local access to food, we can begin to reconstruct a more resilient and safer future for everyone.




University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law. HBCU. No. 6 ranked clinical program (USNWR). Practice Law. Promote Justice. Change Lives.