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The language around how we describe the inequalities across the American landscape is always evolving. At one point, the federal government decided to describe neighborhoods or regions that lacked commutable access to grocery stores or other vendors that might carry healthy, nutritional foods as "food deserts." Now, collectively, we're being more succinct about the problem.
We're calling it what it is: Food apartheid.
In many ways, apartheid is a synonym for segregation, albeit in the sense that it can be more widely applied across assets like housing or land ownership—and, in this case, food.
I have two guests this week, in tandem. Y'all might be familiar with Margee Green, the executive director of SPROUT NOLA, a former Louisiana agriculture commissioner candidate, and the inaugural Salt, Soil, & Supper guest last summer. Joining Margee today is Amy Ndiaye, a senior at Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans and an avid community gardener who finds herself thinking about many of the issues mentioned below.
Xander Peters: In terms of gardening, where do you think the work to end food apartheid starts?
Amy Ndiaye: One thing that I love about gardening is that it's much more than just putting plants in the ground. I think especially with community gardening, you have this much, much wider system of things that you're tackling—and also dealing with—within your community. When you talk about food apartheid, and how that intersects with community gardens that specifically sprout up because they might be in a situation where food apartheid is rampant in their community, I think the work really starts with building that community. I think that's why community gardens are so important in combating [food apartheid], because they not only disrupt our current food system and supply chain by centering food sovereignty, but they also center people and education over profit. So, just having a community garden can bring people in. We see this at SPROUT all the time, when people just walk by and they stop. It gets people interested in what's going on. And when they come in, that's where the work begins [as it relates to] building that community around the people and educating people.
XP: Do you have anything to add to that, Margee?
Margee Green: I 100 percent agree with everything Amy said. When people are engaging with their food, I feel like that's the key. We have to find those ways to do it, like community gardening. I think once people are in gardens, they have more choice over what they want to grow. When we build community around foods, [we see] people who are looking for plants that they remember from their youth, or [who are] learning about plants from other people's culture.
We grow peppers a lot. It's Louisiana, and we have such a strong relationship with peppers. Historical events and everyone's individual culture also have a relationship with different kinds of peppers. Not every culture does, but many do. We see people say, 'I'm looking for this pepper that I remember from my childhood,' or like, 'I'm looking for this pepper that my mom uses in cooking,' or something like that. That's where we can actually seek those things out together and give people greater control over the specific food that they're interacting with, and that they might not be able to find in a grocery store, or that they might not be able to find in an affordable way, like online or by going to any sort of ethnic food store. They actually have the control to grow the things that are important to them, instead of waiting around for an industrialized food system to provide them. Like Amy said, those things are not going to be profitable, because they're emotional. Generally, the emotion or sentimentality that one person has wrapped up in a very specific Hungarian pepper is never going to be grown on scale, but we can grow it together. Then, because we have relationships, we can learn about each other's food cultures. That, to me, feels like it's like super saccharin—but it's also definitely an act of resistance, bringing your food with you and sharing it in a way that you're empowered to share it; it doesn't feel like colonizing.
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XP: When we look at food apartheid at the macro-level, it's this sprawling issue. But on the micro-level, what particular aspects of food apartheid should we try to tackle first if we're to solve the larger issue at hand?
AN: I think that, obviously, the long-term goal is to start reversing some of the historical disinvestment in these communities. That's a larger issue that will have to do with policies and ensuring grants and benefits and things like that. But I think the starting place is with the terminology. Saying 'food deserts' is basically taking away the life and potential of these communities. 'Food desert' is essentially just saying it's about a lack of access to food when that's not really the case. Talking about it as apartheid, oppression, or something else—that gives it justice, identifying that it's not just about a proximity issue as it is a much larger issue, like you just said. From there, I think we can start actually identifying the specific causes in specific neighborhoods, because it's a complex issue. Not every neighborhood is the same in their history, or in what's currently happening. I feel like the biggest thing for an individual to do right now, to learn more about why that terminology is detrimental.
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MG: Growing food in communities is a pretty radical and old act. I think one of the things that's happened as we've commodified food more and more, and commodified green space more and more, is that community gardens have lost their teeth–their politics. We hear people be like, 'I don't actually want to engage with the political part of it; I just want to grow food.' That sort of undercuts the fact that growing your own food, which is often more expensive to some degree than buying food from the most affordable place in your neighborhood, or in a neighborhood that you might be able to get to on public transportation, is inherently a political act. Because, if I were able to say I don't care what kind of greens I'm getting, I just need greens, then you're going to go to the most affordable option.
But if you're like, it is important to me to have this relationship with my food, because I feel like I have been separated from that relationship with my food, for whatever reason—for some people, it's just sentimentality—but for others, it's racialized, or it's about a culture they've been separated from. When we have relationships with gardens, and we begin to talk about why we're doing what we're doing, and use these words to describe it, or to share conversation about it, then we're actually making some kind of difference.
This last weekend, Amy and I were in the community garden, and a lot of people were all having a group discussion about our impact in the neighborhood and the racialized food system. If we were to just kind of say anyone can come in and use this space, and you don't have to have community agreements or relationships with one another, that wouldn't really be a community garden. I don't even know what we would call that. But by nature of us having deeper relationships, and talking about our food, and having a place where we can start saying this is systemic oppression and it's being borne out in food, then I think that's the first step.
Personally, I don't want to make everyone's day a bummer all the time, but I think community gardens have to have deeper conversations and build real relationships and talk about things like food apartheid amongst themselves. That feels like where this all kind of starts, because then people, when they're looking at their bottom line, they're like, I didn't save money by being a community gardener. But I did have a richer experience in my neighborhood. And I do have deeper relationships with other people that made me feel like I'm better connected to the bigger picture and frankly, in some situations, more angry. I think that people can engage with all of the other things in their life that maybe are overlapping and intersectionally oppressed as well. When we're in a community garden, and we're having real conversations, it's impossible not to talk about gentrification.
AN: Like Margee was talking about, when we were having conversation the other day at the garden, we were talking about the gentrification of this neighborhood. I think I had said something as in the past tense, and then [fellow community gardener] Blake was like, 'The community wasn't changed, it is currently being changed.' When she said that, that kind of changed my whole perspective, even though I understand the concept of gentrification, and I see it around me. But making sure that we talk about it in that way even changed my perspective even more. I think it's the same way with saying food deserts versus food apartheid, or food oppression. Food desert inherently [implies it's] natural, like this is something that's occurring.
MG: It's the naming of the problem, so when you name the element, it implies the solution. That's the thing I think about all the time. We'll have people, especially people who are traveling, come through and be like, wow, what an amazing community garden in a food desert, which is very funky because the community garden is behind a Whole Foods. It is an underserved neighborhood in that Whole Foods does not solve food insecurity in that neighborhood, as we know. But if you call it a food desert, then the answer is, 'Build a grocery store.' The route people don't want to go down with me, but I'm like, why do you think no one builds the grocery store? And then you get to see everybody's racial bias or economic analysis that doesn't totally make sense, where they [will say] , 'People just don't have enough money to buy the food at the grocery store.' And it's like, so you're telling me the problem is not enough food, but then also the problem is that not enough people buy food. Is it possible that we're talking about massive income inequality? People don't want to take it to the logical conclusion. I feel like saying 'food desert' is our way of not taking it to its logical conclusion. Whereas if you say 'food apartheid,' race is already there. It's not just about food access.