Barren- Food Deserts and Hunger in America

What Is a Food Desert?

Source: Mike Mozart via Flikr

Currently in America, the neighborhood you were born in can affect your future income, education level, and your ability to consistently access nutritional food. The Food Empowerment Project (FEP) defines food deserts as “geographic areas where residents’ access to affordable, healthy food options (especially fresh fruits and vegetables) is restricted or nonexistent due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient traveling distance”. The USDA has defined two types of food deserts: one that exists in both rural areas more than 10 miles from the nearest store and the second which exists in urban environments, where citizens face daily obstacles in obtaining healthy food due to lack of availability or resources. But, the average conversation about food deserts surrounds zones within American cities where citizens, hindered by lack of access to transportation and restricted budgets, are unable to obtain nutritional food. Food deserts play a critical role in food insecurity in the United States, and they are typically visible in urban areas where the residents are already living in extreme economic hardship. 

The Institute of Human Rights at UAB has recently published an article about food deserts in our hometown of Birmingham, Alabama that you can read here– but for readers in other parts of America, I want you to do an exercise with me. Think about your nearest big city, or an urban area you are familiar with. This can be in New York City, Atlanta, Miami, Chicago, or whichever metropolis best applies to you. Visualize the roads you drive, the areas both wealthy and impoverished. Now, think of the few streets within that city where there are almost no Walmarts, Targets, Krogers or Publix chains. In this stretch, there are tons of fast food restaurants, cash bond and payday loan businesses, laundromats and gas stations. There is an abundance of drive throughs and minimarts, but you could drive for a few minutes before you find a grocery store. Can you see that part of your city in your head now? THAT, dear reader, is your local food desert. 

Note: The USDA compiled census and other data into an interactive map called the Food Environment Atlas, which allows any user to view rates of food insecurity, diet quality, and food prices in your area or any neighborhood you are curious about. If you struggle to think of a food desert near you, or want to learn about what areas are impacted by food insecurity, I recommend you try out the Food Environment Atlas here.

Source: DcJohn Via Flickr

The Cause:

Food Deserts have typically been attributed to socioeconomic status. One of the main characteristics that defines a food desert is lack of accessibility, which means people living in a certain region have limited resources, be it money, time or transportation to access nutritional, fresh food. Food deserts are most common in low socio-economic  areas, where residents are unlikely to own a car or have one that is not always working. Americans living here typically live paycheck-to-paycheck, and require both accessibility and affordability to make ends meet throughout the month. It is currently estimated that one in six Americans still experience food insecurity, and that roughly 19 million people are affected by food deserts or limited access to supermarkets in America. Recent studies by the United States Department of Agriculture confirm the connection between race and food deserts, stating in 2019 that “rates of food insecurity were substantially higher than the national average for single-parent households, and for Black and Hispanic households”. 

The conversation surrounding food deserts has shifted to include race in recent years. Originally, the term food desert was coined to represent the socioeconomic disparities that cause some Americans to face food insecurity. Now, organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) are pushing to recoin the term as food apartheid to accurately represent the way food insecurity affects those of minority race in America. The NRDC explains the term shift, saying that, 

“Many groups are now using the term “food apartheid” to correctly highlight the how racist policies shaped these areas and led to limited access to healthy food. Apartheid is a system of institutional racial segregation and discrimination, and these areas are food apartheids because they too are created by racially discriminatory policies. Using the term “apartheid” focuses our examination on the intersectional root causes that created low-income and low food access areas”. 

Essentially, it is vital that we recognize how a historical and current racial inequalities act as a cause of both the food deserts and the zones of poverty they’re found in. The historically black areas of segregated cities were underfunded and underdeveloped, plagued by lack of opportunity and equal access, and in some areas across the United States an economic shadow of that segregation still remains.

Source: Gilbert Mercier via Flickr

Their Effect and Why It Matters:

America has incredibly high rates of obesity and nutrition-based health issues in comparison to other developed countries. While there are decades of research connecting poverty and race to higher rates of nutrition-based disease and other health issues in America, science is now beginning to track the specific effects of food deserts on obesity and chronic illness. A corner store or a pocket-sized version of big supermarket chains like a Walmart Neighborhood Market, but if you take the time to walk inside you’ll see the fresh produce section is either neglected or nonexistent. These smaller stores have less room for inventory, their foods are less likely to be fresh produce due to the requirements to keep them fresh, and these foods are often packaged and processed. That means those who depend on these stores are limited to fast food, packaged goods, or other processed and low quality options that can contribute to malnutrition, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and more.

In addition to the effects of food deserts on health, the prices per unit are almost always more expensive than their suburban, chain-grocery counterparts. A person who can afford a Costco membership will almost always spend less on the same food products as a family living paycheck to paycheck or utilizing EBT for groceries. A 1997 USDA study found that “geographic location was the single most important contribution to higher nationwide average prices faced by low-income households”, and that smaller stores charged more per item than supermarkets nationwide. Food scarcity and cost disparities disproportionately affect minorities and those already living in financial insecurity, and each city has a part to play in ending this national crisis of inequality.

Source: Sue Thompson via Flickr

Join the movement to end food insecurity in the US:

Ultimately, the end to food desertification requires an effort between elected officials and businesses to make nutritious food affordable and accessible for all people. If you recognized a food desert near you in the imaginative exercise we did earlier, that could be the perfect topic to address with your local lawmakers through emails, calls or petitioning. If you prefer other types of action, there are countless ways to work as individuals to help your community in the meantime. Getting involved in the fight against food insecurity can be as hands-on and involved as you want, from donating non-perishable foods and needed items to local organizations, shelters or food kitchens to establishing a community garden, or everything in between. There are plenty of ways to make a difference at whatever level of involvement works best for you, and I’ve linked some of my favorites below!

A Few Ways to Get Involved:

  • Click HERE to find your elected officials on the state and local level and how to contact them about the food deserts affecting their voters. You can use your voice to push for changes that directly impact your community in a positive way.
  • Feeding America is a charity that uses your donations to help the 1 in 8 Americans experiencing hunger now. This link takes you straight to their front page, which features a zip code locator for the closest food bank to you!
  • Organize or contribute to a local food drive. Many public schools and local businesses run food drives for charities throughout the year, and Rotary International has an awesome guide available for starting your own community food drive HERE. Sharing surplus food is an excellent way to help others while reducing waste as well!
  • Use this link to find food pantries near you to donate, volunteer, and get involved in your state’s fight against food insecurity.
  • Find what works for you. Try searching for more ways to get involved that are tailored to your area and preferences…every contribution helps!

Food Insecurity in Birmingham, AL

Outdoor Food Market with Vegetables
Source: Yahoo Images

The USDA reports that there are about 23.5 million people in the US that reside in a food desert, including over six and a half million children. A food desert is described as an urban area in which it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food. Many believe that the term ‘desert’ incorrectly implies that a lack of affordable and healthy food is naturally occurring, and a better term to describe the subject is food apartheid, which also includes the discrimination of communities of color regarding economic opportunity and access. For the case of this post, we will use the two interchangeably. In Alabama alone, close to two million residents live in a food desert, and almost 150,000 of them live in Birmingham. This accounts for 69% of the city’s total population. A 2019 update also found that there is at least one area that is identified as a food desert in each of Birmingham’s nine City Council Districts.  

Birmingham’s Efforts to Eliminate Food Desertification 

Birmingham Mayor Randal Woodfin speaking
Source: Yahoo Images

At the end of March 2022, the Birmingham City Council voted to approve an incentives package for a new Food Giant supermarket in the city’s Five Points West area. According to the Birmingham Watch, the Food Giant store will be located at 2257 Bessemer Road, the former location of a Winn-Dixie grocery store that shut down in 2018 after the chain filed for bankruptcy. Mayor Randall Woodfin spoke on the efforts to eliminate food deserts saying, “We’ve been aggressive since day one in finding the most creative things we can do to support putting a dent in food insecurity and getting more grocery stores in our community,” he said. “I think we’ve been told ‘no’ a gazillion times. … Now, we’re happy to share with the public that a brand that is known, that people trust and that provides quality food is coming back to Birmingham.” 

In addition to the positive effects of bringing a new and much-needed grocery store to the area, Jay Mitchell, Mitchell Foods Vice President of Retail Operations, said the store looks to hire locally through social media, hiring events, and job fairs. “We will be bringing some team (members) from our adjacent stores, but most of the hiring will be right here,” he said, adding that the average wage will be between $11 and $12 per hour. The project brings in many promises to increase economic development, which has proved to be exciting for the city administration, the Food Giant team, and the residents of West Birmingham themselves. 

National Food Apartheid 

According to a report by the USDA’s Economic Research Service, there are over 6,500 food desert tracts in the United States. People who reside in food desert tracts are more likely to have abandoned or vacant homes, and those who live in these areas tend to have less education, lower incomes, and higher unemployment rates. 

