Black Food Matters and inequality in American food distribution

Black Food Matters: Racial Justice in the Wake of Food Justice is an edited book by Hanna Garth and Ashanté M. Reese. It represents a scholarly work complete with references. In some respects, it hearkens back to Black Food Geographies also written by Reese. The book provides a voice to Black food issues. Don’t look to it as a conciliatory statement. It is more an expression of hurt, resentment, and grievance. It aligns itself with the food justice movement, but it adds a Black tinge to the cause. Some distinct differences between the two perspectives emerge. In most of my reviews I provide a critique of the book. I am not sure it is my place to interject the views of a white male into the dialogue. Rather, I adopt the point of view of the authors in this post. I identified at least twelve topics of critical interest in this collection. I narrowed my attention to five themes.

Dismantling a broken food system

As many advocates of food justice, the concept is not reform of food distribution in America. The book aims at discarding current practices and constructing a new system that is fair. At the outset Reese and Garth (1) introduce “two conversations” that frame the rest of the book. The Introduction describes the “persistent threats to Black life” with an emphasis on healthy food. It also criticizes “the increasingly global and corporatized food system.” In most cases the two conversations are in harmony. There are some tensions that arise. White advocates of food justice have some rigid ideas on healthy foods. Many food-justice advocates consider traditional Black food hazardous to our health.

Appreciating a Black food cultural heritage

package of Uncle Ben's Ready Rice Jasmine
Not culturally appropriate.

Reese and Garth (1) point out that there are elements of “Black cuisine ‘that shunned frying or dependence on fatback seasoning.’” This Introduction notes a tension between traditional and stereotypical views of Black food preparation. Marketers of processed food products have exploited such stereotypes. We now see such products being replaced with new logos and brand names. The authors introduce the concept of “Black fugivity.” It is the resistance to standards framed by others without Black input. Black people resent having their ideas ignored. Too often Blacks become props for other agendas. It is time outsiders listen.

In her chapter Garth (2) rejects the idea that white people know more about healthy Black food than Blacks do. In a food justice session a moderator told her  “to avoid industrialized food, characterized as ‘unhealthy’ and consume local organic food, thought of as ‘healthy.’” She describes a group encounter where each person named a favorite food. Garth’s choice was “macaroni and cheese.” A white colleague pulled her aside after the session to admonish her selection. She should name foods like “brussels sprouts, kale and broccoli.” It was an encounter she never forgot. Are there culinary items in Black cuisine that are just as healthy as foods that are part of a white culture? She would say “Yes.” An excess of white dietitians in the nation highlights the gap in dietary advice to minority groups.

Providing access to healthy food in food deserts

Reese (3) offers a different view of food deserts. Justice reforms in Black communities differ from those in white enclaves. White workers in the field define an urban food desert as one lacking a supermarket. She claims it goes deeper than that. Her vivid description of the unSafeway in a DC neighborhood makes her point. Danny’s food truck and Dereck’s food delivery service offer alternatives for distribution. Such services “are integral to food distribution and the continued cultural identities of neighborhoods, performing cultural place-making work that grocery stores, urban farms, and farmers markets do not do.” When something works, here come the outsiders to co-opt it. These outsiders are better capitalized and less-responsive to community needs. The interlopers also bring in workers from the outside. Neighborhoods desire to maintain their distinct character without outside meddling.

Health and safety regulations defined by those outside the community restrict distribution patterns. Such restrictions interfere with food access to those who need it most. Community leaders want to define what is healthy and safe for neighborhood residents. Blacks don’t want the message co-opted. Andrew Newman and Yuson Jung (4) were concerned with “the highly uneven quality of the stores and food in those stores.” The work was in inner-city Detroit. Like Reese indicated, it wasn’t the lack of supermarkets that was the major problem. Distribution in the city was not equitable. The chapter attributes the problem to supermarket malfeasance and unfair pricing. Meats and vegetables in these stores were not fresh. The people were being taken advantage of, and there was no recourse.

Advocating consumption of healthy foods in the context of food justice

Analena Hope Hassberg (5) notes that Black leaders agree with advocates of food justice who work “to empower people to feed themselves in healthy ways and stave off the symptoms of a modern industrial diet.” Too few of these activists consider “Black or other oppressed people in their analysis or working to deconstruct the racialized processes responsible for food apartheid or other forms of structural racism in the food system.”

