Brace Yourself for the “Food Justice” Movement

Richmond Food Justice Corridor “planting party”

“Food justice” is a thing now.

My first instinct when I read the phrase was cynical: While some people are busy running food banks and food pantries, growing urban gardens, and setting up grocery stores in Richmond’s inner city — you know, doing things that actually feed poor people — food justice warriors are busy advocating economic and political change.

As I looked into it, I decided my gut reaction wasn’t entirely fair — partly fair, but not entirely. The Richmond Food Justice Alliance, for example, has sponsored urban-gardening events and nutritional workshops. And some of the values it promotes — inner city citizens eating better, becoming food producers as well as food consumers, in sum becoming more self-sufficient — are actually quite admirable. The movement does appear to be pushing for some positive cultural changes in the inner-city black community.

Still, steeped in the rhetoric of the Oppression Narrative, food justice warriors seem hostile to the efforts of well-intentioned outsiders. There are signs that a rift has developed between African-American community militants and white liberals in the nonprofit sector who espouse similar goals. That doesn’t help anyone.

Yesterday, U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-VA, held a town hall meeting to discuss food-desert issues. He is pushing legislation that would provide federal tax credits and grants to entities that increase access to healthy food in under-served urban and rural areas. The hearing coincides with the opening later this month of Market @ 25th, a full-service grocery store in Richmond’s East End backed by Steve Markel (of Markel insurance fame) and his wife, Kathie.

The food-justice advocates expressed discontent with Warner’s legislation and the Markels’ grocery store. A grocery store by itself won’t solve food-insecurity issues, they said, as reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Food justice, it seems, has become entangled with the politics of gentrification. 

“The first [discussion] we had about a grocery store coming into Church Hill was 25 years ago,” said Bishop Darryl Husband with the Mount Olivet Church. “It’s taken 25 years for that to manifest. And it’s manifesting after gentrification. That’s a problem.”

Omar Kadaffi Guevera, with the Richmond Food Justice Alliance, urged Warner to make grants and funding available to smaller groups that are doing work in the community — presumably, like his. “I’m a little bothered by the farmer’s market piece having to be a 501(c)3 [nonprofit] which doesn’t really address the social enterprise aspects and the economic inequities that drive low food access,” he said.

Elizabeth Theriault of the Richmond City Health District, complained that grants to grocery stores benefit people who already have a capital advantage. Further, building grocery stores stimulate gentrification.

Warner responded that he heard their concerns. “Is there way to make sure that if we are going to make a capital investment that we actually gear it toward community-owned capital investment rather than simply a big chain? … I think it is a very fair point.”

Aside from the fact that “big chains” are not investing in Virginia’s inner cities, the food justice warriors appear not to recognize that the influx of middle-class gentrifiers creates buying power to support inner-city grocery stores, which otherwise would be economically unsustainable. The food justice warriors seem unwilling to concede that gentrification could bring advantages as well as disadvantages to a community. Beyond that, they reject the way white liberals have framed the food discussion around the concept of “food deserts.”

On its website of Culture of Health Richmond discusses the concept of “Richmond’s Food Justice Corridor.” Why a “food corridor” rather than a “food desert”?

Healthy food access is not a problem in the East End of Richmond.

It’s a solution

For generations, black and brown residents in Richmond have been stripped of the power to grow, access and afford food through discriminatory decisions, policies, and practices. Calling a neighborhood a food desert brands it as a lifeless place where people are struggling to grow and thrive.

We don’t believe in that Richmond.

The mission of the Food Justice Corridor, states the website, is to “improve health for children and families, reduce violence, and shift power over the local food system to residents and community organizations.”

It’s not clear to me how black and brown residents have been “stripped” of their power to grow their own food. Nobody made urban residents abandon the practice of raising their own gardens, as previous generations did. Food justice warriors certainly can’t criticize the chain grocery stores — which refused to locate in the inner city — for driving home-grown institutions out of business. The fact is that while inner-city residents may not have a lot of spending power, they have used what spending power they do have to support small neighborhood grocery stores, typically run by immigrants, that sell cheap starchy staples and junk food. The tastes of inner-city residents have driven the urban food market.

