Excerpted From: Denisse Córdova Montes, Tamar Ezer, Photini Kamvisseli Suarez, Katherine Murray, Julian Seethal, Mackenzie Steele, and Sarah Walters, Food, Housing, and Racial Justice Symposium, 31 University of Miami International and Comparative Law Review 77 (Fall, 2023) (108 Footnotes) (Full Document)

FoodHousing.jpegCommunities of color, including Indigenous Peoples, undocumented immigrants, and low-income populations, experience higher rates of hunger, food and housing insecurity, and homelessness in the United States (U.S.). The food insecurity rate of people of color across the nation are consistently at least two to six times that of white individuals. The U.S. has consistently failed to protect its people's right to food in great part due to the legacy of racial discrimination and colonialism that have given way to agricultural, food and nutrition, land, labor, housing, and urban planning policies that systemically deny food to communities of color. Despite only making up 13% of the overall population, Black Americans make up 40% of the homeless population. Moreover, intersecting discrimination based on race and gender exacerbates homelessness. Poverty is particularly acute for women of color, affecting 21.4% of Black women, and Black women are more than twice as likely to face eviction than white residents.

These human rights violations were compounded during the COVID-19 pandemic. The COVID-19 crisis brought to light the stark inequities that leave tens of millions in persistent hunger and poverty. In the U.S., millions of people lost their jobs during the pandemic, which was followed by an equally staggering rise in food insecurity. To make things worse, in 2020, the City of Miami passed an ordinance criminalizing food sharing, or the feeding of people experiencing homelessness in groups of twenty-five or more, without a permit and at non-designated feeding locations (with only five inconvenient locations designated as feeding locations). By passing this ordinance, the City of Miami is “using hunger as a weapon against the poor.” COVID-19 further exacerbated housing inequality. Thanks to direct government interventions like the eviction moratoria and emergency rental assistance programs, the worst fears of mass evictions during the pandemic were temporarily averted, but longstanding inequalities have continued to worsen, and the disparate impact of evictions has resumed with the ending of these programs. Racial disparities in household net worth and mortgage access place Black families at greater risk of housing instability and homelessness. While almost 75% of white families own their homes, less than half of Black families own their homes.

COVID-19 pushed the emergency feeding system to its limits, exposing the true extent of the hunger problem in the U.S. at its roots. Feeding America, a network of 60,000 frontline pantries, soup kitchens and food banks anchored in almost every community in the U.S., is critically necessary at a time like this. That's what it was designed for in the late 1960s--emergency relief. Community institutions are doing an essential and life-sustaining job of distributing food against all odds. However, the private charitable emergency feeding system in the U.S.--the largest and most sophisticated in the world--has historically never been able to meet the demand or make a real dent in the rate of food insecurity, which has hovered between 11-12% over the past thirty years. It is simply not possible to 'foodbank’ our way out of hunger. Even before the pandemic, thirty-seven million Americans were struggling to get food on the table, while four out of five workers lived paycheck to paycheck. Hunger advocates generally focus on defending existing (and inadequate) government nutrition assistance while the average American citizen looks to the private charitable sector to meet the “emergency” needs of hungry families, rather than recognizing citizens, communities, and the natural resources we depend on as rights holders and governments as duty bearers.

As the pandemic reshapes public life around the globe, it also offers an opportunity to organize and protect everyone's human right to food in the U.S. On November 2, 2021, Maine became the first state in the U.S. to enshrine the human right to food in its state constitution. On December 7, 2021, a city resolution on the right to food was passed in the city of Morgantown, West Virginia, and Delegate Danielle Walker introduced a right to food constitutional amendment during both the 2021 and 2022 legislative sessions in West Virginia. Groups in Washington, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and California, among other states, are considering the proposal of similar right to food constitutional amendments. There is a nascent right to food movement in the U.S. that is expanding and embracing the shift from charity to rights. The right to food is both a call to action and a global legal framework for coordinated reform in food and nutrition, agriculture, land, labor, housing, and urban planning policies.

In parallel, a vibrant movement to recognize housing as a right, rather than a commodity in the U.S. has also taken shape. President Biden ran on a platform endorsing a right to housing, and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) strategic plan opens with a letter noting that “USICH believes that housing should be treated as a human right.” Additionally, movements at the federal level and in California, Connecticut, and Vermont seek to establish a right to housing.

On April 13-14, 2023, the Food, Housing, and Racial Justice in the U.S. Symposium sought to provide a space for deep reflection and strategizing by foregrounding the lived experiences and strategies of survival and resistance of communities of color around food insecurity; food system governance; access to housing, land, and natural resources; and the environment. This symposium was hosted by the University of Miami School of Law's Human Rights Clinic and Program, in collaboration with the University of Miami International and Comparative Law Review, the Human Rights Society, the Office of Intellectual Life, the Environmental Law Program, the West Virginia University Center for Resilient Communities, WhyHunger, and the National Right to Food Community of Practice.

Additionally, the symposium included an art exhibit, which featured both pieces produced by people with lived experience with houselessness, as well as artwork focused on the various dimensions of the right to housing in connection with community experiences in the U.S. This exhibit kicked off the Human Rights Program's Art and Human Rights Initiative, which incorporates art in human rights advocacy. It seeks to raise the profile of social and economic rights in the U.S. and locally in Miami and provide a platform for creative thinking and the development of imaginative advocacy resources for realizing the rights to food, health, and housing in the U.S.

[. . .]

The symposium highlighted some of the most pressing challenges that communities of color endure in relation to food and housing in the U.S. It also foregrounded the lived experiences and strategies of survival and resistance of communities of color and called for the centrality of these when seeking to define and implement the human rights to food and housing in the U.S. Many of the promising practices and recommendations generated from the symposium discussions emphasized the need for creativity and to reimagine our own realities in a way that ensures justice and dignity for all, including through art, pioneering community initiatives, and a people's tribunal centering community voices and seeking accountability outside a traditional courtroom. Participants were challenged to sit with their discomfort throughout the two days and inspired to engage in collective action by the end of the symposium.

Professors Denisse Córdova Montes and Tamar Ezer are the Acting Associate Director and Acting Director of the University of Miami School of Law Human Rights Clinic, respectively.