Monica White (6) points to the benefits of urban gardening. Such an endeavor “operates as a creative, public, outdoor classroom where they nurture activism and challenge the racial and class-based barriers to accessing nutrient-rich food.” Many older residents have ties to the farm and memories of freshly harvested crops. The younger generation benefits from the close association with the soil and growing processes encountered in urban gardening. Cultivating healthy food habits is more than embracing fresh, whole foods. It is also about avoiding “stored, canned, boxed, and highly processed foods that are plentiful in many urban corner and convenience stores.” The developers of urban gardens view the efforts as part of the resistance.

Rejecting white privilege and the capitalism that supports it

The final chapter by Judith Williams (7) spoke directly to me as a defender of capitalism. Her emphasis was not on Black food. Rather she focused her attention on Latin American and Afro-Caribbean foods. Her comments derived from her employment in Miami restaurants. The flash point was the co-opting of traditional dishes by the Mango Gang, one Cuban and three white chefs. The Gang gathered up this knowledge to brand a “New World cuisine.” White privilege “enabled them to appropriate the culinary knowledge and skill of their mostly immigrant prep cooks while working them long, hard hours and paying them subpar wages.” What I would attribute to the inequities of capitalism, she condemns as “cultural appropriation.” Capitalism rewards the entrepreneur for capturing an idea and risking available capital. The effort rewards the individual when the idea turns into a marketable product. The immigrant prep cooks didn’t have the capital or the education to succeed.

The Mango Gang was successful because they appropriated a group’s cultural heritage. She rejects the branding model when it comes to such appropriation of a culture. She rejects entrepreneurship as I have known it ever since my first class in Economics. What should be kept in the public domain? The Gang might argue that the New World Cuisine brought tourists to Miami. This influx, in turn, led to the opening of new restaurants and jobs for more prep cooks. Williams might counter that none of the profits trickled down to the workers. The hours were still long. The wages were still subpar. Those of us who defend capitalism must recognize inherent injustices. Such injustices are even more stark when affecting racial groups.

Bottom line. Black Food Matters is a serious book for anyone concerned about racial injustice. Food access is a critical issue. Blacks have stood in the back of the line for too long when it comes to food injustice. The authors of these chapters speak out with a clear, distinctive voice. Are we listening? The Black community wants to define healthy foods within their cultural heritage. Black activists want to place their version of food justice in their communities. Chapter authors reject outsiders coming into minority communities, co-opting ideas, and reaping financial rewards. The role of the supermarket in food deserts may not be the answer for Black neighborhoods. Those of us on the outside need to listen and be willing to help when asked. We should not be rushing in and telling Black organizers what they should and should not be doing.

Next week: Closing the Culture Gap Between Client and Provider by Constance Brown-Riggs


(1) Reese, A.M. and Garth, H., 2020. Black Food Matters: An Introduction. In Black Food Matters (Reese and Garth, eds.) pp. 1-28.

(2) Garth, H., 2020. Blackness and “Justice” in the Los Angeles Food Justice Movement. In Black Food Matters (Reese and Garth, eds.) pp. 107-130.

(3) Reese, A.M., 2020. In the Food Justice World but not of It. In Black Food Matters (Reese and Garth, eds.) pp. 29-52.

(4) Newman, J. and Jung, Y., 2020. Good Food in a Racist System. In Black Food Matters (Reese and Garth, eds.) pp. 131-157.

(5) Hassberg, A.H., 2020. Nurturing the Revolution: The Black Panther Party and the Seeds of the Food Justice Movement. In Black Food Matters (Reese and Garth, eds.) pp. 82-106.

(6) White, M.M., 2020. Sisters of the Soil: Urban Agriculture in Detroit. In Black Food Matters (Reese and Garth, eds.) pp. 208-227.

(7) Williams, J., 2020. The Mango Gang and New World Cuisine: White Privilege in the Commodification of Latin American and Afro-Caribbean Foods. In Black Food Matters (Reese and Garth, eds.) pp. 251-278.


6 thoughts on “Black Food Matters and inequality in American food distribution

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s