Food Fight

In January of 2014, Whole Foods gave collard greens a makeover. The rebranding campaign is marked by the slogan “Collards are the new kale” and features recipes like Winter Greens Pesto, Collard Greens Gratin, and Collard-Green-Stuffed English Muffins.

Creative as it is, the problem with this campaign is whom it serves and whom it benefits. Whole Foods’ target shoppers are largely upper-class and/or white, and Whole Foods as an institution is problematic in a number of ways. In fact, the term “Whole Foods Effect” refers to the rapid increase in real estate prices and quantity of high-end businesses in neighborhoods where Whole Foods stores have recently opened. The “Whole Foods Effect” situates the corporation as a consistent contributor to gentrification, the process by which wealthier people move into neighborhoods historically inhabited by lower income residents, resulting in higher costs of living and pushing original residents out of their homes.

Given these facts about Whole Foods and its treatment of low-income communities of color, its collard greens campaign is unsurprising. In effect, Whole Foods is reducing communities’ access to resources that have historically pertained to them.

By marketing collard greens as the next “it” green, Whole Foods completely dissociates collard greens from their history as a vegetable of sustenance for working class people and people of the Global South (the region composed of Central and South American, African, and many Asian countries) and instead seeks to make them “highbrow.” As commenter Carroll1546 says on the Whole Foods blog post, “It’s amazing how so many groups of people can enjoy something for CENTURIES, but it’s only relevant when White American chefs ‘discover’ it.”

This process, described by black feminist Mikki Kendall as “food gentrification,” means that staple foods that were once affordable for low-income consumers may become unaffordable as their trendiness grows. Kendall (@Karnythia) started a national Twitter dialogue on #foodgentrification  in response to the collard greens campaign. On January 10 she tweeted, “Black Americans have been told relentlessly soul food was to blame for obesity. Now collards are the new kale. #foodgentrification.” (According to the USDA, average kale prices have increased 25% since 2011, from $0.88 to $1.10 a bunch.) Collard greens are just one example of food traditionally consumed by communities of color that is being claimed by white foodies. There are plenty more; consider most “superfoods.”

Quinoa, recently hailed as a “titan of the superfoods” by The Wall Street Journal, is a grain native to the Andean region of South America. Due to its popularity in the United States and Europe, quinoa is being exported at an extraordinary rate. This means big changes to the lifestyles of those who grow it. Quinoa farmers are, on the whole, consuming less of their own crops. Analysts provide various interpretations of what this means. Perhaps farmers can’t afford to buy their own crops, or perhaps they choose to buy other grains like rice and pasta because it’s more profitable for them to sell all the quinoa they produce. But the fact remains that this food fad is drastically changing the agricultural and consumption patterns of the areas that grow it. The Guardian wrote that in Lima, Peru, the cost of quinoa has tripled since 2006 and is now higher than the cost of chicken. People are no longer eating a food traditional to their land and culture, and this is a result of food gentrification.

Food gentrification is happening not only to staple ingredients of home cooking, but also to prepared food: food trucks, donuts, tacos, Chinese food, and more. Gentrifying and gentrified neighborhoods bustle with hipsters and yuppies Instagramming their bacon donuts, checking into Asian fusion spots on Foursquare, and sipping margaritas out of mason jars at their tech startups’ happy hours.  Trendy food scenes are a crucial part of gentrifying cities—indeed, the trendiest food spots are often located in neighborhoods experiencing gentrification.
But what types of hip new food are these wildly successful shops and restaurants selling? The truth is that in the year 2014, no one is really inventing new eats. Trendy new foods like the cronut or the ramen burger are still made up of familiar components. The difference is that they are marketed in new ways, thereby providing a sense of novelty.

Oftentimes, this change means exotification, decontexualization, and erasure of foods’ histories. It seems that once foods are repackaged and rebranded into trendy new versions of themselves, they have much more appeal than before. For example, whereas food trucks used to be thought of as grimy “roach coaches,” they are now seen as innovative ways to provide customers with their fix of kimchi tacos. These food makers and sellers are doing to their products what Whole Foods is doing to collard greens and other superfoods: stripping them of their cultural, racial, and classed histories and replacing that with a narrative of novelty and trendiness.

