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Food for Black Thought: Race, food and gentrification

Addie Broyles

Ashante Reese, a doctoral candidate at American University in Washington, and Food for Black Thought co-organizer and UT doctoral candidate Naya Jones brought the conversation at the symposium last week to the present day by addressing how geography and place influence how we get, eat and think about food.

Reese started her presentation about the Deanwood neighborhood in D.C. with this quote from anthropologist Sidney Mintz: “The foods of different peoples, shaped by their habitat and their history, became a vivid marker of belonging and being excluded.”

Before making assumptions about people and place, Reese said it’s important to ask two very basic questions and listen carefully to the answers: What was it like? How is it different? This helps us chronicle people’s stories and acknowledge the history of disinvestment and disempowerment in places like East Austin.

“Place matters, how things like food deserts happen matters, history matters,” Reese said. “People have a right to tell their own stories.”

Trying to introduce gardening as something “new” to an African-American community, like the one in Deanwood, doesn’t make any sense because growing one’s own food has been part of the food system for generations. “Progress isn’t progress for everybody,” she said.

We also need to be more careful about how we talk about “other.” The use of “ethnic” implies a central homogeneous identity, which is the opposite of what we are.

Words like “gentrification” and “food desert” are flat terms to people living in them, said Jones, who is working on a project about black youth, food and gentrification called East Side Food Stories.

Even when nonprofits or for-profit organizations venture into a neighborhood under the auspices of doing something good, they often create spaces or services without a sense of place or history that aren’t comfortable or affordable to longtime residences.

Jones pointed to that recent city of Austin economic study that proposed a number of recommendations to increase the value of our food system, none of which included cultural retention.

“You have to ask: Is the purpose to sell the Austin food marketplace or to help preserve the Austin culture that was already here?” she said.

East Austin’s “shabby chicness” has drawn entrepreneurs from all over the country looking to capitalize on a feeling of “authenticity” but with little regard to the people who made it “authentic” in the first place. “We want to sit by a mural, but we don’t want to sit next to you,” is the message that comes across.

Jones says she sees a lot of food work going on in East Austin, “but not a lot of food justice work,” she says. “We need to support the cooperative networks that are already there.”