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.
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.
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.