Graph showing Food Insecurity by RaceThis chart goes on to show the differences between food insecurity rates based on race. Although each demographic has seen a decrease in their food insecurity rate over the last several years, there is still a very large gap between the races, with the biggest difference being between Black and white Americans, who have a difference of roughly 10% between the groups. Even worse, there are countless combined consequences that can hurt already marginalized communities from living in a food apartheid, including an increase in obesity and physical conditions like diabetes due to the lack of access to affordable and healthy food options. 

Ways to Help 

Despite the current efforts to help, there is still a great need to assist those who are experiencing this human rights crisis at hand. Although the complex issue holds no simple solution at the local, state, or national level, there are many ways to contribute to the cause. The first step to begin making a positive change is to educate yourself on the levels of food insecurity in your area and who it primarily affects. Learn if anything is currently being done by your city, county, or state government or private organizations. Familiarize yourself with food banks in your community and consider forming the habit of donating to them periodically if you can do so. Food banks and pantries usually also take donations of unused toiletries for those in need and special products for pregnant mothers and babies, but you should check what each place is willing to accept in advance. In addition, you can also ask what their most needed items are throughout the seasons. Regardless of how you choose to help, we can all make a positive difference by educating ourselves and others on the causes and effects of food insecurity. 

Housing is a Human Right

Tent that says Housing is a Human Right
Source: Yahoo Images

Housing is a human right. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” Amid America’s current housing market and increase in homelessness, many questions have been raised regarding the effect of this economic crisis. Ending the housing crisis in America is especially crucial considering a home for most people and families is not simply a house, but also a place for working and learning remotely. Having a home influences factors that play key roles in the quality of one’s life. Although the future state of the housing crisis is uncertain, the fact that housing is a human right and an objective need remains the same. 

America’s Housing Crisis 

Much of America’s current public housing was built succeeding the Great Depression with the 1937 Housing Act; this act declared that everyone deserves “decent, safe and sanitary” housing. However, ever-changing political tides and negative stigmas toward public housing led to large disinvestment by the government. Between the years 1995 and 2018, annual federal funding for public housing, accounting for inflation, fell by nearly 50 percent. The 1998 Faircloth Amendment placed limits on construction of new public housing units which corroded older public housing units and forced tenants to live in unsafe conditions with mold and lead. One study shows that people living in poor quality housing were at a 50% higher risk of an asthma-related emergency room visit. In addition, the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that over 10,000 public housing apartments are lost annually “because they are no longer habitable.” The growing need for updating and building new low-income housing, and a consistent decrease in government assistance, has created a market that detrimentally affects millions of renters and home buyers. 

Housing shortages and wealthy individuals buying and renting out homes at a mark-up rate has created an increase in the cost of homes in America. This phenomenon is called the financialization of housing, which occurs when housing is treated as a commodity—a vehicle for wealth and investment—rather than a social good. Special Rapporteur Leilani Farha stated in the documentary PUSH, “I believe there’s a huge difference between housing as a commodity and gold as a commodity. Gold is not a human right, housing is.” In many developing economies, long existing neighborhoods located in ‘prime land’ can often be subject to evictions and displacement to make room for new investment properties. This practice can often leave residents homeless with little warning or time for any preparation. 

Disparities within Homelessness in America 

Tents made from tarp
Source: Yahoo Images

In 2020, nearly 600,000 Americans were facing homelessness, which had been worsened due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This is caused by various combinations of the lack of affordable housing, low incomes, and unemployment. Most minority groups, especially African Americans and Indigenous people, experience homelessness at higher rates than whites, largely due to long-standing historical and structural racism. A 2020 study found that African Americans make up nearly 40% of all Americans experiencing homelessness, while only accounting for 13% of the general population. One root cause of the current wealth gap between white households and households of color is redlining, systemic housing discrimination supported by the federal government decades ago. Redlining discouraged economic investment, such as mortgage and business loans, in Black and Brown neighborhoods. In addition, the effects of mass incarceration and access to quality healthcare cause people of color to fall victim to poverty and homelessness at a disproportionate rate. 

Pushing Forward 

Woman at Housing Rights Protest
Source: Yahoo Images

Although this complex issue has no simple or easy solution, there are many ways to contribute to positive change and organizations actively making progress. For example, Housing is a Human Right organizes to work toward the “3 P’s:” protect tenants, preserve communities, and produce housing. Last year, they laid out their advocacy highlights of 2021 including the following plan of action: 

  • Rolled out a comprehensive platform to address the housing affordability and homelessness crises 
  • Pushed for more inclusionary housing and the adaptive reuse of existing buildings to produce more affordable and homeless housing 
  • Fought the criminalization of homelessness 
  • Continued to expose the real estate industry through our award-winning advocacy journalism 

Worldwide consequences of the Russian occupation of Ukraine

I wanted to include this image to portray some of the realities of what Ukrainians are facing.
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture of Ukraine being attacked

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has devastated both nations, with the people of Ukraine struggling to defend their homes against the more advanced Russian military, the people of Russia struggling financially in the face of global sanctions, and has spread anxiety to many nations of the possibilities of another world war, or even worse, the escalation into nuclear warfare. While there is a lot of coverage regarding the many attempts at diplomacy, the bombings and other military attacks on Ukraine, and the reactions of both Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader, as well as Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian leader, there are many consequences of this crisis that need to be brought to attention. It is important to focus on the impact of this crisis on the civilian populations of both nations and equally important for people to recognize that this crisis, along with similar crises around the world, is further fueling the climate crisis, even without the threats of nuclear warfare dangerously being dangled as an option. Additionally, the Ukrainian forces of resistance are essentially complex; on one side, ordinary Ukrainian citizens should be honored for their bravery and resistance at defending their nation from foreign invasion, but on the other hand, it is necessary to recognize that the Ukrainian military also includes the Azov Battalion, the neo-Nazi Special Operations unit in the Ukrainian National Guard. These are some delicate times, and transparency can help increase the trust among nations. Just the same, in the wake of this crisis, the world should not ignore the other brutalities taking place globally, many of which have participated in egregious violations of human rights. Finally, it is pertinent that people be aware of the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Russia and hold them accountable.

The Human Impact

I included this image to show how the same location from the previous image looked prior to being bombed.
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture of Ukraine’s nightlife to capture its beauty before Russia’s invasion

While this crisis is a result of drastic measures taken by Putin and as a response to Putin’s aggressions, Zelensky, the civilian populations are the ones that are most impacted by it. On the one side of the conflict, Russian civilians are facing tremendous economic struggles, as sanctions are being placed on Russia from countries throughout the world. Among those who placed sanctions against Russia were the European Union, Australia, Japan, and even the famously neutral Switzerland. The European Union promised to cause “maximum impact” on Russia’s economy, some states like Japan and Australia chose to sanction the oligarchs and their luxury goods, and the United States sanctions included a freeze on Putin’s assets. With that being said, it is important to analyze how these sanctions can harm everyday Russian citizens. Civilians are lining up at ATMs and banks to withdraw their cash as stocks are plunging and the Russian currency, the Ruble, lost its value by 25%. Many Russian-made products are being boycotted around the world, and even Russian participation in events like the Paralympics is being banned. Russian citizens are unable to access their money through Google Pay and Apple Pay, as both have been suspended in Russia. For fear of Russian propaganda, the United States has even banned Russian media outlets from having access to the American people. Furthermore, even amidst these sanctions and economic uncertainties, Russian civilians have risked their lives to protest against their leader and the Ukrainian invasion in large numbers. When the invasion first began, 2,000 Russian protesters against the war got arrested by the Russian police. Almost two weeks into this invasion, as the protests continue to take place, as many as 4,300protesters have been arrested. Shockingly, many of the Russian soldiers sent to invade Ukraine have been reported abandoning their posts, fleeing or voluntarily surrendering to the Ukrainian forces, admitting that they were not even aware they were being sent into combat. These Russian soldiers, many of whom are inexperienced, young adults, are being forced to fight or be assassinated by their officers for abandoning their military posts during active wartime.

Nevertheless, as a result of Putin’s aggression, on the other side of this conflict, Ukrainians are being forced to deal with the devastations of war, and the people of Ukraine are fully invested in the defense of their nation. Ordinary citizens are being taught how to make Molotov cocktails, civilians are coming together to help each other meet their basic needs and anyone capable of fighting is being recruited to join the Ukrainian defense forces. Unfortunately, Ukraine has banned 18 to 60-year-old men from leaving the nation and forcing them to join the fight. This wartime crisis has also led to a massive refugee crisis as women and children and people of other nations are trying to escape the conflict zones. This refugee crisis has its own issues, with reported instances of discrimination against refugees from the Global South fleeing Ukraine. These reports focus on the mistreatment, harassment, and restriction of the refugees from leaving Ukraine to seek safety. Additionally, while the global solidarity to support Ukrainian refugees is admirable and should be commended, many critics have argued that Ukrainian refugees have been better received from the rest of Europe and the rest of the world in general, while refugees from the Middle East or other Global South nations have not been treated with the same courtesy. These are some valid points to consider, and the refugee crisis is only going to be amplified as a result of the many consequences of climate change.

