You know, it’s technically more dangerous – and, in fact, racist-racisty-racist-race-baiting – to talk about lack of diversity in certain subsects of society. And, bring up an intersection – race & class, race & sex, class and sex – and, oh my gosh, people lose their marbles.
I’m going to quote the first part of my essay, and you’ll need to head over to Salon to check out the rest (and I’d appreciate it if you did – the essay is gaining traction on the “Most Read” list, and I’d love to build a reputation for bringing eyes to the topic of food equality from a unique standpoint.
On a fine, bright afternoon, a beautiful girl named Celeste with brown skin and a fluffy ponytail walked me through a farm in East New York, Brooklyn.
While it was obvious to me that she loved it like it was her own, it belonged to the United Community Center, a collective that provides everything from fitness classes to English-as-a-Second Language classes and daily day care. The Center is a saving grace for girls like Celeste. Each year, it takes 30 or so teens from ages 13 to 17 under its wing, teaches them everything from hand-made irrigation using leftover tools and materials, to hosting their own bee hive and collecting their own honey, to composting, to… well, you get the picture.
The Center seems like the kind of grassroots effort a lot of people who talk about the lack of healthy food in low-income communities would love to support. But some of its members say the organizations intended to help them the most are ignoring them. They say the NYC Greenmarket – the city’s largest farmer’s market supplier — doesn’t make it out anywhere near East New York with a full market because of a common assumption about low-income Americans: They aren’t interested in healthy food. They can’t afford to be interested in it. They don’t care.
But the people of East New York do care. And yet the never-ending debates around food politics — debates that often center on what’s supposedly best for low-income communities — never seem to include their voices.
Celeste couldn’t be more proud of her contribution to the garden, or the garden’s contribution to the community. “People saw that there was a lot of violence on the streets, a lot of kids hanging around and doing bad stuff… they figured, ‘All right, one in three people are obese and we need to do something about it.’ They had rare food access, and only maybe three supermarkets with bad, rotten apples in it… and you don’t want to eat that stuff, you know?” she told me, as she made her way to the section of the garden that housed the scrap wood. The teens learn carpentry and build “community gardening beds,” as well.
Celeste is, without a doubt, incredibly informed. She’s bright, energetic, and spent almost a half-hour explaining to me the intricacies of creating an irrigation system that allows the garden to continue to flourish even when the city is running low on rainwater, all with a smile.
And I got the feeling that Celeste wasn’t the only one at the Center who could explain to me the joys of beekeeping. Or composting. Or the challenges of nutrition in a low-income community, at that.
In listening to the stories of the people who frequent the Center, you can’t help but notice a similar refrain. Farmer’s markets and fresh produce are, largely, out; bodegas and their processed fare are, unfortunately, in. On every corner, there’s another store with the same look, same feel, same sorry-ass bodega cat, same deli meats, same row of $6 boxes of cereal. This is how people are expected to live in East New York, and its inhabitants are fed up.
“How do you expect me to live off this? And, do you expect me to ride two hours, back and forth, into the city for Whole Foods? Am I supposed to go grocery shopping with two kids, and carry those groceries home… with two kids?”
“I eat what I can afford, and fuck anyone who thinks I should be starving on kale and rice cakes so I can be skinny. I’m doing this my way, I’m living my life.”
“My mother died from living off bodega food… I’m scared of that stuff. I don’t need a nutrition degree to know that what happened to my Mom ain’t right.”
When I stood in line at my own grocery store, I saw the cover of The Atlantic, proffering the long-standing idea that “junk food” could, in some way, “end obesity.”
Once the essay finally went live, I broke a cardinal law of the Internet: I read the comments.
I’m a race baiter for mentioning race, because it’s totally okay – in a country full of varieties of races and nationalities – that only one group in particular is getting the opportunities to opine endlessly about food in major national media outlets.
I’m sexist for acknowledging that, despite the work of Marion Nestle, Tracie McMillan, Michele Simon, and countless others… they – and their work – are fit to be written about. They’re not writing the big headline essays, despite their breadth of knowledge.
Hell, Melanie Warner’s book, Pandora’s Lunchbox, damn near dropped the same day as Michael Moss’s Salt, Sugar, Fat. Both are New York Times alumni. We both know who got the NYT Magazine cover.
