Special Report – Barren Mile: COVID-19 and the fight against food apartheid


For Americans of color, ‘food apartheid’ is a clear and present danger. So we wanted Black-owned newsrooms to tell that story

By Alison Bethel

One day last summer we had an idea.

Many of us watched as our neighbors, or even our own family members, were suddenly faced with shuttered corner stores and mom-and-pops due to the raging COVID19 pandemic. These closures proved to be devastating for people who relied on them for basic food stuff because they live in neighborhoods where there aren’t enough easily accessible grocery stores. Complicating matters was that buses had stopped running, regulations prohibited the use of food stamps with delivery services, and kids were home and therefore not receiving lunch in school.

What was already a bad situation, particularly for communities of color, was turning into a catastrophe. And it was happening all over the country.

So, at Report for America, we had an idea.

We reached out to our 15 Black-owned media partners who host emerging journalists in their newsrooms throughout the U.S.. We asked if they would be interested in working together to capture the struggle to access food in their communities — activists call it “food apartheid,” a phrase that refers to decades long policies that has left some neighborhoods with few grocery stores and fresh produce options, especially in low-income communities of color.

New York Amsterdam News, The St. Louis American, Black Voice News and the Atlanta Voice all stepped forward. Over the course of five months the Report for America corps members at these papers reported from Atlanta, New York City, St. Louis and Southern California. They spoke to neighbors, government officials, lawmakers, community activists, food banks and corporations that own grocery stores. 

With the assistance of The GroundTruth Project’s Editorial Hub, which helps media organizations in producing enterprise or investigative work for a national audience, the reporters convened every other week to brainstorm how best to tell the stories of communities in the most compelling, yet empathetic way.

We called government officials who say they care about food insecurity and are concerned about food deserts in African-American communities, like Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran – a member of the Senate Agriculture subcommittee, co-chair of the Senate Hunger Caucus and one of five senators who signed a resolution this year designating Oct. 16 2021 and Oct. 2022 as World Food Day. Unfortunately, Sen. Moran did not return numerous requests for comment. But others did.

Today these Black-owned newspapers and their journalists give us a glimpse how COVID19 deepened the scourge of food apartheid. Their collaboration — we hope the first of many — is believed to be the first time since the 1960s that Black-owned newspapers have pooled their resources and talent to produce a national story. And we’re very proud of that.

Alison Bethel is vice president of Corps Excellence for Report for America and is a veteran newspaper editor who works closely with RFA’s Black-owned publications to ensure their success and sustainability.