Warfare and Climate Change

I wanted to include this image to insist on how important climate change really is.
Source: Yahoo Images; A map of the world in black, engulfed in a fiery background. The world is on fire and steps need to be taken to combat climate change.

Climate change continues to impact the world during this crisis. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) illustrates just how fragile our current climate crisis seems to be, exclaiming that anthropogenic (caused by humans) climate change is increasing the severity and frequency of natural disasters, and warming up the globe around 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). The planet is already experiencing irreversible changes, the IPCC warns, and if actions are not taken to limit emissions and combat the climate crisis, the future of humanity is at risk. Additionally, another finding was reported about the Amazon Rainforest, (popularly dubbed the “Lungs of our Planet”), being unable to recuperate as quickly as it should due to heavy logging and massive fires it has experienced just over a couple of decades. These shocking revelations should be taken seriously, as this development will lead to more conflicts over land and resources. As people around the world are beginning to experience the calamities of climate change, nuclear warfare would maximize its destructions. With Russia being a nuclear state, tensions are surmounting globally, as nations continue to condemn Putin’s aggressions, and call for a ceasefire. Putting aside the possibilities of nuclear warfare, regular warfare amplifies the climate crisis in many ways.

First and foremost, warfare and military operations have a direct correlation to climate change in that they use massive amounts of fossil fuels to operate their machines and weapons, and militaries are among the largest producers of carbon across the world. This means that not only do militaries and their operations consume massive amounts of fossil fuels, but they are also among the biggest polluters in the world. Militaries worldwide need to decrease their carbon footprints and engage in more diplomatic strategies instead of engaging in warfare. We need to focus on international efforts to combat climate change and transform our economies and infrastructures into sustainable ones that rely on renewable resources. With this in mind, Germany addressed the energy crisis in Europe by suggesting that there needs to be a shift to a more sustainable economy, away from the influences of Russia, with the intentions of also fighting against climate change while becoming economically independent from Russian resources.

Furthermore, Russia, on the first day of its invasion against Ukraine, captured the site of the nuclear disaster, Chernobyl. While many argue that this was a strategic move to provide Russian troops a shortcut into Kyiv through Belarus, (Russia’s allies), others argue that the capturing of Chernobyl was meant to send a message to the West to not interfere. Still, others believe that the capture of Chernobyl held historic relevance, as many believe that the incident at Chernobyl led to the fall of the Soviet Union. Whatever may be the case, it is unclear what Putin’s plans for Chernobyl are, and as an area that is filled with radioactive, nuclear waste, people’s concerns with Putin’s possession of Chernobyl seem valid. If not contained and treated with caution, the nuclear waste being stored at Chernobyl can cause irreversible damages to both the environment and nearby populations for decades. Recently, there have been reports of Russian attacks on the Zaporizhzhia Ukrainian nuclear power plant which caught on fire, increasing the risks of a disaster ten times as bad as Chernobyl was. While we are still unclear as to the details of this report, we do know that Russia has captured it, and at the very least, wants to hinder Ukraine’s source of energy. Ukraine depends on nuclear energy for its electricity, and this plant produced 20% of the nation’s energy. At best, this was a strategic move on Russia’s part, yet some have even suggested that if Putin is so irresponsible with his attacks on a nuclear power plant, how much restraint might he show with regards to using nuclear weapons if he feels pushed into a corner.

Finally, as was explored during the Cold War, nuclear weapons themselves have dramatic consequences on the planet as a whole and have the power of ending humanity. This was one of the major epiphanies that led to the de-escalation of the Cold War when both the United States and the Soviet Union understood that to use nuclear weapons against each other would be “mutually assured destruction.” While many argue that Putin’s instructions to ready Russia’s nuclear weapons is a form of intimidation targeted on the West, these threats can carry out unimaginable consequences if acted upon. With increasing pressures from all sides, including the global sanctions, and the massive resistance from Ukraine, Putin’s incentives are becoming unclear as this conflict continues to unfold.

I wanted to include this image to showcase how complex nuclear plants are and why this plant needs to be approached with extreme caution and an understanding of nuclear power.
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture of the nuclear facility at Chernobyl.

The Complexities of the Ukrainian Crisis

There has been a backlash by some that the world was not this enraged when similar invasions and occupations occurred in Palestine, Syria, or during several of the Middle Eastern conflicts that have devastated the people of that region. Still, others have dismissed this argument, stating that what makes this crisis especially relevant globally is its threats of nuclear warfare. Others, however, argue that the global support of Ukraine is in part due to their being a population of white Christians. To support this argument, they point to many instances in Western media coverage of the Ukrainian invasion that has suggested this exact idea. A CBS reporter cried on a news segment, “this isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is relatively civilized, relatively European….” Even a Ukrainian prosecutor was caught saying “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed.” This is important to note because Ukraine’s military has a Special Operations Unit known as the Azov Battalion, which is made up of far-right neo-Nazis, sporting Nazi regalia and symbols of White Supremacy. Putin’s many excuses for invading Ukraine included the need to “de-Nazify Ukraine”, referring to Ukraine’s empowering of the Azov Battalion’s rise to military and political prominence in the country. The Azov Battalion came under fire in 2016 for committing human rights violations and war crimes, detailing reports of abuse and terrorism against the civilians of the Donbas region in separatist Ukraine. With that being said, Putin’s excuse of wanting to terrorize an entire nation for the sake of his opposition to one particular group of Ukrainians is not justified, and people argue that his motivations are much more insidious than that. With the Ukrainian crisis being such a complex and nuanced issue, much of the world is focused on the conflict, a reality that many nations are taking advantage of to benefit their own national interests.

Other Aggressions still taking place around the world

I wanted to include this image to showcase that other brutalities continue to take place around the world, and deserve just as much global attention as the conflict in Ukraine
Source: Yahoo Images; A woman holding a Palestinian flag, as Israeli forces continue to occupy Palestinian land.

While the world’s attention is captured by the Ukraine-Russian crisis, some countries are taking advantage of a distracted world to commit their own atrocities. For one, Palestine continues to be colonized by Israel, a struggle that has lasted for over fifty years now. While Israelis are showing solidarity for Ukrainians from occupied Palestinian lands, they are oblivious to the hypocrisy of their actions and refuse to recognize their role in the suffering of the Palestinians. Just a few days ago, Israeli forces attacked and killed Palestinian civilians in the occupied West Bank, and they continue to terrorize the Palestinians in an attempt to force them out of their homes.

In another part of the world, the United States, while calling for peace in Ukraine, proceeded to bomb Somalia in the past week. A conflict that the United States has been a part of for fifteen years now, American forces claim that their intended targets are the militant groups in Somalia. Yet, according to Amnesty International, the US African Command admitted to having killed civilian populations with one of its many airstrikes conducted over Galgaduud in 2018. In fact, they claim that the only reason the US even admitted to the civilian casualties in Somalia was due to extensive research on the part of Amnesty International.

The Ukrainian conflict also has Taiwan on the edge of its seats, as many are focusing on the US response to the Ukrainian invasion to measure the reactions that the US might have if China were to invade Taiwan. Many Taiwanese officials are contemplating Russia and China’s close relationship and are worried about what a successive Russian invasion of Ukraine might mean for their own development with China. The Chinese government is already engaging in misinformation/disinformation campaigns against Taiwan, and many Taiwanese claims that China has also been conducting cyberattacks in Taiwan and military drills around the island.

Resistance and Accountability

I wanted to use this image to showcase Ukrainian resistance agains the Russian invasion
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture of a man in the motion of throwing a Molotov cocktail

Ukrainians, much to Putin’s dismay, have been successfully defending their nation and holding off Russian forces for over a week now. In response to its successful resistance, Ukraine’s forces claim that the Russian bombings have been targeting civilian buildings and taking the lives of innocent civilians, among them at least fourteen children. As videos of the Ukrainian invasion surface on social media platforms such as Tik Tok and Twitter, many experts are suggesting that the Russians are engaging in war crimes and crimes against humanity, and the International Criminal Court (ICC) has begun an investigation into these possibilities. The ICC is focusing not only on recent attacks against Ukraine but seem to also include past Russian aggression against Ukraine in their investigation. These crimes include the violation of the Geneva Convention, the bombing of civilian infrastructures, and even Russia’s use of vacuum bombs, (otherwise known as thermobaric bombs), which are bombs intended to suck the oxygen out of the air in its surroundings and convert it into a pressurized explosion. Although the vacuum bombs have been used in various places since the 1970s, (by Russia against Chechnya in 1990, by the Syrian government in 2016, and even by the United States in 2017 against Afghanistan), experts warn that these weapons can be extremely lethal and destructive in densely populated areas. Along with the above-mentioned violations against human rights, Russia’s attack on the Ukrainian nuclear power plant is added to the list of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Russia, and it continues to grow as the invasion persists.

