“Come take a seat at the table, and dig in.”
When you hear this, it’s not just an invitation to eat, it’s an invitation to participate in community, to be a part of something. As food can nourish the body, the communal interaction can feed the soul and nourish social bonds. The connection between food and culture is strong: when one is disrupted, so is the other. What happens to our bodies and neighborhoods when we lose access to healthy and diverse foods? What happens when the table disappears or the institutional and cultural memory of food preparation is chipped away?
What does America do when the food system remains effectively segregated, much like lunch counters before the Civil Rights Movement?
Like an array of dishes at a big flavorful dinner, the causes of food insecurity are multi-faceted and complexly inter-related: poverty, geographic access, economic access, and white supremacy all play critical roles in an inequitable food system. Today, we’ll discuss the racialization of food insecurity, and how this affects the growth of Black communities and Black bodies. We’ll also look at the array of homegrown solutions and grassroots initiatives to rebuild access sustainable food access.
A 2016 study by the USDA found that of some 120 million households in the United States — around 12 percent — were “food insecure,” meaning that at “times during the year, these households were uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources for food.” The study found that food insecurity was higher in Black households.
The USDA also maintains a Food Access Research Atlas — an interactive map where you can see “food access indicators” and different measures of supermarket accessibility (aka ‘food deserts’) — as well as a Food Environment Atlas, which includes “food environment factors” like store/restaurant proximity, food prices, and food/nutrition assistance programs.
Food access advocates have staged walks to call attention to harmful food deserts, areas without supermarkets and access to quality healthy items like produce. In some cases, one tricky-to-study practice, called “retail redlining,” may be playing a role, City Lab reports. In the context of grocery stories, “redlining refers to the “spatially discriminatory practice” of not serving certain communities because of their ethnic or racial composition, rather than their economic prospects.”
Inevitably, these conditions result in aggravated health issues, particularly diabetes and obesity. The State of Obesity report (A project of the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation) found that:
“Obesity disproportionately affects low-income and rural communities as well as certain racial and ethnic groups, including Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans. Societal inequities contribute to these disparities. For example, in many communities, children have few safe outdoor spaces to play or accessible routes to walk or bike to school. Their neighborhoods may often be food deserts, having small food outlets and fast-food restaurants that sell and advertise unhealthy food and beverages, but lacking those with fresh and healthy foods at affordable prices. Thus, addressing the obesity epidemic is also a fight for health equity.”
So the solution is to build more grocery stores selling fresh produce in low-income neighborhoods, right? Not so fast — it might be more complicated than that. A recent piece in Gawker summarized the issues by focusing on a new Safeway that was constructed in the Petworth area of D.C.
It replaced an old building (yay) and has more fresh produce (excellent), but that produce comes at a cost that many of the neighborhoods residents can’t afford. Those residents (many of whom are Black and Latinx) then have to travel longer distances to get access to fresh food. The new store is, however (surprise!) serving to gentrify the neighborhood, driving rent prices up and forcing residents to leave the area.
Betsy Breyer from Portland State University said (while commenting on the fact that residents of a Portland neighborhood were pushing back against the construction of a Trader Joe’s in the area) that often “[building (more expensive) grocery stores in low-income areas is] used as an excuse to push an agenda that had nothing to do with food access for low-income communities.”
They even included this handy graphic to illustrate the problem. In this graph dark colors indicate that the White/Black population ratio is increasing, yellow means it is decreasing. The moral of the story here might be, as it often is on BlackLight, that to actually address the problem (rather than only appear to do so) is the hard part. Who knew.
And you know who wants to make it worse? Our White Supremacist in Chief. With the President’s FY 2019 Budget scheme, the current administration is looking to modify the current Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to replace the option of fresh fruit and vegetables with USDA Food Packages that contain “shelf-stable” milk, dried goods, and other cheap, preservative-laden products. They want to deliver food boxes to poor folks: is this another way to keep Black folks cooped up in their homes and reduce their freedoms even further? In a way, it makes sense that they would want to give Black folks Made-Ready-to-Eat meals, like the ones give U.S. soldiers, as if they’re tacitly acknowledging that they are fighting a war against Black America.
