The third installment of the Conversations on Food Justice Series – a collaboration between Share Our Strength and Food & Society at the Aspen Institute – focused on the devastating effect of structural racism on the health of the Black community.

Dr. J. Nadine Gracia, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Trust for America’s Health, moderated the conversation between Chef Tamearra Dyson, owner of Souley Vegan LLC, and Dr. Frederick Douglass Opie, professor of history and foodways at Babson College.

Here are three major takeaways from the insightful and stirring event:

We Need to Understand Our History

Both speakers looked at history for lessons and inspiration.

Dr. Opie explained how lack of access to healthy food had been used as a tool of oppression against the Black community throughout history.

“It is interesting to think that one of the most offensive things someone could do to you is deny you a place at the table,” he said.

In particular, he called out how slaves had to worry constantly about accessing food, while slavery in the Americas largely existed because of the demand for sugar. Still today, he said, the sugar industry disproportionately targets Black individuals in their marketing, and diabetes runs rampant in communities of color.

Dr. Opie and Dyson also focused on how food had been an essential tool for the Black community to resist oppression. They pointed out the ingenuity of slaves to grow their own food, the restaurant sit-ins during segregation and the Black Panther Movement creating the model for the National Breakfast Program.

Dyson drew on personal experiences to highlight the impact of structural racism in her health and how she used food as a tool of empowerment.

Her mom would work hard to bring healthy food to the table, but sometimes there was not enough. As a young girl, Dyson would sneak into the kitchen and eat unhealthy food when she felt stressed out about the economic challenges they faced, which were tied to systemic racism.

After working in the medical field and seeing the effects of unhealthy diets in her community, Dyson took a leap of faith to open a vegan restaurant. She started with no savings or experience, and today she shares healthy affordable and traditionally-rooted food with her community.

Human Connection Should Become a Priority

Similar to Dyson’s experience as a young child, the speakers highlighted the vicious cycle of economic hardship, stress and health issues.

“I don’t think it’s any revolutionary information to say that, when people are stressed out, they often cope by drinking. They cope by eating,” Dr. Opie said.

Still, he highlighted how most people of color live in food apartheid, communities with no supermarkets or reliable public transportation to reach them.

Both speakers agreed communities needed to come together to take care of each other. Dr. Opie proposed using the efficient canvassing system — where people go door to door promoting a particular candidate — to offer help to the community.

“We need to check in to make sure our neighbors are okay,” Dyson added.

Education is Essential to Fight Structural Racism

Dyson explained how Black individuals often feel they are undeserving without understanding the systems that maintain them oppressed and the tools that can help them.

“We lack information, therefore we lack access to the solutions,” she said. “You don’t have to be a victim of your circumstance”

Similarly, Dr. Opie made calls for the importance of learning history and becoming food literate to understand how food affects us.

Moderator Dr.Gracia closed the conversation asking participants what made them hopeful.

The three speakers, who all mentor young students, answered they saw hope in the curiosity and sense of community of new generations. For them, education was the key to uprooting systemic racism.

“What gives me hope is what I see as the growing recognition and the growing sense of ownership that we all have a role to play in creating a more equitable and just society. And that it certainly relates to hunger and food insecurity,” Dr. Opie concluded.

Stay tuned for more Conversations on Food Justice. Please email to share any feedback and ideas of what topics you would like to see.

Click here to watch our previous installment in the series, which featured Dr. John B. King Jr., the president and CEO of the Education Trust and former secretary of education, and former Maryland Congresswoman Donna Edwards.