Even with these threats and unprovoked aggression from Russia, Ukrainians have been more resistant than Putin had planned. Ukrainian civilians have taken up arms to defend their nation, and their enormous bravery is inspiring to witness. This sense of solidarity among the Ukrainian people is, many believe, a direct result of President Zelensky’s own courage and his choice to fight alongside his people instead of fleeing to safety. This action alone has emboldened the Ukrainian morale, and everyone is attempting to do their part in this conflict. People are helping each other out with humanitarian needs like securing food and shelter, and civilians are constructing Molotov cocktails to throw at the incoming Russian forces to stall their advances. Zelensky even released Ukraine’s prisoners and armed them, urging them to fight and defend the nation.  These instances of Ukrainian resistance and unity among other nations of the world give us hope that they have a chance at winning global support against this crisis and bringing about peace and stability in the Ukrainian regions under attack. Considering the real threat of another world war unfolding before our very own eyes, it is important now more than ever, that we approach this conflict as objectively as possible. In order to do so, we have to employ different approaches that we have never before attempted and think outside of the box. With their efforts at resisting the invasion, Ukrainians have inspired me to believe that we as humans might be able to come together globally and perhaps tackle the climate crisis as well and protect our planet in the same manner the Ukrainians are defending their own homes before it’s too late.

America: The Land of the Hungry

To portray what food security means to those experiencing food insecurity
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture of a caregiver and child surrounded with sunflowers, standing in a garden. There are words that run along the image describing what food security means to the people in this community.

As an immigrant from India who has become an American citizen, food insecurity is something that I have witnessed a lot in my short lifetime. As a kid, I remember seeing people on the streets of India, both young and old, begging for mere scraps, and felt guilty for not being able to do anything to help. Yet, little did I know that I would come to experience similar food insecurities, but in America, a land supposedly filled with life, liberty, and happiness. It was in America that I first became aware of the realities of being poor, and it was here that I learned how to live off of $20 a week.

Among other things that have come into the limelight due to the pandemic, people are starting to pay more attention to the growing food insecurities in America. The United States is one of the most affluent nations in the entire world, yet it is also home to some of the largest food deserts in the world. This phenomenon, which is an incomprehensible reality in one of the richest nations in the world, has only become worse over the past few years, mainly due to the increasing inflation coupled with stagnant wages, which have only been exacerbated due to the pandemic. Food insecurity has become a reality to many Americans who live paycheck to paycheck and struggle to make ends meet, even with working multiple jobs.

Food Deserts

I included this image to showcase the precooked meals that are frozen and a convenient meal choice for hard working Americans.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting the frozen foods aisle in a grocery store

So, what are food deserts and why should we care about them? Well, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), food deserts are areas in which access to healthy food and groceries is limited due to a number of reasons, including distance, individual abilities, and even the location of the neighborhood someone resides in. Distance becomes an issue for those who live far away from stores that sell fresh produce, including those who live in rural areas as well as those who live on the outskirts of urban areas.

Distance can be an even greater challenge if the person or family does not have reliable transportation. This is especially true in rural areas where public transportation does not extend to. Even with public transportation being available, the bus routes in most cities run on scheduled times and have limited hours of service. This means that anyone that works odd hours may not have access to the public transportation system. Furthermore, people that live farther away from grocery stores and that don’t have reliable transportation may have to be able to walk home, meaning that they can only purchase the amount of food they can carry in their hands. This also means that they have to make frequent trips to the grocery store to be able to have their nutritional needs met.

Similarly, individual abilities, such as family income, can greatly impact the food choices a person has access to. Purchasing healthy food is expensive, and if you want something that is free of pesticides or harmful chemicals (organic produce), it’s going to cost you even more money, money that you may not have. Additionally, eating healthy is not always a choice that people with low income have; the choices they are usually presented with are eating something (even if it is unhealthy) or starving for the next few days. You still have to have the energy to go to work and make money to pay your other bills. Roughly half of the American population made less than $35,000 annually, according to the Social Security Administration’s wage reports from 2019. These statistics have only increased as a consequence of the ongoing pandemic.

The neighborhood that a person lives in has a direct impact on their access to fresh food as well. Due to racist policies such as gerrymandering and gentrification, neighborhoods are separated based on the average income of their residents, and this usually means that the poor, (which are made up disproportionately of Black and Brown people), are pushed into underdeveloped areas and away from the up-and-coming neighborhoods in the urban centers. As a result, businesses are more reluctant to open up in impoverished areas, fearing that they won’t make much profit, and this extends to stores that sell fresh produce.

Food Insecurity: Some Hard Facts

I wanted to showcase how prevalent food insecurity is, and how it is concentrated a lot more in the South.
Source: Yahoo Images; A map of the United States from a 2017 analysis of food insecurity in America

If the USDA definition of food deserts is applied in the United States, at least 19 million people live in food deserts. Looking closer to home, in Alabama, as of 2017, over 16% of its residents are facing food insecurities. Even right here in our own backyard, Birmingham Times reported in 2019 that around 69% of Birmingham residents live in food deserts. That is over half of the Birmingham population! As I have learned as recently as this semester during a Social Justice Café event, (a weekly event sponsored by the Institute of Human Rights at UAB that focuses on social justice issues), around 25% of UAB students are cutting meals, close to half of our UAB student population can’t afford to eat healthily, and over 35% of UAB students experience chronic food insecurity! I am one of these students; I am not ashamed to admit it. Despite how much I conserve and try to budget, I still cut meals constantly, I continue to not be able to afford to eat healthily, and I have been experiencing chronic food insecurity since before the pandemic. The reasons behind my struggles are no fault of my own; they are a domino effect of the various systemic failures that continue to plunge millions of hard-working Americans into poverty and as a result, food insecurity.

Eating Healthy: Why it’s a problem especially if you are poor

I wanted to include this image to portray how expensive buying fresh produce can really be.
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture showcasing the various produce selections at a grocery store with prices depicted next to each item

If a person has access to $20 for a week’s worth of groceries, spending it all on a couple of fruits and vegetables will not ensure that they can feed themselves and their loved ones for the next few days. What will help them make it through the week are spending on canned goods and processed food items that have a longer shelf life and cut down the time of food preparation. This means buying dollar menu items at fast-food restaurants or shopping at dollar stores for cheap snacks and pre-cooked meals. Low-income families who have experienced food insecurity for generations may not have acquired the knowledge to cook healthy food in a timely manner. They may not have had the resources to learn how to cook, or never had anyone to learn from.

Additionally, eating healthy requires that people cook with fresh, raw ingredients to avoid the preservatives and chemicals used in processed foods for a longer shelf-life. This also means cooking with items that may go to waste if not cooked in a timely manner. Most Americans struggling with food insecurity work low-income jobs, sometimes multiple jobs at a time, and the last thing they want to do is go home after a hard day of work and prepare meals for their family. Fast food is an easy, convenient alternative, and it is this convenience that has made them successful despite the unhealthy, low-nutritious food they sell.

Furthermore, this consumption of unhealthy foods with little nutritional value leads to chronic health issues, such as diabetes and heart disease. Even eating fruits and vegetables that have been grown with the use of pesticides and herbicides has been proven to expose those consuming them to toxic chemicals known to cause cancer. Therefore, to truly enjoy healthy produce, people have to purchase organic foods, which doubles the costs of groceries. Additionally, having adequate access to healthcare is another major challenge for those that live below the poverty line, and generally targets households that are already marginalized. These disparities have only been exacerbated due to the pandemic. As a consequence of the way that American healthcare is set up, most people living in poverty tend to avoid going to the doctor unless they absolutely have to, which further perpetuates the cycle of reactionary medical care rather than a precautionary one. Food insecurity is also surrounded by stigmatization, blaming the starving people for failing to put food on the table for themselves and their families instead of focusing on why this trend is common amongst almost half of the country’s hard-working citizens.

Non-Government Food Aid and Government Food Aid

I included this image to bring attention to the existence of food pantries and their part in combatting food insecurity
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture outside of a food pantry in Baltimore

Well, what about the government? Doesn’t it help those that are facing food insecurities? Government food aid comes in the form of SNAP/EBT benefits, commonly known as “food stamps,” and while it has helped many people struggling with food insecurity, this program has a lot of issues with it (too many to discuss in this blog). For today, however, let’s just examine some of the eligibility requirements to even qualify for food assistance. For one, Congress sets a threshold, requiring that people applying for the program must prove to the government that their income and expenses together show that they are living over 100% below the poverty line.

Furthermore, states can also add additional requirements such as passing a drug test or passing a background check. Some states disqualify applicants that have a criminal history from receiving assistance. If you’ve read my previous blogs about the realities of re-entering society after being imprisoned, you know why this is problematic.

