Businesses Examine Race, Food Insecurity and Implications for the Workforce

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Dion Dawson had a tough childhood. He was one of four boys raised by a single mother in the south side of Chicago. He remembers living for days on potato chips and standing in line for hours at food pantries, only to receive moldy produce or unlabeled cans. Dawson’s experience growing up is common among the 32% of Black Chicago households that are food insecure.  

“We were just trying to make ends meet,” he says. “You pair living in a food desert with being homeless and, or having low income, then you start to see a trend. I couldn’t go to college because my at-home situation wasn’t stable enough.”

While Dawson didn’t attend college, he did serve six years in the military. When the Navy veteran returned home from duty, the opportunities were slim. He was forced to live in his car and once again found himself homeless and food insecure. 

“The first filter is, am I going to eat today? The next filter is not if it’s healthy or not, but will it be enough to satisfy my hunger?”

What is Food Insecurity?

In 2021, almost 34 million people lived in food-insecure households in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Globally, that number in 2022 amounted to 1.3 billion people.

“Food insecurity is a household that doesn’t have access to nutritious or culturally relevant foods, particularly driven either by income disparities or access through transportation,” says Kymberly Graham, Head of Diversity Initiatives at NielsenIQ. “It’s a problem that disproportionately impacts Black and brown communities in lower-income areas.” 

In 2021, nearly 20% of Black and 16% of Hispanic households were food insecure, higher than the national average. The typical white family has eight times the wealth of the typical Black family and five times that of the typical Hispanic family. 

Poverty, racism and lack of affordable housing are among the contributing factors to food insecurity. A job loss, lack of access to healthcare or unexpected medical bills can also push families over the edge. 

“Couple that with the areas in which they live, which are largely urban areas,” says Graham. “What we’re seeing is grocers or retailers making decisions to move out of urban areas that are lower income because of lack of profitability.”

Impacts of Food Insecurity 

Thirty-three percent of the population lives in a food desert, which is an area that’s more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store. Food deserts are more prevalent in low-income and minority neighborhoods. The disparity can create a vicious cycle of inequality for those communities. 

“That leaves Black and Brown populations in these areas hanging in the balance when accessing healthy food distributors,” says Graham. “The transportation issues when it comes to getting to some of these food stores make it increasingly difficult. They’re having to make difficult decisions as it relates to the amount that they’re spending on gas versus food, prescription drugs and other needs that are basic for living.”

Lack of affordable and nutritious food can also raise the risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other chronic health conditions. Black and Latino children are especially vulnerable to food insecurity. Research shows a connection between food insecurity and behavioral and health problems in children like anxiety and asthma. 

“There are several studies that show food insecurity is a critical issue for children because lack of access to nutrients can impact cognitive and physical development,” says Neddy Perez, Vice President of DE&I for McCormick & Company (No. 50 on DiversityInc’s 2022 Top 50 Companies for Diversity list). “It is important nationally and internationally that companies work to close the food insecurity gap to ensure underrepresented communities can thrive.”

Food insecurity remains an issue as young children of color age. In the fall of 2020, Indigenous, Black, American Indian or Alaska Native college students were more food insecure than white students. 

“A lot of these students often come from a history of food insecurity, so it’s very hard to get out of that cycle,” says Maureen McCoy, Associate Teaching Professor in the College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University. “Just because they’ve gone from a school system into a college system, it doesn’t mean they’re automatically going to figure it out.”

McCoy says addressing food insecurity is critical as it impacts the future workforce.

“We’ve somewhat normalized that starving college student mentality, that it should be normal to eat noodles every single night or skip a meal here and there,” she says. “Over the years that’s become the mindset that, well, you’re in college, you have to make sacrifices and some of that is going to be your food source. But if we think about raising the future leaders of America in our universities, that’s not going to happen by them not getting proper nutrition.”

