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Learning to navigate an anti-Black food system

Martha Ball portrait

Learning to navigate an anti-Black food system:

A student reflection on the CRC’s Food and Race Online Reading Group

By Martha Ball

I sat at my desk in Morgantown, West Virginia every Wednesday at lunchtime for six weeks. Leftover pasta, frozen black bean burgers, salad from a bag, the occasional pop-tart; all part of the typical college student lunch menu that I would eat while reading the weekly chapters of Black Food Geographies, written by the powerful Dr. Ashanté Reese, in preparation for Friday discussions. I would eat lunch and read about a historically Black neighborhood in D.C called Deanwood and their equally historic place within the food system. My lunches were made from ingredients that I got from a Kroger pick-up order I most likely made the Sunday before. This was a weekly activity I never questioned. However, my food shopping consciousness was turned upside down by this book, and I have learned to examine my food shopping choices a bit deeper.

Why did I use Kroger when I could just as easily shop at Walmart or Aldi? Why that specific Kroger that happens to be much farther away from my apartment? Why would I choose the Kroger commonly referred to as “Kro-Gucci” and not the one called “Kro-ghetto?” Why is a grocery store even referred to as a racially-coded term? Who taught me that the best place to get food is a grocery store? Was it my parents, was it capitalism, was it my white privilege?

The mere fact that I, a white, female, employed, college student with a car can buy food is itself a privilege I take for granted every day. But so is the fact that I can choose which of the four grocery stores within a two mile radius of my apartment I go to. I can get in my car and drive to the Kro-Gucci farthest away from my apartment because I know that the selection of food is better. I can do all of this, without ever questioning why.

It was not until I ate the food I bought at Kroger while reading about how the residents of Deanwood were forced to make similar choices, that I was truly brought into a food justice frame of anti-racist thinking. As people, myself and the residents of Deanwood have the same preferences for how we spend the 24 hours of our day. We want food that we don’t have to travel far to get, we want it to be cheap, and we want it to be healthy. They ask: “Do we go to the supermarket or to the corner store? Healthy, more expensive food or cheaper, unhealthier food? Safeway, or no way?” The choices people featured in Reese’s book reflect whether they had access to a vehicle (something that I have), and whether they had children (something that I do not have). I choose to shop at Kro-Gucci, despite the distance, because I have a car, and a steady, livable income, and want more reliable and healthy food options. However, despite any similarities in our preferences and motivations for food choices, the reality is that the forces which shape Deanwood’s are not the same ones that shape mine. To say that I have food access choices is not to say that Deanwood residents do not, but their lives and their food are shaped by anti-Black forces. My life benefits from those anti-black forces, both within and outside the food system.

When supermarket chains decided where to build new stores, and to close others, they followed upper-middle class, white people into suburban areas, and limited food access in predominantly Black neighborhoods. Such anti-Black choices built a racist and classist food system Deanwood residents must navigate. The white-supremacist food system decided that Deanwood had nothing, which warranted a removal of reliable supermarket access. But, what is nothingness, and is nothingness truly nothing?

I have long characterized my own home in terms of nothingness. When I was 9-years-old, I decided that I had to see Justin Bieber in concert or I would die, and found out that his nearest tour stop was 4 to 5 hours away. I said, “Why would he even want to come here? This place has nothing.” When I was 17 and applying for colleges, I hated the idea of attending West Virginia University because it meant 4 more years in West Virginia, a place I thought had nothing.

I don’t know who told me that, or if anyone actually ever told me that.

But, when I was 19, I first heard the term “food desert” in my Human Geography class as a sophomore at WVU. The phrase sounded right to me, the girl who, when driving down the interstate, sees houses on top of mountains and immediately wonders about the lives of the people who live there. My first question is always “How far do you think they have to drive to the nearest grocery store?” The term “Food desert” characterized the rural place that I grew up, a place that I thought had nothing.