Additionally, if the applicant is an immigrant, legal or illegal, qualifying for food assistance is almost impossible. Those who think that citizenship should be a requirement for food assistance don’t understand what human rights are. Food is a necessary resource that ALL humans have to have, and any person struggling to eat deserves to be helped, regardless of their citizenship status. There is also a requirement that people applying for assistance should have a job working at least 20 hours a week. This means that if you are unemployed, you cannot qualify for food assistance. That is exactly when you need the most help when you have no income or are transitioning from one job to another. On top of all these extensive eligibility requirements, if you are on strike, expressing your right to protest, something secured to you by the Constitution of the United States of America, you will not be able to qualify for food assistance. These conditions that require the people struggling with poverty to prove they are poor enough to receive assistance are demeaning, insulting, and undignifying to those who require the aid.

There are local non-profit groups and state institutions that provide food banks and food pantries where people can go to access food, but these places are usually located in more populated areas, meaning that people who live in rural areas or on the outskirts of cities face additional struggles accessing these food aid institutions. Transportation again becomes an issue for people living far from food banks and further limits their accessibility. Additionally, due to the stigma that surrounds food insecurity, people are made to feel guilty about their situation, and as a result, many avoid going to the food banks altogether.

How COVID has Made Food Insecurity Worse

The recent pandemic has changed many aspects of day-to-day life for people around the world. It has intensified the struggles of many Americans who were barely making it through life before the virus took hold. This same trend holds true when analyzing the pandemic’s impact on people experiencing food insecurity in America. The number of people struggling to feed themselves and their families has increased from 19 million in 2017 to over 50 million people in 2020. This is understandable, as many Americans lost their jobs during the shutdown of the economy, and many did not qualify for unemployment benefits.

Furthermore, due to the unhealthy nature of cheap foods, many Americans are experiencing malnutrition, dealing with obesity, diabetes, and heart problems, among other health issues. These health conditions have made them more vulnerable to catching the virus, and without an income, paying for healthcare becomes a major issue. Additionally, health insurance in America is tied to employment, and many Americans lost their jobs due to the economic shutdown, and as a result, also lost their health insurance coverage. All these factors have collectively worsened the lives of the poor and marginalized communities, adding to the growing financial instability and food insecurities these families face.

What Can We Do About It?

I decided to include this image to showcase how community gardens can help in the fight against food insecurity
Source: Yahoo Images; A man standing with a shovel inside of a community garden filled with growing vegetables and plants.

There are a lot of systemic issues to unpack that either leads to or exacerbates food insecurities. These issues need to be addressed through public policies that would help those struggling to eat by putting more money back into their pockets. These measures include pressuring our local policymakers to support legislation that would increase wages, lower eligibility requirements to access federal food aid, make healthy food more affordable and accessible, provide better public transportation, make healthcare affordable and accessible, and regulate businesses that exploit people to meet profit margins. All these things could help destigmatize food insecurity in our society and empower people to help themselves.

While food insecurity is a systemic issue that needs greater attention from our policymakers, there are still things that we can do ourselves. First, for those who are experiencing food insecurity here on campus, a resource called Blazer Kitchen is available for students and staff members, and their families to take advantage of. Blazer Kitchen is an onsite food pantry for those experiencing food insecurity. I’ve used Blazer Kitchen before, and while it is still a newly growing program, I have been grateful to have this resource at hand.

Second, for those who want to help reduce food waste, those who wish to shop at home, or those that have transportation limitations, Imperfect Foods is an online delivery service that has partnered with Feeding America (an organization aimed at ending food insecurity) to find a sustainable way to cut down food waste while simultaneously providing access to healthy foods for people who are food insecure. So much food gets wasted due to issues of over-harvested crops, changes in packaging, or even due to cosmetic imperfections that don’t always pass the scrutiny of the retail buyers. Instead of letting all this food go to waste, imperfect foods, and other such companies, strive to make use of these goods. This service also addresses the issue of transportation by having these imperfect goods delivered to your house.

Finally, only people who live on properties with land can have access to personal produce gardens right now. Sponsoring local community gardens around the country can help educate people on how to grow their own food, can provide jobs for people to maintain these gardens, and provide access to healthy food options within walking distance. Localized community gardens can also decrease the carbon footprint left behind by massive corporate grocery stores that have to transport goods across states and can cut down on food waste as well. Also, share your experiences with food insecurity; let others know that you are experiencing it too. This helps start the process of destigmatizing this issue while educating others about the realities and complexities tied into your experiences. If you have the means to, donate to food banks and other such nonprofit organizations that provide help for those who desperately need it. Even if you never get to meet the people you are helping, know that they still greatly appreciate it. I know I do.

Beirut Port Explosion: How Government Neglect and Corruption Have Caused Human Rights Abuses in Lebanon

The recent explosion of the port in Beirut, Lebanon has garnered widespread international attention. While it is still unknown what caused this explosion, two things are known: explosive material had been stored there for years, and the Lebanese government was aware of this fact. For many years now, both government corruption and negligence have been causing human rights abuses felt across all Lebanon, so the explosion in Beirut, while one of the deadliest manifestations of this corruption and negligence, is no anomaly.

An image showing the aftermath of the explosion at the port in Beirut, Lebanon
The Aftermath of the Port Explosion in Beirut, Lebanon. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

The Lebanese Government

To understand the culture and politics of Lebanon, it is important to understand the way the Lebanese government is set up. When Lebanon first gained independence, the government was divided up so that the several religions in the country would be represented in the government. To do this, it was decided that the President would be a Maronite Christian, the Speaker of the Parliament would be a Shia Muslim, and the Prime Minister would be a Sunni Muslim. In principle, this was a good way of ensuring political representation for each group. However, many problems have occurred because of this. Today, each religious group defends their own government representatives without holding them accountable for their corruption and negligence, and instead blame other groups’ politicians and representatives when problems arise in Lebanon. This has not only allowed for corruption to go unchecked, but it has also caused the divisiveness and sectarian conflict that has become characteristic of Lebanese society.

Government Corruption

While the extent of government corruption has been mostly speculative, an accusation leveled against one of the top politicians in Lebanon last fall seemed to confirm many Lebanese citizens’ suspicions about Lebanese politicians’ corruption. The politician in question is Najib Mikati, previous Prime Minister of Lebanon. Mikati is Lebanon’s richest man, with an estimated net worth of $2.5 billion. Many people have alleged that this accumulation of wealth could only have been the product of illegal activity, and this allegation seemed to be confirmed in October 2019, when a prosecutor pressed charges against Mikati, accusing him and his family of stealing millions of dollars that were meant to be used as housing loans for low and middle-income Lebanese citizens. Despite the fact that Mikati denied this accusation and it has yet to be shown to be true, the accusation was enough to gain traction among the citizens of Lebanon, who used this as conclusive proof of widespread government corruption. While this is only one instance, most of the politicians in Lebanon are millionaires, which leads many to believe that all are involved in some form of corruption.

Economic Decline and Revolution of 2019

While government corruption is in and of itself a problem, this corruption has also had negative ramifications on the economy; it has been argued that it is the primary cause of the steep decline in Lebanon’s economy. In 2018, economic growth for Lebanon was just 0.2 percent, with a 30 percent unemployment rate for youth, and due to these conditions, citizens of Lebanon were becoming increasingly critical of the quality of life in Lebanon, with many explicitly blaming politicians. In an attempt to improve the economy, Lebanese politicians began imposing taxes on many different commodities. While this angered many people, the revolution of 2019 did not begin until the government imposed a tax on WhatsApp, a free messaging service popular in the Middle East. It must be understood that the revolution was not just about the WhatsApp tax, as this was merely one of many contributing factors. In reality, much of the anger that spurred the revolution was due to both the dire conditions in Lebanon and the Lebanese government’s decision to place the burden of fixing the economy on the citizens, despite the fact that the politicians’ own corruption is what has led Lebanon to the brink of collapse.

An image showing protesters in Beirut, Lebanon
The 2019 Lebanese Revolution. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

Coronavirus Impact

While government corruption is to blame for the bleak conditions in Lebanon, the coronavirus has only further exacerbated these issues. Since the first outbreak in Lebanon, there have been several lockdowns, all of which have negatively impacted the economy. The most damaging impact has been the devaluing of the Lebanese Pound, which was already losing much of its value before the pandemic, but has now lost over 75 percent of its value. The devaluing of the currency not only bears negative consequences on the health of the Lebanese economy as a whole, but it has also made it impossible for many in Lebanon to afford basic necessities. As a result of the devaluing of the currency, prices of medicine, food, and rent have all increased exponentially, nearly 40 percent of the population has been pushed below the poverty line, and almost one million people have insufficient access to food.

