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Where is your nearest grocery store? And what does that say about you?
I live in New Orleans' historic Lower Ninth Ward. The nearest grocery store is a ten-minute drive in either direction. There are also smaller markets within a few blocks of our home. For most folks, those are commutable by foot, and they're where you can find basic groceries—meat, potatoes, vegetables, eggs, bread—and a galore of junk food. According to the federal government's definition, it's a food desert. Ironic for a guy who writes recipes every week, right?
I get by because I have a reliable vehicle. I cook mostly fresh food because I can afford to buy it, or I've grown it myself. Some of my neighbors aren't as lucky. Grocery stores, or a lack thereof, are often an indicator of some of the larger structural forces at work.
Last week, we talked with two community gardeners in NOLA about reframing the term "food desert" and calling it food apartheid instead. That conversation really struck a chord with y'all.
That's why this week I'm re-upping a past conversation with Dr. Ashanté M. Reese, an assistant professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas, so we can look deeper into the structural forces that make food apartheid a reality. Dr. Reese is the author of Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access in Washington, D.C. Her second work, Black Food Matters: Racial Justice in the Wake of Food Justice, a collection of essays co-edited with medical anthropologist Dr. Hanna Garth, explores dimensions of food in Black life in the U.S.
See also: Call it what it is—Food apartheid
Xander Peters: Black Food Geographies is told through D.C.'s Deanwood neighborhood. I know it's a lens to view the larger issue of food insecurity, but why did you decide to focus on Deanwood for that particular work?
Ashanté Reese: I had already been volunteering in Deanwood, doing some after-school programming with kids, and I had originally wanted to do my work in another part of [the D.C. metro area], Tacoma. One day the person who was the executive director of the rec center said to me, "Why don't you do your work here?" I had a wholly different perception of what I thought I was going to do until we introduced the idea of doing Deanwood. It's a historically Black neighborhood that has a really interesting history of homeownership and community, and I just wanted to keep learning more about it. It became the perfect place, actually, for the things I was interested in—around food access, community, racial justice.
XP: For our readers, what were some of your takeaways from your research in Deanwood, and how do those pertain to similarly food insecure neighborhoods like it elsewhere in the country?
AR: I think my first takeaway is one that may not surprise a lot of people, which is that Black people always find a way to meet our needs regardless of what the state or what corporations are doing. I think that's something that I'm always thinking about, it's something that I'm inspired by, it's also something that I'm saddened by; all the ways that we have to go out of our way to meet needs. That's the first thing.
I think the second thing that I think is important for people to know is supermarkets don't have to be overtly racist to still be anti-Black. They don't have to have policies that say they explicitly avoid Black neighborhoods to still be involved in the project of racial segregation as it relates to food. So often supermarkets have to make choices, and they make choices about where they locate based on profitability and all of these different things. So, one thing that I think is a takeaway is that there really hasn't been a movement to really push supermarkets to reimagine what they are or who they could be, who they can serve, and who they should.
I would also, as a caveat, say my third takeaway is that we probably shouldn't depend on corporations for our food system.
XP: I'm right there with you with the latter, for sure. A lot of folks take grocery and food access for granted. For those who lack access, how would you describe some of the snowballing impacts to their health due to these types of systemic barriers in their way?
AR: I think one of the things that I will say is that research on the presence or absence of supermarkets or the proximity of them and their impact on health, it's really inconclusive, right? Like, there's no definitive take that says that being closer to a supermarket positively impacts your health. There are mixed conclusions about that. But the reason why I'm fascinated with supermarkets is because they are just one symptom of a lot of things that impact Black people, and specifically Black health, right? So, if you live in a neighborhood that has few or no supermarkets, it is also likely that you're in a neighborhood that lacks some other basic amenities. It is also likely that where there are parks and sidewalks and such that encourage you to be outside and being physically active, [those] are not well kept.
For me, it is really thinking about supermarkets as part of a larger set of things that are connected to the built environment that either encourage or discourage a lifestyle that could be beneficial for living longer, living healthier, living without impediments, but also just the underlying thing that connects all of these things.
XP: Compared to food deserts, do food swamps negatively impact low-income communities' health more?
AR: I have not spent a lot of time deep diving into the literature on food swamps, and I probably should. What I will say about food swamps is what I think about U.S. American food culture broadly, which is that if people are choosing fast food, because it is the thing that is most convenient to them, they really aren't using anything any differently than people who don't live in food swamps. Convenience is at the center of our food system. For me, the question is less about food swamps themselves, but a broader question around our relationship to convenience and how convenience gets classed and racialized.
XP: We're seeing the phrase "food apartheid" enter the cultural lexicon. Do you think that's an accurate description?
AR: I think language always matters, and I think specificity of language matters. Food apartheid is accurate depending on what communities you're talking about. We're talking about food apartheid, specifically thinking about the racialized landscape of food access, the ways anti-Black factors into that and its outcomes. For me, I think it makes perfect sense to think about food apartheid when we're thinking about food access in cities, and especially the ways that it kind of falls along the lines. Now, I was having this conversation once with a scholar who does research in rural Kansas, who was basically saying that in the all-white rural setting, when it does work, it's not the right language. I tended to agree with that. I also think that food apartheid has implications beyond mostly urban landscapes, where it's used. My thoughts about it is if we were able to really sit with, tackle, and dream up a food system that is not invested in anti-Blackness, I think that still has implications for those white, rural communities in Kansas, for example.
XP: Are there other examples of Deanwoods along the Gulf Coast South?
AR: You point me to a city that has a Black majority, or near Black majority, and I would put my money on it that that city has similar kinds of food inequities as D.C. This is true in Atlanta, where I lived for four years. It is true in New Orleans. I would be hard-pressed to think that that is also not true in Houston. Where food apartheid is helpful is that it points to something that is structural. It's not in the bodies of people. It's not in the choices that people make. It is literally built in the DNA of how cities are built, and then how corporations are embedded within those structures.
AR: We brought together a number of scholars to write different essays, in particular trying to center Blackness in-depth in the analysis, because not everybody who does research on Black folks and food centers Blackness—and that's a whole 'nother conversation which could be an interview on its own. But, what we've been trying to do was also think creatively. There are a number of the chapters that focus on the South, for example. Part of that was because we noticed in the academic literature, there's so little focus on the U.S. South. So, there is a chapter about Memphis. There's a couple of chapters about Miami. There's a chapter about Black farmers and the paper chase in the South. That's something we're particularly proud of, trying to think more geographically around where food work is happening, where resistance is happening. It's not just on the East Coast, not just in California. It's happening in places all over.
The other thing that I think the work contributes to is really just thinking about what are some ways that Black folks are, for lack of a better term, making ways of knowing that aren't necessarily included under the banner of "food justice." So much of the work [on food justice] is focused on organizations and for good reason, but so many people are not connected to organizations that are still progressing, doing good work, and we wanted to highlight that.