In the context of the changing landscape of most large American cities, this looks like erasure. Family-owned neighborhood staples like U-Lee, the Chinese restaurant next door to my dad’s childhood home in San Francisco, are closing after decades as rents rise. Their storefronts are quickly filled by artisanal coffee shops, juice bars, and gourmet pizzerias. The flavor of neighborhoods is changing and not with the consent of those who have been living there first. After all, whatever Japanese tapas bar or vegan deli replaces U-Lee will not have arrived to serve my 93-year-old grandfather. It is there to serve the yuppies who are moving in next door to him.

As I watch the San Francisco that I knew growing up change into something very different, I feel a sense of loss. Why couldn’t U-Lee, known locally for its enormous potstickers and friendly service, stay open when a restaurant like Mission Chinese Food, which serves what it calls “Americanized Oriental food,” is one of the most popular in San Francisco? Why is the family-owned Burmese Kitchen closing as the number of hip food trucks at the food truck market Off the Grid only increases?

At the same time, I recognize my paradoxical position in this space. I have never lived in the Mission, SoMa, or any other gentrifying area—I have never been pushed out of my home, displaced in the wake of “beautified” neighborhood plazas or shiny luxury condos. In fact, as a young, educated, economically privileged person, I am more likely to move into a neighborhood like the Mission than be forced out of my own. I feel loss at U-Lee’s closing, but odds are that I will enjoy going to whatever opens in its place.

However, my emotional attachment to the communities around U-Lee may set me apart from other potential gentrifiers. Many people who move into gentrifying neighborhoods have no connection to the neighborhood and its history and culture at all, and as a result feel no investment in the communities there. These attitudes perpetuate and contribute to gentrification.

What does community involvement and inclusivity look like in relation to food and food scenes? Having reflected upon the power of food and food establishments in changing communities, is there a way to use them to stop, slow, or ameliorate the effects of gentrification and food gentrification?

“With some imagination and a clear political analysis, yes, it is possible,” said anthropology professor Cathy Stanton. Stanton, who will be teaching a course called Food Places: Locating the Food Movement in spring 2015, said that these questions are ones with which people are engaging. This is good news.

However, Stanton acknowledged that much of the food movement is white, liberal, and well-to-do—a population that mirrors the gentrifying demographic. She said that in order to address the gap between preexisting communities in gentrifying neighborhoods and those who are gentrifying it, we must consider the cultural and class divisions inherent in these situations. An important part of ensuring more equal access to food, Stanton said, lies in “people in the food movement and food scene not just pursuing the trendy stuff, but thinking hard about how their food relate[s] to this broader spectrum that has a lot of [widening] inequality in it.” This means that while farmers ’ markets and urban agriculture are important, those with privilege also need to center issues of accessibility.

Somerville Mobile Farmers’ Market, for example, cuts down on barriers to access  by traveling around the Somerville area, including to two public housing developments and a senior activity center. It also accepts Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other food assistance programs. This model has been very successful in connecting with the community and increasing underserved populations’ access to fresh, healthful food. An article in the Somerville Beat also notes that the market “stocks…many unique items specific to cooking in various cultures” and that customers often ask the market’s manager, who lives in one of the housing developments served, for suggestions on how to cook with them. The market is a good example of how cultural food and knowledge can be distributed while connecting and enhancing communities.

Another noteworthy food project is Food and Sh*t, a monthly pop-up restaurant in Seattle run by Geo Quibuyen (also known as Prometheus Brown of the rap duo Blue Scholars) and his wife Chera Amlag. The pop-up offers creative menus of Filipino food and aims to honor, explore, and share the couple’s family traditions and culture. Each menu is accompanied by an essay on the cultural significance of the food. An article on the blog Seattle Refined notes, “Brown sources from a deeper place [than most trendy restaurants]: from his and his colleagues’ cultural identities.”

This is by no means an exhaustive list or a pronouncement of what food scenes and establishments should look like. As Professor Stanton said, “Food is an incredibly dynamic and flexible medium… It seems to call out what’s best in people: a sense of common humanity.” Through food, we can connect to and empathize with one another; through it, we can also displace and harm one another. As the amount of open space in cities shrinks and inequality between the rich and poor grows, we as a generation have agency in the relationship between food and changing city landscapes. We are potential policymakers, potential restaurant owners, and potential urban farmers. Moreover, we are all consumers and our collective choices dictate the nature of food consumption in the United States. By thinking through the impacts of these choices, we can choose to value and ensure the survival of all communities and cuisines.

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