Explosion of the Port of Beirut

On August 4, 2,750 tonnes of explosive material improperly stored at the port of Beirut exploded, completely destroying the port and surrounding areas. Until today, it is unknown what caused the explosion, but it has since been revealed that the government was warned about this material almost six years ago and were even warned by security officials to remove the material a few weeks before the explosion. The fact that the government initially stored 2,750 tonnes of explosive material near a residential area and for years ignored warnings to confiscate this material attests to the level of negligence that the government has towards its citizens and its country. To say that the government’s negligence has devastated Beirut would be an understatement; at least 171 people have died, thousands are injured, and over 300,000 are now homeless. Since the explosion, the Prime Minster has resigned, protesters have returned to the streets, and Lebanese citizens are now determined to see the fall of the government. There are many uncertainties in the aftermath of this explosion, but one thing is certain for most, if not all, Lebanese people: the Lebanese government is solely to blame for this tragedy.

Due to government corruption and negligence, Lebanon has been slowly moving towards total collapse. As the country reels further into political, social, and economic unrest, the people of Lebanon have become more and more convinced that the government is not concerned with either their protection or livelihood. However, this is not the first time the Lebanese people have suffered at the hands of their government, and for this reason, voices of resilience and hope are ringing through the streets of Lebanon; just as the people of Lebanon have overcome other hardships before, they have a conviction that they too will overcome this. As a testament to this, many Lebanese people have been calling Beirut a phoenix, for despite the destruction caused by the explosion, the citizens of Lebanon believe that Beirut will rise from the ashes.

Oil: The World’s Black Gold?

Known as black gold, petroleum has long been, a valuable resource that many of us benefit from during our daily lives. The petroleum industry’s products range from transportation to even the feedstocks that make the “plastics and synthetic materials that are in nearly everything we use.” Shockingly, the United States has consumed almost 7.5 billion barrels of oil per year, with about 46% of it used as motor gasoline. However, “there is an alarming record of human rights abuses by governments and corporations associated with fossil fuel operations,” ranging from relocation to even suppression of critics.

What is Petroleum?

An image of a pipe pouring some type of green substance, oil in particular, into a barrel.
Recirculated petroleum is pumped from the well by a replica steam engine. Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons.

Known officially as crude oil, petroleum is a fossil fuel that can be found underneath the Earth’s surface in areas known as reservoirs. Petroleum is mainly used for gasoline that fuels most cars in the world. Petroleum is also used as diesel, jet fuel, heating oil, propane, and others.

However, petroleum is not just a fuel source. Many factories and production sites use petroleum in order to make “crayons, dishwashing liquids, deodorant, eyeglasses, tires, and ammonia.”

Beginnings of the Petroleum Industry

An image of an oil well, colored black, in the process of digging for oil. Located in Lufkin, Texas.
Pumpjack, Spindletop oil field. Source: Flickr, Creative Commons

Through the growing and prosperous iron and steel industry, the 20th century became a period of “great change and rapid industrialization.” However, the birth of the railroad and new construction materials gave way to the petroleum industry offering an alternative source of fuel needed in everyday life.

In Texas, the discovery of the Spindletop oil reserve allowed for the creation of hundreds of oil companies, especially Texaco and Golf, and for the massive decrease in oil prices, from “$2 a barrel to 3 cents.” In 1901, the Hamill brothers, contracted to drill into the ground using a steam engine, came into contact with 160-million-year-old crude oil, shooting up in a geyser meters high. They had anticipated 50 barrels of oil being produced in a day, but more than 80,000 barrels were being produced each day, enriching the backers of the oil rig exponentially.

When talking about the history of oil, one must never forget one of the key figures in the industry, John D. Rockefeller. Through his experience in entrepreneurship and organization, he became a leading figure in the oil industry by creating the Standard Oil company, one of the “world’s greatest corporations.” Through a monopoly, his company integrated itself both horizontally and vertically by eliminating competition and making products cheaper and production more efficient.

The discovery of the Spindletop oil reserve allowed for competition against Standard Oil, through the rise of the Texas Company and the American Gasoline Company (Shell Company of California during the mid-1910s). However, because of Standard Oil’s attempts to “monopolize and restrain trade,” the Supreme Court decided to split up the company into 34 smaller companies.

Oil in the World

Reserves can be found all over the world, but there are countries that produce more oil simply due to the vast reserves found underneath the Earth’s surface. In the United States, the five largest oil producing states are Texas, Alaska, California, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. In the world, the top oil producing countries are Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United States, Iran, and China. The need for oil in the United States surpasses the amount it can produce, generating the need to import oil from Canada, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Venezuela, and Nigeria.

Looking closely at the top producers of oil in the world, you may notice that two countries in the top five are countries in the Middle East, each with their own host of problems regarding human rights. They range from Saudi Arabia’s supposed killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 and the killing of more than 6,500 Yemeni civilians as a result of numerous airstrikes against the Houthi rebels to Iran’s crackdown on peaceful protestors and the presence of Iran’s death penalty for most extreme offenses. Allegations of human rights abuses also extend to China as well, where Xi Jingping has removed term limits for the president and enabled the mistreatment of Muslims living in northwestern China. Many consider these human rights issues are due to something called the “Resource Curse,” where the abundance of natural resources in developing countries, like oil, usually lead to “economic instability, social conflict, and lasting environmental damage.”

Oil and Human Rights in the United States

If you read the news as much as I had a couple of years back, then you might recall a certain conflict occurring in North Dakota regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline. The Dakota Access Pipeline, built by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, is designed to transport more than 500,000 barrels of crude oil everyday from North Dakota to Illinois. Proposed by Energy Transfer Partners in 2014 and completed in 2017, many interest groups protested the pipeline, ranging from environmental activists to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.

An image of protesters holding up a banner with the words "STOP DAKOTA ACCESS PIPELINE" across it.
Dakota Access Pipeline protesters against Donald Trump

The pipeline currently travels under the Missouri River, a source of drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe as well as a source of biodiversity in the environment. Part of the reason for the protests include the damage to the water supply that said pipeline could inflict if leaking occurs which is justifiable due to the more than 3,300 occurrences of leaks since 2010 at many pipelines in the United States.

An image of the route of the Dakota Access Pipeline, with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe tribal location highlighted as well, showing where the pipeline would threaten those tribal areas.
Le Dakota Access Pipeline avec la réserve indienne de Standing Rock en orange. Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons.

Reactions towards the protestors have also been extreme, as Maina Kiai, UN Special Rapporteur, has reported. The North Dakota National Guard, law enforcement officials, and private security organizations have used extreme force, shown through the use of “rubber bullets, tear gas, mace, compression grenades, and bean-bag rounds.” These reactions have been in violation of the U.S. Constitution, specifically the First Amendment. Although some protests have become violent, Kiai suggests that “the response should remain strictly proportionate and should not impact those who protest peacefully.”

“The right to freedom of peaceful assembly is an individual right and it cannot be taken away indiscriminately or en masse due to the violent actions of a few.” — Maina Kiai

By also having part of their cultural homeland destroyed during the construction process, the company contracted for this project is violating the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, where Article 8 of the Declaration clearly states that “Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture.” However, it is clear to note that U.S. support does not consider the Declaration as a “legally binding or a statement of current international law,” but instead a political or moral force.

Economic trends and forces have commanded the way in which our country has treated those who have been disenfranchised and harmed culturally. The creation of the Dakota Access Pipeline is merely an example of the effect that these economic interests can have on native populations, the environment, and the treatment of those peacefully protesting. Although the pipeline’s main intent is to provide a source of energy for the United States, the threat to harm a cultural tribal site can lead to the destruction of homes for many residents.

The State of Incarceration in Alabama

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending the Organized Radical Collegiate Activism (ORCA) Conference organized by the UAB Social Justice Advocacy Council on January 24, 2020. Various important and interesting social justice issues were discussed and presented by talented UAB students throughout the day. The presentation that stood out the most to me was “The State of Incarceration in Alabama” by Eli and Bella Tylicki. The brother-and-sister duo did a great job bringing attention to a very important human rights issue right here in Alabama.

Eli Tylicki and Bella Tylicki Source: ORCA 2020

The presentation started out with some questions for the attendees, such as what they thought were their odds of getting incarcerated at some point in their life? After some interesting responses from the audience, the presenters revealed that White men have a 7% chance of getting incarcerated at least once in their life, Hispanic men 17%, and African American men have the highest (32%) chance. However, women account for only 7% of the U.S. prison population. It was also revealed that the cost to imprison one person for a year in the U.S. is $36,299.25, or $99.45 per day.

As compared to other developed countries such as Canada, Germany, France, Italy, and the U.K, the United States has the highest number of incarcerated people per 100,000 population, almost three times more than these countries. The United States makes up roughly 5% of the world’s population but holds about 25% of the world’s prisoners. Shockingly, 31 U.S. states also have higher incarceration rates than any country in the world, and Alabama is among the worst in the country. Alabama exceeds national averages in virtually every category measured by states and the federal government, making the state’s prison system one of the most violent in the nation.

