Inaction is Not an Option

Reem Subei

By Rev. Donald L. Perryman, Ph.D. and Reem Subei of Advocates for Basic Legal Equality
The Truth Contributors

Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.

What happens when a specific housing area limits access to nutritious food options?

The question is more than a philosophical discussion. Cities across the country have recognized the importance of housing stability and are passing tenant protection laws such as right to counsel legislation, as we did in Toledo. So, it becomes even more imperative to think practically about the relationship between specific housing census tracts and fresh food.

As with most things in our country, race directly impacts the relationship between census tracts and access to fresh food, leading to wide disparities in health outcomes. Food access reflects the historical, systemic patterns of racial segregation in housing, causing supermarket availability to be much lower in predominantly Black and low-income neighborhoods, according to Ashanté Reese, assistant professor of anthropology at Spelman College. Consequently, White flight and corporate redlining have left Black Americans without access to fresh food. Moreover, the racial disparities persist across income lines, according to an analysis conducted for CNN Business by the Reinvestment Fund, a nonprofit community development organization.

Healthy people and healthy places go together. Thus, access to food and housing are not separate issues. Food apartheid is a housing issue and a racial one. And while it is a racial issue, it is not one that Black people in America created. It is one that corporations and governments created. Black community members and leaders in Toledo know that those in power have disinvested their neighborhoods. They also know that food apartheid leads to poor diets and higher obesity, diabetes, and heart disease levels. Indeed, 70 percent or more of all diseases are connected to what we eat. Yet, access to healthy food attacks disease at the root cause. At the same time, medicine and health care only manage the disease or merely address symptoms.

However, we also know that individuals’ dietary choices are dictated by where they live and which healthy food options they have access to. Therefore, it is now time to focus on the needs of vulnerable populations and the questions of race and place that contribute to the current health disparities maintained by food apartheid in Toledo.

Yes, change is possible!

Earlier this year, Toledo residents, including the United Pastors Social Empowerment (UPSE), the Junction Coalition, Community Reinvestment Englewood, Advocates for Basic Legal Equality (ABLE), and others, formed a new alliance focusing on equity and eliminating health disparities.

An impending expiration of an emergency one-year ordinance that restricted small box stores from opening in a specific district within the City of Toledo triggered this movement for healthy communities. The City of Toledo’s Plan Commission 2020 report recommended amending its zoning code to prohibit small box discount stores from being located within a 1-mile radius from one another.

Health Equity Now!

Community groups request that the City immediately take steps to ensure a Toledo without unjust health disparities and that all its residents have access to fresh, healthy food.

Our action plan requests that the City of Toledo join us on this platform for change by allocating American Rescue Plan and other federal dollars for an initial investment in a Grocery Fund. The community will oversee the fund used for the development of fresh grocery stores in food desert areas. The plan also asks the City to support healthy zoning codes and healthy food overly districts.

Today, we formally renew those asks.

Creating a healthy food overlay district incentivizes grocery stores. It restricts convenience and discount stores that primarily sell non-fresh food items. The American Planning Association describes an overlay zone as “a zoning district which is applied over one or more previously established zoning districts, establishing additional or stricter standards and criteria for covered properties in addition to those of the underlying zoning district.” The City of Hartford, Connecticut; Tulsa, Oklahoma and Birmingham, Alabama, are three of several cities that have enacted policy approaches to help increase healthy food retail. Zoning is a power delegated to local governments under “police powers” that empowers local governments to make decisions on land use to promote general health, safety, and welfare.

We are grateful to the several city leaders and local and federal elected officials who have joined with the community to achieve the goal of ending food apartheid in Toledo. However, this is only the beginning.

Rev. Donald L. Perryman, D.Min.

We envision a future without unjust health disparities. We anticipate equal access to the most basic of human rights – health, to all Americans regardless of race, income, zip code, age, education, or gender.

That is why inaction to end food apartheid is no longer an option.

Contact Rev. Donald Perryman, PhD, at