Hunger has deep roots.

Here at ACCFB, we strive to understand and combat the issue of hunger across Alameda County. It is no simple task, since hunger is not merely due to a lack of food. Hunger is a symptom of complex social and economic barriers which make it difficult for some people in our community to obtain nutritious food. Many of these barriers are not new, they are rooted in a long history of inequitable practices, including systemic racism. In this post, we explore how racially exclusive housing policies correlate with the hunger in our community today. We will use the boundaries from the 1937 map above, which includes the cities of Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda, San Leandro, Piedmont, Emeryville, and Albany.

One way we understand hunger is food insecurity. This is an estimate of how many people across the county have limited access to adequate amounts of nutritious food. Food insecurity estimates shown below also include estimates of marginal food insecurity, which are folks on the brink of food insecurity. This data was collected prior to COVID-19, so the effects of the pandemic are not included in these figures.

To understand why food insecurity rates look this way, we need to examine what factors tend to go hand-in-hand with hunger. Areas with high food insecurity often have high rates of indicators commonly associated with hunger, such as poverty or unemployment.

Other metrics correlating with hunger may be less obvious. Two strong indicators of food insecurity relate to race and housing. White people are less likely to experience hunger in Alameda County. Food insecurity also tends to be lower in neighborhoods with high home ownership and low rental burden. However, the path to home ownership in the United States is a glaring example of how targeted, systemic racism has created inequalities.

Acknowledging long-term forces creating disparity is important in understanding food insecurity today. The maps above show how high food insecurity rates today (orange and red on the left map) and historically redlined areas (red on the right map) often overlap.

The term redlining stems from maps of “Residential Security Grades” starting in the 1930’s, where the lowest grade of “D” was shown in a bright red color. The grades were determined by the Home Owners’ Land Corporation (HOLC), a federal agency, to map out the perceived risk of mortgage loans for residential properties. Today, the median food insecurity rates for neighborhoods still follow the lines drawn in the 1937 map above: 12% food insecure for grade “A”, 21% for grade “B”, 28% for grade “C”, and 32% for grade “D” (redlined).

Race was a primary factor in grading neighborhoods. Presence of non-white residents, particularly African Americans, resulted in a neighborhood’s low grade. The language used by HOLC was explicitly racist, using phrases like “infiltration of negroes and orientals” to justify a low neighborhood grade. Other factors considered in grading neighborhoods included building conditions, nearby amenities, access to transit, and air quality.

Banks referenced HOLC maps to determine the risk of mortgage loans. Banks were unlikely to offer a mortgage to a property within a redlined neighborhood. Meanwhile, properties in highly graded areas were likely to qualify for a federally insured, low-interest mortgage loan. Since the race of residents in an area determined the grades, this system encouraged racially homogenous neighborhoods and subsidized white home ownership nationwide.

This plot shows how historic neighborhood grades correlate with food insecurity nearly a century later. Today, neighborhoods with historically high grades of “A” (green) have few food insecure residents. Meanwhile, historically redlined areas (grade “D”, red) have high rates of food insecurity.

Redlining was not the only explicitly racist housing policy. For example, racial covenants written into property deeds limited the sale of a property to white buyers. Often, housing developers would add these clauses to each property deed in a development, even before construction began. One neighborhood in the Berkeley hills was given the highest grade of “A” on HOLC 1937 maps, in part due to properties in the neighborhood “restricted by deed to Caucasian ownership”. In 1906, real estate advertisements urged prospective white homeowners to purchase property in the developing Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland, boasting that “No negroes, no Chinese, no Japanese can build or lease in Rock Ridge“. These examples show explicit and unabashed racism in the housing policies which shaped our cities.

Property ownership is a major mechanism for building generational wealth. Policies blocking people of color from purchasing property, while subsidizing white home ownership have created racially segregated neighborhoods, and reinforced socio-economic disparity.

Redlining and racial covenants are just two examples of racially exclusive housing policies. Policies like these helped to create and preserve exclusive white neighborhoods in prime areas, where residents enjoyed fair mortgages. These policies also concentrated people of color into undesirable housing, often near noxious industry and infrastructure, and created legal barriers to home ownership. Despite the Fair Housing Act in 1968 prohibiting such practices, the legacy of racially exclusive housing continues to disproportionately affect the health, wealth, and well-being of communities of color today.

Hunger is not the only indicator that correlates with redlined neighborhoods today. Several other indicators also tend to correspond with historic neighborhood grades, including poor air quality, asthma rates, low educational attainment, and unemployment. Likewise, the distribution of residents by race still resembles the racial lines drawn across neighborhoods nearly a century ago.

Pollution tends to be higher in historically redlined neighborhoods. People of color are more likely to live near sources of pollution, which increases health risks. Asthma rates in West Oakland and East Oakland are some of the highest in California.
Data from CalEnviroScreen 3.0

Neighborhoods today still reflect the racial lines drawn nearly a century ago. Black and LatinX residents are more likely to live in neighborhoods deemed “hazardous” in 1937 (red), while grade “A” neighborhoods (green) remain predominately white.

Hunger has deep roots. It is a symptom of inequality, and persists even in places of abundance like the Bay Area. Racially exclusive housing is just one example of how these inequalities were formed, not only by the actions of individuals, but by organized, systematic policies and practices.

Our work at ACCFB is about more than food. We strive to do our part in dismantling the structural inequities deeply rooted in our society. We strive to create a more inclusive community, where no one goes to bed hungry.

Data for this post is from the Mapping Inequality project (University of Richmond), CalEnviroscreen 3.0, OpenStreetMap, and the Othering and Belonging Institute. Plots and statistics include census tracts within HOLC graded areas in Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda, San Leandro, Piedmont, Emeryville and Albany.