Source: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/global/2018.html

Now the question arises, why is the state of incarceration in the U.S. uniquely outrageous, and why is Alabama among the worst in this aspect? Many factors are responsible for such staggering statistics, including our economy built on slavery, poverty, tradition-based culture, fear and insecurity, systemic racism, educational inequity, and punitive cultural attitudes just to name a few. Focusing on Alabama, the presenters showed that Alabama’s prisons were revealed to be the most crowded in the country in 2017, with the prison suicide rate being three times more and the homicide rate ten times more than the national average. On April 2, 2019, the U.S Department of Justice Report concluded that “there is reasonable cause to believe that the conditions in Alabama’s prisons for men violate the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Department concluded that there is reasonable cause to believe that the men’s prisons fail to protect prisoners from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse and fail to provide prisoners with safe conditions.” Note that the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the infliction of excessive, cruel, and unusual punishment.

The presenters then went on to show the various horrific accounts of prisoner violence, sexual abuse, homicide cases, and extreme physical injuries during a single week in 2017 as reported by the investigation. It was extremely shocking to learn about the various instances of such abuse and violence that took place in just a single week in our prisons. Those examples were used to illustrate the gravity of ongoing issues in state prisons and are not mentioned here due to their disturbing and triggering nature. Additionally, overcrowding and understaffing are some very important issues that contribute to the worsening situation of prisons in Alabama. According to the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC), the state houses approximately 16,327 prisoners in major correctional facilities which are designed to hold only 9,882. Moreover, prisons like Staton and Kilby hold almost three times the number of prisoners than their capacity. As for understaffing, Alabama’s prisons employ only 1,072 out of the 3,326 needed correctional officers according to ADOC’s staffing report from June 2018. It also reported that three prisons have fewer than 20% of the needed correctional officers. This illustrates the increased threat to the safety of both the staff and the prisoners in those facilities due to the lack of required personnel in case of an emergency.

Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Common

The Department of Justice also reported the excessive number of deaths due to violent and deadly assault, high number of life-threatening injuries, unchecked extortions, illegal drugs, and the routinely inability to adequately protect prisoners even when officials have advance warning. The report also threatened a lawsuit within 49 days if the state does not show that it is correcting what is said to be a systemic failure to protect inmates from violence and sexual abuse.

In response, Alabama’s Governor Kay Ivey has proposed a public-private partnership to lease three “megaprisons” from a private firm as a solution to the understaffing and cost-ineffective conditions in state prisons. Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said that “we are convinced now more than ever before that consolidating our infrastructure down to three regional facilities and decommissioning the majority of our major facilities is the way to go.”

Bella and Eli Tylicki gave an overview of the potential pros and cons of the megaprison proposal. Some advantages may be that the upfront costs will be covered, and it may prove as a quick fix with less red tape (a reduction of bureaucratic obstacles to action). However, privatized prisons may lead to a decreased quality of life, is economically inefficient, and there is no change in cost for taxpayers. The Equal Justice Initiative explains how building new prisons will not solve the state’s prison crisis:

Alabama’s primary problems relate to management, staffing, poor classification, inadequate programming for incarcerated people, inadequate treatment programs, poor training, and officer retention. None of these problems will be solved by building new prisons, nor does a prison construction strategy respond to the imminent risk of harm to staff, incarcerated people, and the public.

Therefore, the presenters proposed an alternative to this solution in the form of decarceration and rehabilitation of prisoners. This aims at fixing overcrowding and understaffing, decreases the inside violence, and costs less for taxpayers. Additionally, there is no change in crime rate outside the prisons and rehabilitation leads toward GDP growth and a more productive society. Studies have shown that incarcerated people who participate in correctional education programs are less likely to recidivate and have a higher chance of finding employment when they are released. Plus, these valuable educational and rehabilitative programs cost the state nothing while having significant positive effects on successful re-entry of prisoners and protecting public safety. Of course, there will need to be more done other than just an emphasis on decarceration, such as fixing the infrastructure, improving healthcare, and incentivizing an increase in Correctional Officers. Low-cost reforms such as effective use of video surveillance cameras, implementation of an internal classification system, skilled management, and other basic management systems such as incident tracking systems, quality control, and corrective action review can result in significant improvements in conditions for both the staff and the prisoners. These low-cost reforms helped the nation’s worst women prison, the Tutwiler Prison for Women, become a model for reform.

The Tylickis ended their presentation with a call for action by urging the audience members to call their state representatives and senators to take responsible action, as they will be voting on this issue in the coming weeks. Additionally, they asked us to volunteer with reentry organizations and educate ourselves and others on the issue. Some initiatives that we can support include The Dannon Project, Alabama Appleseed, and the Equal Justice Initiative. We, as responsible and active citizens of this state, need to play our part in making our society safe, just, and productive for all.

Examining Period Poverty

A worker trims and stacks sanitary pads before they are lined and sewn at the Afripads factory.
A worker trims and stacks sanitary pads, Source: Yahoo Images.

Period poverty is the lack of access to sanitary products, menstrual hygiene education, toilets, handwashing facilities, and or waste management. The term also refers to the increased economic vulnerability that women and girls face due to the financial burden posed by menstrual supplies. In least-developed and low-income countries, access to hygienic products such as pads, tampons, or cups is limited. This means that girls will often resort to using proxy materials such as mud, leaves, or animal skins to try to absorb the menstrual flow. As a result, such women are at a higher risk of developing certain urogenital infections, like yeast infections, vaginosis, or urinary tract infections. This becomes an issue because while the majority of women are of reproductive age, the majority of these women and girls are unable to practice proper hygiene practices. Consequently, women and girls around the world, especially in developing countries, face numerous challenges in managing their menstruation. Furthermore, some/many women are forced to approach this normal bodily function with silence due to stigma, as some communities consider menstruation to be taboo.

What causes period poverty?

One cause is that pads and other supplies may be unavailable or unaffordable. This means that women are often forced to choose between purchasing sanitary pads and different basic needs, or they may live in areas where there is no access to hygiene products at all. More importantly, young girls may lack access to toilet facilities with clean water to clean themselves while on their periods. In addition, discriminatory cultural norms make it challenging to maintain good menstrual hygiene as women often have to hide, or the community may not put enough effort into establishing hygiene facilities or practices around them. Also, some women and girls lack the necessary education and information about menstruation and good hygiene practices because topics around menstruation and proper hygiene practices are rarely discussed in families or schools.

What is more, other girls may experience menstruation with little or no knowledge of what is happening. This makes it harder for women to adopt sanitary practices because most remain unaware of recommended hygiene practices. In many communities, menstruating girls and women are still banned from kitchens, crop fields, or places of worship. There is also the issue of forced secrecy in communities where girls are exposed to ‘menstrual etiquette.’ This etiquette encourages the careful management of blood flow and discomfort and the importance of keeping menstruation hidden from boys and men.

A Human Rights Issue.

It is important to consider gender inequality, extreme poverty, and harmful traditions as the source of menstrual hygiene deprivation and stigma. This often leads to exclusion from public life, heightened vulnerability, and creates barriers to opportunities such as employment, sanitation, and health.

Some of the human rights that are undermined by period poverty include,

  • The right to human dignity– When women and girls cannot access safe bathing facilities and safe and effective means of managing their menstrual hygiene, they are not able to manage their menstruation with dignity. Menstruation-related teasing, exclusion, and shame also undermine the right to human dignity.
  • The right to an adequate standard of health and well-being Women and girls may experience negative health consequences when they lack the supplies and facilities to manage their menstrual health. Menstruation stigma can also prevent women and girls from seeking treatment for menstruation-related disorders or pain, adversely affecting their health and well-being.
  • The right to education  Lack of a safe place or ability to manage menstrual hygiene as well as lack of medication to treat menstruation-related pain can all contribute to higher rates of school absenteeism and poor educational outcomes. Some studies have confirmed that when girls are unable to manage menstruation in school properly, their academics and performance suffer.
  • The right to work  Poor access to safe means of managing menstrual hygiene and lack of medication to treat menstruation-related disorders or pain also limit job opportunities for women and girls. They may refrain from taking specific jobs, or they may be forced to forgo working hours and wages. Menstruation-related needs, such as bathroom breaks, may be penalized, leading to unequal working conditions. And women and girls may face workplace discrimination related to menstruation taboos.
  • The right to non-discrimination and gender equality Stigmas and norms related to menstruation can reinforce discriminatory practices. Menstruation-related barriers to school, work, health services, and public activities also perpetuate gender inequalities.

What is being done?

In spite of the issues presented, it is essential to acknowledge that a lot is being done around the world to help eradicate period poverty.

