“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.There are currently no comments highlighted.