By Naya Jones
Poor communities and people of the global majority (aka of color) don’t know how to cook, grow, or buy food.
People of the global majority do not know about “healthy” or “good” food.
Access equals proximity: if it’s close by, it’s accessible.
These three assumptions inform most food access work.* They surface in scholarship, media, policy, and community organizing. They circulate as part of broader stock stories about people of the global majority (aka of color): where they live, what they eat, what they want, and who they are. They perpetuate the myth that people of the global majority have not and do not feed themselves in ways that are local and sustainable.
I come across these stock stories again and again as someone who writes, teaches, and researches about food in Black communities.
Stock stories matter
In Storytelling for Social Justice, Bell et al. (2010) describe stock stories as narratives that perpetuate the racist status quo. Stock stories like the ones above reproduce the very injustice food access work seeks to address.
On the ground in Austin, Texas and elsewhere in the United States, stock stories materialize. They manifest in public interventions, urban planning, and non-profit programs. They inform concepts like “food deserts” and “food environments,” both deployed by urban renewal (or removal) projects in Austin and beyond. Stock stories are (re)making cities and towns, all too often in ways that displace poor and historically marginalized populations. They determine how certain people are “targeted,” sought after, and served.
Reflection as Action
As Food for Black Thought, we’re sometimes asked about what we “do” because we’re not building a garden, launching a mobile food truck, cultivating a farm, or other actions typically associated with food access work. I’m sometimes asked, “What can we do?” Gardens, farms, trucks, convenience stores, and other outlets – each can be transformative, especially when combined with critical reflection (see Soul Fire Farm, for example).
But reflection by itself is also action. In fact, one reason stock stories are “on repeat” in food access work is because reflection is not considered action. Not considered doing something.
By reflection I’m thinking of on-going self and group analysis rooted in systemic understanding of race/racism, capitalism, and other intersecting social structures. This reflection considers not just what is being built, but about who we are in this work, in the first place. How we are implicated in race/racism, privilege and oppression, local histories, and more? When is it our responsibility to speak, and when do we step back and listen?
Like all issues food injustice is not a “single issue.” Remembering Audre Lorde: “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” Building from stock stories, without critical reflection, perpetuates not one but multiple forms of oppression.
Beyond Stock Stories
I am not alone in critiquing how food access work is often practiced, especially under the banner of food justice. (See the work of Dr. Breeze Harper; Cadieux and Slocum 2015; Garzo Montalvo 2015; Toi Scott; and Guthman).
Stock stories are so pervasive, none of us are immune, including facilitators of the global majority like myself. Which leads to 3 questions that aren’t asked at all or enough.
In this blog series, join me for three questions. Each speaks back to the stock stories at the beginning of this piece (about knowledge, “good food,” and access). Each prompts critical reflection.
As a Black/Chicana involved in food work, these questions help me address stock stories I’ve internalized. They inspire humility and deep listening. Both of which, in my humble opinion, food access work could use a lot more of.
First question up next: What do Black communities know about growing, cooking, and buying food?
Based on my research, FFBT projects, and personal experiences, I focus on Black populations for this series. This focus is also timely. African-Americans continue to be a “target population” in food access work, motivated by health disparities. Specifically, food access work typically considers what poor(er) Black folks are eating (although health disparities affect African-Americans across socioeconomic lines). Though focused on African-Americans, this series is relevant for work with other historically marginalized populations as well.
Naya is co-founder of Food for Black Thought and a holistic wellness practitioner based in Austin, Texas. Currently, she’s a PhD Candidate at the University of Texas-Austin (Geography). Her research focuses on medicinal plant knowledge, foodways, and displacement among Black populations in the United States and Mexico.
* In this series, food access work refers to scholarship, policy work, non-profit efforts, and community organizing focused on increasing access to food. Often this work is labeled “food justice” but not always. Furthermore, what is considered food justice work is up for debate. With these points in mind, I use the slightly awkward phrase “food access work.”
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