How to Tackle Food Insecurity

The World Economic Forum says businesses can play a crucial role in targeting food insecurity. Thirty-four percent of the DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity in 2022 say enhancing how their diversity and inclusion strategy is incorporated into philanthropic goals is their top priority this year.  

The Power of People 

Sysco’s Global Volunteer Recognition Program celebrates employees for serving their communities. 

“In our most recent fiscal year (FY22), Sysco colleagues volunteered 10,500 hours and Sysco donated 16 million meals and $11 million,” says Neil Russell, SVP, Corporate Affairs & Interim CFO, Sysco.

Through McCormick & Company’s Employee Ambassador Groups, workers routinely support organizations focused on improving food insecurity. The company’s Purpose-Led Performance Progress Report contains goals involving 80% of global employees in its Power of Giving program. 

Since the pandemic, workers have made it clear that they want to contribute more to society and work for companies with a purpose. 

“We work with a wide range of stakeholders to develop solutions to address challenges caused by lack of access to healthy food and proper nutrition, financial insecurity, and inequitable environments,” says ​​Jami Leveen, VP of Community Partnerships at Aramark (No. 45 on DiversityInc’s 2022 Top 50 Companies for Diversity list). “These opportunities allow and encourage employees to give back and create meaningful change in their communities.”

The Power of Perspectives 

Food companies are using multi-faceted approaches to target food insecurity. 

“We address food insecurity from several angles including effective operational and food management practices, minimizing surplus food waste, building strategic partnerships, leading food recovery efforts, and fostering collaborative dialogue,” says Leveen.

If food insecurity is identified as a need, McCormick & Company’s Grown for Good framework creates programs to address that challenge. The spice company’s Flavor For Life program provides underserved communities access to healthy foods, culinary classes, education and more.

Aramark and Kellogg’s (No. 35 on DiversityInc’s 2022 Top 50 Companies for Diversity list) are dedicated to tackling food insecurity on college campuses. Kellogg’s efforts include charitable donations to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. 

Our work on college campuses is critical for ensuring that we have a diverse pipeline of future talent not only for Kellogg’s but for organizations across industries,” says Stephanie Slingerland, Senior Director for Philanthropy and Social Impact at Kellogg’s. “For companies like Kellogg, as for many other industries, we need to reflect the diverse consumers we serve.”

The Power of Partnerships 

Partnerships and collaboration are also playing a critical role in targeting food insecurity. Aramark has teamed up with community non-profits and leaders in the food insecurity solutions space to eliminate hunger. Sysco’s Global Good Goal aims to generate $500 million worth of ‘good’ for communities around the world.  

“We work to reduce hunger in our communities by working with local community partners and donating food and have a goal of donating 200 million meals by 2025,” says Russell. “We partner with many global, national and local charitable organizations to provide funds and aid in hunger relief. Through our Nourishing Neighbors program, a portion of proceeds from each Sysco branded case sold in local communities is donated back to charitable organizations in those communities.”

Kellogg’s has partnerships with food banks on six continents and nearly 30 countries.

“The issue of food security is certainly not something that can be tackled by any entity alone,” says Slingerland. “Through the Better Days promise strategy, we’re committed to working with partners, government officials, NGOs, etc., to help tackle this critical issue.”

Dawson is doing his part on a local level. He went from homelessness to founding Dion’s Chicago Dream, a non-profit organization focused on feeding the food insecure. Dawson has partnered with a Chicago-based distributor to deliver 30,000 pounds of fresh produce a month to almost 700 needy households in the Chicagoland area. His efforts include a community-stocked refrigerator where residents can access fruits and vegetables. Dawson’s business has grown so much that he added 15 jobs paying at least $20 an hour. 

“We’re building equity and relationships and that makes me extremely proud,” he says. “I remember young Dion who nobody checked on, nobody built relationships with and they gave us what they thought we deserved. To do it with the residents, not at the behest of the residents, to do it with a team, to pay them a living wage, not hope that they volunteer, to create opportunities not only for wealth building but for job development and meeting critical needs, it’s something I would never have imagined.”


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