Also, I’m dubious that “shifting power over the local food system” to local activists is a good idea. Whatever else you say about the agricultural/food sector, it is efficient and low cost. A community-based food system might be local, and it might be fresh, and it might promote social justice, but it won’t be inexpensive. Presumably, the cost of food matters to poor people.

However, to their credit, the food justice warriors are working through workshops and school partnerships to teach healthy eating to a new generation of school children. And they encourage inner-city residents to take action on their own behalf rather than look to someone else for their food salvation. Those are healthy instincts. Too bad the social justice foodies come across as their own worst enemies.

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4 responses to “Brace Yourself for the “Food Justice” Movement

  1. I read the RTD story and my first reaction was what they really want is money, cash assistance, and all the other things advocates claim will solve underlying poverty. Money is indeed the cure for poverty. Fix their problem instead by providing a nice store in the vicinity, and you take away the basis of their complaint!

    My second reaction was to think about the ongoing theme on this blog about settlement patterns, and the concept of a “food desert” follows from the basic problem that poverty has been concentrated in certain neighborhoods. Change that with growing gentrification, with more middle and upper class households in the vicinity, and suddenly that which creates the solution becomes a new basis for complaint. One step forward, one step back (sigh). I wish that new store success, truly.

  2. Liberal do-gooders are a pox on society in general and an insult to the poor especially when it comes to food.

    People do not “grow” their food anymore. That’s a quaint, almost a “plantation” mentality in some respects.

    We live in a world where just about every kind of food imaginable is brought to us where we live in 18-wheelers. Whether it comes from Florida or Texas or Nebraska or California or even rural Va for poultry and cattle, dairy, eggs – it all comes via 18-wheeler – a virtual conveyer belt that never stops.

    Where all that food ends up is where companies in the business of selling it – knows where it will be bought and that’s what drives their decisions of where to locate and what to sell.

    Folks should also visit a regional Food Bank – where you will see a neverending supply of all kinds of canned and boxed food – as well as produce and bread. It’s there for the taking and a small fee for warehousing it.

    We move a ton of that food from the Food Bank to pantry clients every two weeks. It costs them nothing. All they have to do is show up. We do this in Spotsylvania but we are not alone – there are a dozen others also. This method works just fine in urban areas also. It’s not rocket science. It’s just plain simple.

    And no – you don’t need to SHOW people how to grow their own food! It’s a dumb idea and a condescending one and no wonder the “recipients” take umbrage at the concept!

    You can blame liberals but Conservatives are just as bad – in a different way. There is in existence right now – the infrastructure and services to deliver mountains of out-of-date but still quite edible food to whoever wants/needs it. For that matter, all those folks who say they don’t want liberal do-gooders doing it – they can do it. Any number can “play” that game.

    Why this is such a conundrum is a wonder. It’slike we WANT to make it a “problem”.!!!

  3. Here’s a picture of the Fredericksburg Food Bank – a typical day:

    out-of-date food , cans, boxes, produce, bread is brought to the warehouse then volunteers pick it up and take it out to the pantries to distribute to clients in need.

  4. I once attended one of Frank Thornton’s constituents meeting in Henrico’s East End. During the meeting similar issues came up. A large contingency was complaining that it was pure racism that there were not “upscale” restaurants and no “upscale” malls in their neighborhood. The charge was pure racism and they were mad all they were getting was a new Walmart on 9 Mile Road. It was a stunning scene. The room seemed to feel that they shouldn’t have to go 18 miles to Short Pump for luxury goods and they were owed more than a Walmart since rich white people were given Short Pump.
    At the same meeting Thornton said he was personally only interested in supporting businesses opened by “people who look like me”. Being one of the only people in the room who did not look like him, I found the statement to be quite the take on economic development. At the time I was considering a project in the East End. That meeting changed my mind and I invested elsewhere. If the local Supervisor was buying there was no sense in selling… It potentially would have meant about 10 really decent wage entry level trade jobs for locals in the beginning.

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