by Eleanor Reagan

Washington State University (WSU) Food Systems Program was commissioned by the Washington State Department of Agriculture in August of 2021 to identify and report the disproportionate impacts of food system disruptions on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The report, titled Assessing WA Food Systems Through an Equity Lens, was led by a BIPOC leadership team that conducted literature reviews, community surveys, and a SWOT analysis to assess the needs, strengths, and weaknesses of the state’s food system before and during COVID-19. The findings demonstrate how institutional and systemic racism “limit the leadership of BIPOC communities, constraining communities’ access to food, capital, data, time, and structural essentials necessary to thrive.” With little government support, BIPOC leaders have historically leveraged their community engagement and knowledge to bridge the gap.

The report is intended to help inform future farm infrastructure grants and public investment plans in the coming years and has already received attention from national agencies since its publication in November 2021. The report’s conclusions have also garnered criticism from those unwilling to accept the white supremacist underpinnings of our nation’s food system. A month after publication, the WSU School of Agriculture distanced itself from the findings by issuing a disclosure stating that the report “does not necessarily represent the views or policies of WSDA or WSU.”

Mercy Kariuki-McGee, the study’s project leader and founder of Haki Farmers Collective of Olympia, Washington, says that the disclosure destroys any trust that BIPOC have built with those in the position to effect change in our food system.

“The racial and socio-economic disparities that the study revealed are nothing that those in the food, health, education and justice systems don’t already know” says Kariuki-McGee. “The impacts that we saw during COVID-19 were all related to race and socio-economics and the pandemic only worsened these disparities.”

Kariuki-McGee believes the report has the potential to actualize food justice as long as leadership embraces racial equity as a critical tool and better partners with BIPOC at every level. Otherwise, she adds, “BIPOC are simply included as tokens in a mediocre effort to show equity.”

Collage by Eleanor Reagan