Drexel research links racism and hunger

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Philabundance volunteers fill bags and boxes with fresh produce during a free farmers market at Lillian Marrero Library in Philadelphia's Fairhill neighborhood, March 14, 2018. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philabundance volunteers fill bags and boxes with fresh produce during a free farmers market at Lillian Marrero Library in Philadelphia's Fairhill neighborhood, March 14, 2018. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

New research out of Drexel University finds that racism can be a catalyst for food insecurity.

Released Monday by the school’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities, the report shows that people who experienced discrimination firsthand struggled with hunger twice as often as others.

When – or where – that discrimination occurred didn’t matter. However, food insecurity was more likely the more someone had experienced racism.

“Racism and discrimination are certainly not a sideline issue,” said Mariana Chilton, who directs the center. “It has continuously kept people of color in positions where they can’t make enough money.”

Chilton said the link unfolds on jobs and education as well as mental health. People who experience discrimination at school may not do as well, she said, and therefore may not be able to get a job that keeps food on the table. Racism is also a form of trauma, causing emotional stress that could then impact an individual’s physical health and ability to go to work, Chilton said.

“The way that we treat each other has an impact on another person’s body – on their brains, on their ability to succeed in life. So I think it’s a real call to action to make sure that we’re kinder, more thoughtful people,” she said.

When Tanisha Barnes was 20, she got a job at a public library branch in the Upper East Side, a wealthy slice of Manhattan. She said she was let go because of racism. Specifically, a racist boss.

“Because I was black and fought back,” she said.

Barnes, who doesn’t have a college degree, was hired to work the front desk. She said her boss never allowed her to do that, instead assigning her tasks such as reshelving books that kept her out of the public eye.

“One of the things she would say to me was, ‘Oh, you can’t sit out in the front desk. Our clients wouldn’t relate to you.’ Little things like that,” said Barnes.

Barnes lost her job after her boss wrote her up four times in seven months. She said she had never been cited in the previous years she worked for the public library system.

She said she was able to find part-time work, but two years passed before she got another full-time gig. That meant she had to sign up for food stamps and rely on food pantries.

“I didn’t really go to church, but I remember going because, on Sundays, they would feed you after service,” said Barnes.

To help end discrimination, the study suggests implicit bias training for teachers, health care workers and police officers in Philadelphia, where food insecurity jumped 22 percent between 2012 and 2017.

The study’s results are based on interviews with 669 people in Philadelphia through St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children.

WHYY is one of 19 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly

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