Earth Day is April 22

Today is Earth Day, a day to celebrate the achievements of the environmental movement and raise awareness about various environmental issues.

Certain environmental issues disproportionately affect people of color due to systematic racism. 

This Earth Day, HBCU Buzz is highlighting these issues by raising awareness about environmental racism and food deserts.

Sixth Annual HBCU Climate Change Conference (Credit: Dr. Robert Bullard, Father of Environmental Justice)

Environmental racism is a form of systemic racism where environmental hazards have a larger impact on groups that are discriminated against based on race. 

Minorities are disproportionately faced with health hazards through policies and practices that force them to live in proximity to sources of toxic waste such as sewage works, mines, landfills, power stations, major roads, polluting industries, and areas with poorer air quality.

Research has shown that Black and Latinx populations are more likely than their white counterparts to live in neighborhoods with higher air pollution. Also, young Black children are significantly more likely to have higher blood lead levels than their white neighbors, from sources like chipping lead paint or water.  

According to Ben Crump Law, environmental racism has a lasting and systemic effect on minority groups, causing birth defects, long-term illnesses, and poverty. “Unfortunately, these effects are deeply integrated into communities and can take generations to fix.” 

Environmental racism can also take the form of a lack of readily available nutritious, high-quality, affordable food, known as food deserts.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food deserts as “parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas.” 

Food deserts affect low-income, urban areas where a significant number of people live farther than a mile away from the nearest grocery store, as well as low-income, rural areas where people live more than 10 miles away from the nearest grocery store. 

These communities are left with limited access to healthy foods and are instead subjected to fast-food outlets or chain drug stores. 

Many historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are a part of these communities that are impacted by food deserts. 

An analysis by POLITICO showed that a majority of 1890 land-grant universities are located in low-income, rural areas,  most of which are at least four miles from the nearest grocery store. 

The 1890 land-grant institutions are HBCUs named for the year they were incorporated into the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s land-grant program. 

According to POLITICO, “1890 schools are particularly isolated along the Black Belt, a region in the South named for the color of its super-rich soil.” The news source found that Alabama A&M University is almost five miles from the nearest grocery store and so is Alcorn State University. 

Tuskegee University is perhaps the most prominent HBCU located in a food desert. 

“There is a huge issue of food insecurity at Tuskegee,” said Rev. Audrey Rodgers, director of Tuskegee’s Methodist-sponsored Wesley Foundation, which runs a community garden close to campus. “Students know that if you live in Macon County, you live in a food desert.”

HBCU students are prompted to leave town to shop for healthier, fresh produce options, as some university on-campus cafeterias are not accommodating for students who work late or take evening classes. 

Food deserts may also negatively impact HBCU enrollment, for the lack of viable food options around campus could make it hard to attract and maintain students.  

Despite the effects of environmental racism, HBCUs are continuing to fight for environmental justice. 

Many schools have implemented food pantries for students to address food insecurity and collaborated with community gardens. Alumni have also made monetary donations and foodstuffs to help students. 

HBCUs have also come together to fight environmental racism and advocate for climate change through the HBCU Climate Change Consortium

The Consortium was formed following the flooding from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans that drowned that city’s three HBCUs  — Dillard University, Xavier University, and Southern University at New Orleans in 2005, as well as 2008’s Hurricane Ike, that caused major property damage to Texas Southern University in Houston. 

“The Consortium was conceived to help raise awareness about the disproportionate impact of climate change on marginalized communities to develop HBCU students leaders, scientists, and advocates on issues related to environmental and climate justice policies, community resilience, adaptation, and other major climate change topics—especially in vulnerable communities in the southern  United States where the vast majority of HBCUs are located and where more billion-dollar disasters occur than the rest of the country combined,” according to the website.

While the fight to end environmental racism is a long one, there are plenty of ways to get involved. This includes calling your lawmakers and getting in touch with a local environmental legislator, spreading awareness, and getting involved with environmental justice groups.