For example, UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund), has various approaches to promoting and improving menstrual health around the world. Some of them include,

  • UNFPA reaches women and girls directly with menstrual supplies and safe sanitation facilities. In humanitarian emergencies, UNFPA distributes dignity kits, which contain disposable and reusable menstrual pads, underwear, soap, and related items. (In 2017, 484,000 dignity kits were distributed in 18 countries.)
  • The UN organization also promotes menstrual health information and skills building. For example, some UNFPA programs teach girls to make reusable sanitary napkins. Others raise awareness about menstrual cups.
  • Furthermore, the organization aims to improve education and information about menstruation as human rights concerns. This is done through its youth programs and comprehensive sexuality education efforts, such as the Y-Peer program.
  • UNFPA also procures reproductive health commodities that can be useful for treating menstruation-related disorders. For instance, hormonal contraceptive methods can be used to treat symptoms of endometriosis and reduce excessive menstrual bleeding.
  • Similarly, UNFPA is helping to gather data and evidence about menstrual health and its connection to global development. For instance, UNFPA supported surveys provide critical insight into girls’ and women’s knowledge about their menstrual cycles, health, and access to sanitation facilities. A recent UNFPA publication offers a critical overview of the menstrual health needs of women and girls in the Eastern and Southern Africa region.

 Further Recommendations

While there exists a lot of support to help end period poverty, there is still a lot that can be done to improve access to sanitary products, menstrual hygiene education, toilets, handwashing facilities, and, or waste management. Human Rights Watch and WASH United recommend that groups which provide services to women, evaluate their programs to determine whether a woman or girl has,

  • Adequate, acceptable, and affordable menstrual management materials;
  • Access to appropriate facilities, sanitation, infrastructure, and supplies to enable women and girls to change and dispose of menstrual materials; and
  • Knowledge of the process of menstruation and options available for menstrual hygiene management.

Practitioners engaged in programming or advocacy related to menstrual management should also,

  • Have an awareness of stigma and harmful practices related to menstruation in the specific cultural context where they are working.
  • Support efforts to change harmful cultural norms and practices that stigmatize menstruation and menstruating women and girls;
  • Address discrimination that affects the ability to deal with menstruation, including for women and girls with disabilities
  • Be aware of and incorporate human rights principles in their programming and advocacy, including the right to participate in decision-making and to get information.

Moreover, women and girls must have access to water and sanitation. This will allow the establishment of private areas to change sanitary cloths or pads, clean water for washing their hands and used fabrics, and facilities for safely disposing of used materials or drying them if reusable.  It is also imperative that both men and women have a greater awareness of menstrual hygiene. This means that training and learning courses should be made available for women and young to teach them the importance of menstrual hygiene and the proper practices. Likewise, educating boys on the challenges and struggles girls face could help reduce stigma and help them become more understanding and supportive husbands and fathers. Less work has been done in this area, but the benefits of educating boys about adolescence for both themselves and female students are increasingly being recognized.

It is essential to acknowledge that there is still limited evidence to understand women’s use of sanitation and menstrual management facilities. Therefore, there is a need for individuals to pay special attention to the needs of women and girls all over the world.

Predatory Preparers: Exploitation Through Tax Returns

2 tax return forms, a 2018 tax return form and 2017 tax return form, black glasses and a calculator.
2 tax return forms, a 2018 tax return form and 2017 tax return form, black glasses and a calculator. Source: DPP Business And Tax https://www.dpp-businesstax.com/, Creative Commons

For most adults in the United States, the year starts with the tax season.  During this time, they have their tax returns prepared and filed and either pay any taxes they owe or receive a refund if they overpaid their taxes throughout the prior year.  This year, the tax season began on January 28 and continues until April 15.  There are a few different ways one can go about filing their tax return.  One way is to purchase an IRS-approved tax preparation software, like TurboTax or TaxSlayer, and file their return on their own.  One could also prepare their return manually, but the IRS prefers that people file electronically to decrease potential errors.  The last method is to seek out the help of a professional through a commercial tax preparation organization or a non-profit one.  Commercial organizations often take advantage of the low-income filers whose returns they prepare and who often qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit, which results in a larger refund. 

The Earned Income Tax Credit 

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) provides a subsidy to households with low incomes.  It was created in 1975 with the intentions of temporarily lessening the tax-burden for the working-poor after the 1973-1975 recession.  In 1978, the Revenue Act turned it into a permanent credit.  Since its creation, the EITC has been adjusted many times to make it more effective and requires tax-filers to meet certain criteria to receive it.  Since being implemented, the EITC program has distributed about $67 billion to about 28 million families. 

Qualifications for the credit include being a U.S. citizen or resident alien all year, not being married while filing separately from one’s spouse, having an investment income of $3,500 or less, not being a qualifying child of someone else, and having a valid Social Security Number by the due date of the return.  The amount of money that qualified individuals receive for the EITC depends on factors such as “earned income, gross adjusted income, filing status and whether or not they have a qualifying child.” 

The Problem 

Many people choose to file their taxes through for-profit tax-prep organizations.  These organizations are often concentrated in areas where a large percentage of the population is made up of people with lower incomes who qualify for significant refunds through the Earned Income Tax Credit program.  They prey on the people who need the money from the EITC the most.   

In order to increase their profit, they put a great deal of effort into publicizing their services in a way that overshadows the far less expensive, sometimes even free, methods of filing tax returns.  Paul Weinstein, who co-authored a study on tax preparers with the Brookings Institution and the Progressive Policy Institute, suggests that most taxpayers could “have their taxes prepared for less than $100.”  According to Weinstein, tax-filers spend an average of $275 on the preparation of their taxes during the filing season.  The authors of the study found that individuals filing for the EITC spent $309 in Washington D.C. and $509 in Baltimore.  This means that these individuals were spending between 13 and 21 percent of their return to cover the cost of tax-preparation. 

There has also been evidence that suggests that individuals who qualify for the EITC and file through professional tax-preparers are more likely to have errors in their tax return than those who do not qualify for the EITC.  According to an investigation by the Government Accountability Office in 2015, about 60% of all professionally prepared taxes had errors, while between 89% and 94% of filers who qualified for the EITC had errors in their professionally prepared taxes.  This is a problem of significant concern, since people with low incomes are more likely to be audited by the IRS.  For people who receive the EITC, this could result in their refund being withheld until the end of the auditing process. 

Predatory tax-prep organizations may often go unnoticed, but many are recognized and forced to face the legal repercussions of their actions.  For example, Laquinta Q. Fisher of Lawton, Oklahoma was found guilty of a tax fraud scheme on January 24, 2017.  After lying to her clients and telling them that they could receive a refund for simply having a dependent child, she added fake income and fake dependents to their returns to increase their EIC.  She “was sentenced to 18 months in prison, three years of supervised release, and ordered to pay $133,955 in restitution to the IRS…” 

Scrabble pieces spelling out "Earned Income Tax Credit."
Earned income tax credit stock photo. Source: Simon Cunningham, Creative Commons

Signs of a Predatory Tax-Prep Organization 

There are a few warnings signs you may want to look out for if you are concerned that a tax-prep organization may be predatory.  Since these groups target low-income tax return-filers, they often tell potential clients that they can promise them a large refund.  One red flag to watch for is if a preparer is being paid based on a percentage of the refund their client receives.  They have a clear source of motivation for trying to increase the refund.   

It is also possible that such an organization would have false credentials.  Every tax preparer is legally required to have a Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN).  The IRS has a directory of PTINs that can be used to look up a preparer with their name and location.  The PTIN can tell you if the preparer is “a certified public accountant, enrolled agent or a lawyer.”  It is also important to note that the directory does not prove that a preparer is qualified.  It is also a red flag if an organization suggests that they are endorsed by the IRS, as the IRS does not endorse any tax preparers. 

Another warning sign is if a preparer does their work in “temporary pop-up shops” that will be gone after the tax season ends.  In that case, there is no office for you to go to if any problems arise with your tax return.  It is a red flag if the preparer says that they will deposit you refunded into their bank account or asks you to sign a return that is incomplete.  

Why Is This A Human Rights Issue? 

In addition to being ethically questionable, the actions of commercial organizations that prey on low-income households also have the potential to negatively impact people’s access to their human rights.  For many people who are targeted by these organizations, every single dollar counts.  Every penny of the tax refund they receive is used to pay for the necessities, like food, water, power, rent, and clothing.  According to Article 25 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services…”  Many households rely on the refund they receive to access this right.  It is important that we spread awareness of this issue so we can prevent as many people as possible from being exploited by tax-prep organizations and connect them with the resources they need. 

Impact America: SaveFirst 

Impact America, originally Impact Alabama, is a non-profit organization that was founded to develop “substantive service-learning and leadership development projects for college students and recent college graduates.”  SaveFirst is one of Impact America’s programs, which provides free tax preparation services in communities which are often targeted by predatory tax-prep organizations.  College students who volunteer with SaveFirst are trained and IRS certified to prepare tax returns.  In 2018 alone, SaveFirst was able to prepare tax returns for 13,713 families and saved those families $5.5 million in fees.  Since 2007, they have prepared returns for 76,867 families and saved them $26.2 million.  The work done by Impact America helps to decrease the number of people that are being exploited by predatory organizations by giving them access to much better resources and services. 

If you are interested in scheduling an appointment with SaveFirst at one of their many tax-prep locations, you can do so here.