COVID-19, Food Insecurity, and Vaccinations: Practical Solutions for Addressing Structural Inequality

April 21, 2021

Written by Sarah Gibes

Structural social inequality continues to impede West Michigan’s environmental health and wellness. In order to create truly functional communities, it’s important for the environmental movement to develop policies that address structural inequalities, in order to develop socially viable, strong opportunities for all. 

And that includes breaking barriers that prevent BIPOC communities from accessing COVID-19 vaccines.

There are many barriers that impede members of BIPOC communitie from thriving. Nutrition is a significant one. BIPOC communities have less access to healthy, affordable grocery stores within walking distance of their communities. 

Nutrition, the Polar Vortex, and COVID-19

During the Polar Vortex of 2019, when temperatures in Grand Rapids dropped to 40 degrees below zero, BIPOC communities suffered from lack of healthy, available nutrition. It wasn’t healthy to walk through the cold, and the bad weather shut down much of Grand Rapids’ public transportation system.” 

“Transportation is a key social determinant of health,” said Adnoris Torres, project supervisor at Strong Beginning – Healthy Start. “You can’t have opportunities unless you have a driver’s’ license.”

Numerous community organizations stepped up to address food insecurity issues during the pandemic. Churches worked together to rent a truck to deliver food to communities suffering from food insecurity. 

“We saw the need for pathlines for nutrition,” Torres said. “Community organizations had to stand up and work together to get the food into the communities that needed it, since transportation was such a huge issue.”

While the 2019 polar vortex brought up issues of social justice, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated all of the inequalities.

Language Barriers

“One big issue is language,” Torres said. “At the beginning of the pandemic, all of the materials from the Kent County Health Department explaining the pandemic and the precautions were in English. That doesn’t work for BIPOC communities that need to have materials in Spanish and other languages,” Torres said.

As a result of the linguistic disparities, it became clear that the Latinx community needed a liaison to mediate communication with the Kent County Health Department (KCHD). In order to meet the need, Latinx GR, a collaboration of Latinx-led community groups, came together to address multiple issues, including food insecurity, conditions of workers in food processing plants, and BIPOC communities whose essential workers were getting infected by COVID-19.

“Language played a huge role in identity,” Torres said. “People who had been called ‘illegal aliens’ became ‘essential workers’ literally overnight. But they did not get increased salaries, PPE, or stable documentation status.”

“The sudden change in language use didn’t translate into better living conditions,” Torres said. “It forces us to ask what the underlying issues are that we’re not engaging.”

Lantinx community organizations were essential to meeting the needs of the BIPOC communities. Multiple organizations had to work together to develop strong community bonds, secure food pathways, and improve the nutrition of affected communities.

The coalition was able to find culturally appropriate, healthy food from a USDA food program. They then connected with the FDA to make 1600 food boxes each week. The sticking point, however, was transportation; there wasn’t any way to bring the food to the communities that needed it.

In the end, a phone call to a local church resulted in the church renting semi trucks to transport food to the communities.

“Because we were active in the community, we knew what the community needed,” Torres said. “That knowledge, along with the willingness to reach out with a phone call, led to us being able to address needs.”

Compounded Inequality: Vaccination Accessibility and Education

COVID-19 vaccination rates are yet another point of concern for structural inequality stemming from the pandemic. 

According to the CDC, as of April 13, 2021, 65% of individuals who have received a COVID-19 vaccine were white, 11% are Hispanic, and 9% are black. “There is a consistent pattern across states of Black and Hispanic people receiving smaller shares of vaccinations compared to their share of cases and deaths and compared to their shares of the total population,” the CDC website said.

Distrust of medical services with BIPOC communities is one contributing factor toward the disparity.

“There is a distrust of health systems due to historical barriers established by the health institutions themselves,” Torres said.

In the past, BIPOC individuals have disproportionally suffered from medical malpractice, such as during the blatantly unethical Tuskegee syphilis study or the nonconsensual obstetrics research performed on women in Puerto Rico. Vaccine hesitancy in BIPOC communities is impacted by these historical realities.

Another barrier is lack of communication and education surrounding vaccines. Most educational and promotional materials surrounding the vaccinations are in English, and they are not widely circulated within BIPOC communities. To increase awareness and fight against misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccination, it’s essential for community leaders to work together and promote accurate information.

A final barrier to vaccinations within BIPOC communities, just as with other disparities, is the lack of transportation. Lack of adequate transportation to vaccination facilities prohibits many people from signing up for the vaccination.

“We need to build better systems,” Torres said. “We need better public transportation, we need trains, we need better apartment complexes and other infrastructure. These inequalities are only going to decrease when the infrastructure of our society does.”

In order to ensure that everyone in society, especially those who face disrimination, is able to live a full and healthy life, it’s essential to address the structural disparities, especially food security and safe, reliable and accessible infrastructure and transportation.

“We know what these disparities are, Torres said. “Most of the solutions aren’t groundbreaking. But we do need to move beyond conversation and build the social networks to get the infrastructure that’s needed to really solve these problems.”