It doesn’t help matters that notions of health and fitness in the US are steeped in normative whiteness. Let’s do a quick thought experiment: picture a yoga instructor. What do they look like?
Here’s what Google thinks a yoga instructor looks like:
OK, so maybe that was too specific. Let’s just try “healthy woman”. What does a healthy woman look like?
Here’s what Google thinks a healthy woman looks like:
Black women are almost nowhere to be found in common notions of “health” and “fitness”, which center thin, white women, who are often blonde. Searching on yoga instructor did not, for example, bring up Jessamyn Stanley, who has nearly 360k followers on Instagram. If you think she’s “not the typical yoga instructor”– ask yourself: WHY?
Normative whiteness in notions of healthy eating and fitness is a way of gentrifying human bodies: the fetishization of health, so often associated with whiteness and wealth, effectively pushes out any possibility for Black people to occupy that space. The accompanying gentrification of neighborhoods– via expensive grocery stores, pricey fitness studios, etc.– is the manifestation of these ideas in physical infrastructure. Both figuratively and literally, there is no space for the Black body to exist, unless being pathologized.
As noted earlier, solutions to food access (and health, more broadly) are often not created with other social factors in mind. Socioeconomic disparity for Black and brown people often means not only less capital in terms of actual money, but also less capital in terms of time and energy. Even grocery stores or accessible fitness centers available in predominantly Black neighborhoods can’t address the fatigue of someone coming home from their second or third job and needing to feed their family. Often, factors like these are easy prey for food swamps– the abundant availability of cheap, unhealthful fast food in poorer neighborhoods. Here again, the US neoliberal focus on individual choices places blame on the residents of the neighborhood for eating fast food or drinking soda, without engaging with the policies and conditions that allowed corporations (again, usually owned by wealthy white people) to set up camp in these neighborhoods to begin with.
There are many people working to explore Black-centered contexts in American food history and to make food more just. For example, culinary historian Michael Twitty has taken “A Journey through African-American Culinary History in the Old South” in his book The Cooking Gene. In this memoir, Twitty looks at the origins of southern Black cooking through the lens of his personal ancestry. This includes working in fields and cooking in old- old- old-school kitchens to re-create the experience of his enslaved ancestors. By Any Greens Necessary (a questionable pun on Malcolm X’s clarion call to Black America) published an African American Vegan Starter Guide to help people shift to a diet richer in plants. Savi Horne works with Black farmers on the Land Loss Prevention Project, because “food justice requires land justice.” Mobile groceries like the Fresh Moves bus take fresh foods into food deserts. And Black organizers are raising awareness of food issues in communities, urging people to join urban farms and support Black local/family-owned businesses when possible. Agriculturist, Will Allen started Growing Power in the 1990’s in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Growing Power is a non-profit that supports community-based, grassroots (a better pun) food systems. In his words: “It’s the future of our food system if we want healthy local food, our new generation of farmers … [are] not going to come from rural communities … [are] not going to come from traditional farm families, because those things don’t exist in our system anymore. These new farmers are going to come from folks that live in the city.”
“What you see in these greenhouses is about relationship-building. I don’t build gardens with fences.”
But fixing access to food isn’t easy. Growing Power closed at the end of 2017 due to financial difficulties – so remember to support the organizations doing this good work so they can keep fighting.
In places like Detroit, Devita Davison and the folks at FoodLab Detroit are also working to bring urban farming to an area that Devita describes as the ‘poster child for urban decay’.
In her recent TED talk, Ms. Davison describes how exactly this decay has become their strength, as they use the vacant land to create a grassroots movement of growing and sustainable development.
These sorts of agriculture initiatives not only brings community together, but celebrates the ‘homegrown’ nature of Detroit and the food she now produces. Rather than gentrifying by bringing in large stores and pushing residents out, the residents themselves are creating solutions that fit their needs and building up vibrant new growing communities and entrepreneurial ventures, including restaurants like Detroit Vegan Soul.
When it comes to modern food security and Black America, we need to look at the multiple causes and solutions. It’s not just food.