In fact, Warner’s book was mentioned in the Freedman column – but only to dismiss it, as if to imply it was laughable. Warner’s written not only for the Times, but for bNet – her Food Fight column taught me a lot in my formative years. Her book is In Defense of Food, with a scientific basis that sincerely asks the question, “What separates our food from that food?” and answers it. Like a boss. Dismissing her book in a paragraph with such diminutive snark was flat out insulting.
Nobody was more qualified to talk about the report Michele Simon wrote than Michele Simon. Google search her report. Actually, I did it for you. Who was writing the major pieces on it? Not Simon.
Traci MacMillan put her physical body in jeopardy while writing The American Way of Eating. Her book is what taught me the dynamics of grocery stores, and how the lack of produce at bodegas is far less about “those poor people just don’t want vegetables” and is much more about “unqualified people handling perishable goods is not only dangerous for the community but expensive, so let’s not carry anything more than what will allow us to accept WIC.” Somehow, in an endless essay, that kind of insight into what makes junk food so plentiful wasn’t useful.
You should also note that there are no Black women mentioned here. Tanya Fields is doing her thing, but – assumedly because she’s not respectable enough – she’s not getting the shine she and other Bronx and Detroit advocates deserve. In fact, the exceptional nature of Fields’ work, and the outright media shutout of her efforts only further proves my point: some people only want to hear your little solutions if they’re packaged in a way that is familiar to them and makes them comfortable. A dark-skinned woman with long locs? Mainstream middle America ain’t got time for that.
And, while I can’t say whether any of the men I actually listed in my essay ever grew up poor, growing up poor doesn’t look the same for everyone. For some of us, it looked like a regular middle class lifestyle gone awry once Daddy lost his factory job; for others, it looked like a Mom on food stamps while she went to work and school, and you spending your day with Grammaw while she watched everybody‘s kids in her assisted living facility; for others, it looked like a trailer park; and, for many more, it looks like “typical suburban life,” except some days you might “accidentally go without food” or the lights “might accidentally go out” for a day or two.
Talking about something as broad as obesity, and limiting the discussion (and the subsequent exposure) to such a specific kind of lived experience… pretty much ensures that someone will be left out. Some kind of experience will be left out. Some element of the solution will be left out. It’s unhelpful to juxtapose “$10 smoothie” and “Big Mac” near each other; it’s like comparing Tom Ford (sorry, it’s stuck in my head) and Payless. Of course there’s a difference in cost. None of this changes the fact that there are a wide variety of options in the middle that can better suit someone’s – or a community’s – life.
I just can’t understand how you go from “people need to know about the virtues and benefits of fresh produce” to “junk food can be healthy too!!!1111ONE” and believe there’s no in-between that needs to be dug up, just because someone else hasn’t dug it up first.
Quite frankly, I’m irritated. It’s the nature of writing – you get to the point where you’re paid big bucks to opine and not investigate, there’s nothing to say that you must scour the Earth looking for stories to tell. But do we even value hearing about experiences that don’t validate our own? If your struggle is different from mine, it’s not worth hearing? Am I losing it, here?
Let me know your thoughts. Talk to me about your community gardens. Tell me what local initiatives you have going on. Tell me. Tell me, tell me, tell me. Make me feel better about this. C’mon. You can do it.
First off, kudos! You killed it! This article said much of what definitely has not been said among the common folk who don’t read reports of scientific literature. It’s important for those of us living the struggle to know that community farms and programs of the like exist. This is a national problem that definitely deserves national attention, however, I think it’s equally as important that respective communities that are deeply affected start their own movements. I don’t think one lump sum campaign can effectly speak to the needs of individual groups, who have their own set of issues. I wish I could tell you that in these highly explosive, racially charged times that comments calling you a racist for pointing out the disparities, will be few and far between. But I can’t. People always seem to miss the forest for the trees and in their efforts to portray America as a one big ol’ melting pot, ignore opportunities to acknowledge our differences and start making much needed repairs in how we see one another, from there. Good article. Great points made. Despite the negativity, know you did a great thing and those that are truly affected by your words will receive the greatest benefit!
“It’s important for those of us living the struggle to know that community farms and programs of the like exist. This is a national problem that definitely deserves national attention”
All of this.