I was 21 when Dr. Reese and this reading group taught me that the term “food desert” is not correct. Perhaps one reason people assume there is nothingness is because we refer to a place as a “desert”. The language that we use matters, and to focus on nothingness and lack is to miss the dynamic and successful ways that communities like Deanwood are navigating their food systems. It also understates the influence of anti-Black and anti-poor processes and policies that my Kro-Gucci perpetuates.

The fact that I shop at that particular Kroger is a product of an anti-Black food system, and I am thankful to this reading group for bringing food justice into my personal, anti-racist, reading journey in 2020. The texts that I read had focused on actions that I can take regarding the way that I demand change in a non-performative way: they had been structural, about policy, about the government and police, and the violent loss of Black lives. But they had not been about food, they had not been about what Dr. Reese called the “slow, walking, everyday deaths.” In reading Black Food Geographies, this reading group made my journey of realization about food.

Food, I learned, is not just a vehicle for nutrition or for discussions about supermarket redlining. It is the way that we connect our lived experiences, past, present, and future, with our hope. Our food nostalgias are how we communicate longing within our food system.

My food nostalgia is fundamentally Appalachian. It’s for chow-chow, a pickled corn relish that makes your entire house smell of vinegar while you can it. The canning process; a gendered, cultural, and generational one that was passed to me from my grandparents. It’s nostalgia for my community that would come to my grandparents’ house while we shucked corn, and chopped peppers, and boiled a massive copper pot out in the opened garage. It’s nostalgia for my grandmother’s terrifying, dark basement and the shelf up against the back wall where I would steal jars and jars of canned chow-chow that would go with my brown beans and cornbread in the very particular way that I prepare the perfect bowl.

I have this loving, nostalgic feeling for a food, representative of a time and place that make me feel safe, happy, and fulfilled. Yet, my nostalgia is a product of a place that I viewed for so long as having nothing.

As my fellow reading group member, Negar, said: reflecting on the past is as much about reading our present and our hopes for the future. We are each nostalgic for different foods for a reason. Since reading this book and hearing about the food nostalgias of my fellow reading group members, I have asked every member of my family, and many of my friends what food they are nostalgic for. There are few questions that create such a window of intimacy into each others’ lives; questions which introduce how we filter our hope for the future. They reflect trauma, loss of cultural practices, healing, resilience and the resistance in each of our lives that goes into our food practices. I am thankful to this group for showing me that I have to examine my own nostalgia and food practices to be able to understand how the past shapes my hope for my home.

In rural West Virginia, we complain when Walmart stops carrying our favorite brand of specific groceries. We will drive miles to get there because someone has told us that it is where we must buy food by making it the only place to buy food. Clearly I have always thought this, moving from Walmart in my hometown to Kroger in my college town, yet my nostalgia for chow-chow tells me that clearly West Virginia does not have nothing. It has community, a self-reliant culture that makes canning your own food necessary, and at the very least, it has delicious pickled corn.

What is the hope that I have for my home translated through canned corn and vinegar? It is for the continued strength of my community, of families tied together by their food traditions and top secret family recipes. It is a hope for our cultural practices that are at risk of being dismissed by folks who say they are nothing. At its core, my hope is that Appalachia and Deanwood become places for everyone to have equitable access to food.

Outside of those hopes, I know now to question what my current position is in the racist, capitalist, food system every time I make a choice about food. Dr. Reese and this reading group have shown me that the actions I take regarding food are directly linked to age old power structures that create food inequalities in places like Deanwood, and in Appalachia. I have been challenged to bring to light, in an equitable and empathetic way, why places like Deanwood have to navigate the racist food system in the first place, and how they do it in beautiful and resilient ways.

When I next have to stock my fridge with the salad in a bag and the frozen black bean burgers, I will absolutely question why my brain immediately jumps to Kroger. I will remember to make food choices that support my hopes for Appalachia and the people who are continuing our distinct cultural traditions.

Most importantly, I will always question why anyone ever thinks a place has nothing, because nothingness is never nothing, and “food is never just about food.”