This week’s #BreakingBlack comes from Mikki Kendall, a black feminist who writes a regular blog. I offered my space to her after seeing a string of tweets regarding “food gentrification” and its damning impacts on the African-American and food insecure communities. – Goldie Taylor
I was raised on neck bones, fatback, ham hocks, oxtails, and all the parts of an animal most likely to be cheap.
My grandmother was a master of turning offal into delicious, and I still use many of her recipes to this day. But now, once-affordable ingredients have been discovered by trendy chefs, and have been transformed into haute cuisine.
Food is facing gentrification that may well put traditional meals out of reach for those who created the recipes. Despite the hype, these ingredients have always been delicious, nutritious and no less healthy than other sources of protein. As we talk about cuts to SNAP benefits and the health issues created by diets heavy on processed foods, we cannot ignore that for many home cooking is no longer accessible. The ability to afford food is being hindered by inflation in basic food costs, as well as by the economic impact of a food becoming “cool.” Hunger has always been an issue in America, with one in six Americans facing food insecurity on a regular basis.
One in five of those people are American children.
The reality of that hunger has spawned creative uses for every part of an animal or a plant in low-income communities. Yet, as consumers range further and further afield from their traditional diets, each new “discovery” comes at the expense of another marginalized community. Complaints about the problem are often met with, “Well, eat something else that you can afford” as though the poor have a wealth of options, and are immune to dietary restrictions based on religion, allergies, access, or storage capabilities.
Sure, you can give up fresh produce for frozen, but then you need a freezer. You can’t have any sensory issues around texture though, and you will need a way to prepare those veggies for consumption. Substituting beans, seitan, or tofu for animal sources of protein is theoretically feasible–if you are without digestive issues or allergies and you know how to prepare them.
One of the perils of “elevating” foods away from their source cultures is that many things are not easily replaceable, or even accessible in all communities. Solutions to the hunger problem have been thin on the ground, even as stopgap measures that attempt to address the problem have proliferated.
Food deserts aren’t a new problem, and community solutions range from food pantries to gardens to farmer’s markets that accept WIC coupons and SNAP benefits. These answers are imperfect, with problems ranging from food pantries not having the means to meet community needs, to farmer’s market prices being beyond the reach of the community, or the available produce being unfamiliar. But these measures can and do make food insecurity somewhat easier to manage for those in America who are already living on the edges.
But what about those outside the U.S.?
As coconut, quinoa, mangoes, and other subtropical goods come into vogue in the West, how are the communities where those foods are staples faring? The impact of quinoa’s popularity is already well documented, and results are definitely mixed. For those who have the resources to keep up with demand and the ability to navigate a global market, quinoa can be a boon. But for everyone else, the struggle to survive grows more difficult. The gentrification of food is a global problem, with global consequences. As each gentrified food moves out of the financial range of those at the lowest income level, the question of what will be left for the poor to eat becomes more pressing.
There are benefits to the broadening of culinary horizons, and food has always been one of the ways cultures connect. The commodification of cuisine means that the new “experts” often have little or no connection to the communities that they are profiting from when they repackage these foods. Whether it is Rick Bayless as the face of Mexican cuisine in America, or Marcus Samuelsson and Eddie Huang fighting over what constitutes authentic soul food, there is no community attachment or respect for the people who turned scraps into sustenance. Their descendants who are struggling to survive are now seeing their culinary heritage go from being invisible, to falsely villainized as the root of health problems to being the latest, greatest, frontier for culinary tourists who will migrate to the next hot item in a heartbeat, while the economic repercussions are still being felt in those communities least able to absorb the impact.
Gentrification of neighborhoods has been roundly and rightfully criticized as displaced people find themselves pushed further and further away from necessary goods, services, and employment. The poor cannot eat cake (in fact, judging by the push to limit junk food purchases with SNAP benefits, the poor will soon not be allowed to eat cake either), nor can anyone exist on a diet of processed, not- quite foods. If you cannot afford your home, your cuisine, or a way to control what is happening to your cultural products, then what do you have left? What can you pass on to your children, and how do you sustain your family traditions in the face of so many obstacles? There are no easy answers, but we have to start asking the questions before food becomes a privilege instead of a necessity.
Editor’s Note: This has been a #breakingBLACK column. Goldie Taylor is a featured Grio columnist and her #breakingBlack columns will regularly appear every Monday. Follow Goldie Taylor on Twitter at @GoldieTaylor, and join the discussion at @theGrio with the hashtag #BreakingBlack.