Education is key, and between “no information” and the never-ending flood of “misinformation”, the difference between success and failure sometimes is knowing you have a trusted source who is going to point you toward where to look.
Haters will, however, hate. And the “righter” you are, the more they will do it.
Junk food is not healthy at all. Many people in the medical fields and nutrition field dont even teach the importance of clean eating because people are being told to buy low fat foods and diet foods ie, diet soda etc. Since I live in Brooklyn ( Flatbush) I know how hard it is to find quality supermarkets, the ones in neighborhood smell atrocious and sell rotten produce. In the past East new York/ brownsville had a food coop but it had the food that was the same quality as a bodega in comparison to flatbush food coop, Fort green green market, and Union Square farmers market. Hopefully they will teach people the quality of clean eating get some chefs to display recipes and get a green markets in these areas. The bodegas and these supermarkets think these people do not care about their give them cheap quality food and they will be happy.
Erika. I love you and will read anything you write because I love where your heart is on most topics, but this doesn’t represent your best work in my opinion. It reminds me of 24 hour cable news commentary with its pseudo-news stories. Your argument is forced and the tone is too condescending. I don’t think it helps to be devisive on the issue of the nation’s food supply. And while I know white liberal male Salon readers can be somewhat masochistic at times, even they have to limit the amount of time they spend reading blogs that rail against white liberal patriarchy. I would have preferred to come away from reading that article feeling empowered to help other Women of Color take control of their daily nutrition regardless of where they live or how much money they have. Instead I heard more in the way of complaints and accusations focused on people who are largely inconsequential to most of the urban population who live on modest to meager means.
I spent a long time thinking about this comment, like I do most constructive criticism.
That being said, I think your comment both misses the point AND illustrates the point I’m trying to make at the same time.
The point of my article wasn’t to empower you to go help other women of color; the point was to make you ask yourself, “Why, in ALL the writing that happens in national media, have I not known about this self-sufficient, grassroots initiative that’s been going on for over a decade? Why?!”
I’m not going to apologize for complaining. The lack of diversity in experiences, cultures and options is negatively affecting our ability to not only understand, but appreciate what contributes to our food problem in America. The reality is that patriarchy DOES contribute to the fact that not even the WOMEN who are doing the HARD WORK can get the air time that the men are getting, and Black women? Forget about it. You know why EYE was able to get the platform I got? Because of my readers and the fact that they support me so thoroughly. If I didn’t already have an army of 100,000 that people were trying to get a piece of? Please believe I would’ve been rendered JUST as silent as the rest.
The idea that my complaints were focused on people who are “inconsequential” isn’t quite accurate – if you have a platform to talk about an issue, and manipulate the truth simply because you have an agenda to push, then yes, you are VERY consequential to the end goal. You affect our ability to understand the problem. You affect our ability to rationalize the contributing factors. You even affect our ability to identify the SOURCES of those contributing factors. Writing a defense of junk food is problematic and DANGEROUS – why advocate for the same “eat less, move more” mantra that has failed us for over 20 years? Why was that even given a platform, let alone 10,000 words?
I’m sorry you think my argument was forced, when I’ve written the same argument here at least twice, but I’m not going to apologize for being heavy handed with it. I didn’t create a divisiveness in the conversation – the people who’ve been leading it for YEARS did that LONG before I’d ever come around by refusing to take it as seriously (and making mad money off of refusing to take it seriously) as those of us who live these challenges every day.
I really enjoyed this article, and I readily agree with your point, which is why aren’t we hearing about these initiatives and the work being done by people in the communities. It really pisses me off that people who live with this problem day in and day out and are doing work to change it, are not being heard, and when you do say “oh hey this whole population is being pushed aside for some trivial banter” people want to call you a race baiter. I want to hear about the work being done in the communities in East New York, and LA, and Detroit, etc.
It makes me angry that we aren’t hearing about this and there are still people in the comments saying the old tired “every community has grocery store, you just need to be more responsible how you eat.” That exact comment is why more, diverse voices are needed in this area because not everyone lives in a situation where they have access to an array of healthy produce or they don’t have the money to buy it. Ugh
I was going to leave a comment on the salon website, but didn’t feel comfortable leaving my name. Those comments just demonstrate how offended people get when you call attention to their privilege.
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