A Bone to Pick with “Food Justice”: Feeding the Black Body

This blog is part of the A Bone to Pick with Food Justice series. This series explores assumptions about African-Americans in food justice work – and how to challenge those assumptions. Read the intro blog here.

By Naya Jones

“I know how to survive. And I know what it take to survive. I can plant a garden. If they said they wasn’t gonna sell no produce, I’d raise mine.” – F. Young, African-American, age 74, Austin, Texas (full interview here)

The first question that isn’t asked enough in food access work*: What do African-Americans know about cooking, buying, or growing food?

The assumption that Black communities (and other people of color) lack food knowledge is pervasive, though African-Americans have a long legacy of cooking, growing, and buying food. Historically, African-Americans knew food intimately as enslaved Africans and descendants, migrant laborers, cooks, and servers. Images used for ads like Cream of Wheat and Aunt Jemima’s breakfast foods “worked” because Black bodies were associated with food service (below).

cream of wheat

Cream of Wheat ad (1914) reads, “Ah reckon as how he’s de bes’ known man in de worl'”

During interviews, I usually find African-Americans are one to two generations removed from working land or growing a garden. Some elders, like Mr. Young quoted above, have been producing food from a young age. Teenagers carry on food knowledge, too. I talk with teenagers who learned to bake from their grandmas and are creating their own recipes; who cook with their mothers and sell meals to neighbors; and who grow home gardens with their grandmothers.

Toni Tipton Martin, Michael Twitty, Bryant Terry, Jessica B. Harris –  renowned Black food writers emphasize African-American (and Black diaspora) food histories. Meanwhile, around the country black farmers and gardeners and chefs continue to harness and build on this food knowledge.

Why, then, are Black folks so often treated as students without history when it comes to food access work? Here are two assumptions that fuel this stock story – and questions to challenge it.

Health Disparities as an Individual Problem
Health disparities are often a stated reason for food access work. African-Americans do face serious disparities, across socioeconomic status. While diet can play a role in disparities, there’s an assumption that they stem from “bad eating” among Black populations, without attention to other factors that can and do impact Black health. The focus becomes teaching African-Americans the how to eat, cook, buy, and grow “healthy” food. The effect is (more) surveillance of Black foodways and food choices, which are already stigmatized. Taking Black food knowledge seriously requires a broader understanding of health, one that takes into account chronic stress, environmental injustice, and other factors that impact African-American well-being. It involves understanding nutrition as just one aspect of food. Food is also about relationships, pleasure, and culture. The deeper invitation here is to acknowledge the complexity of Black lives.

Just the Help
Historically, African-Americans were involved in the United States food system as enslaved laborers, sharecroppers, nannies, maids, cooks, and migrant farmers. Each was (and is) considered unskilled labor. Lacking in knowledge. Informed by the know-how of (predominantly white) employers. Following orders.

Research disrupts this stock story. Plantation owners specifically sought enslaved Africans from certain coastal areas of the continent because of their experience with growing and preparing rice. They possessed environmental, agricultural, and culinary knowledge – knowledge that helped them survive on plantations and when they escaped. When enslaved African-Americans were not producing for the plantation economy, they cultivated and sold crops from their own gardens. They not only cooked recipes – they created them. During Reconstruction after the Civil War, during the Great Migration from the South in the early twentieth century, and through urbanization, African-Americans relied on food knowledge for sharecropping, dooryard gardens, cultural events and institutions, their own businesses, and more. (See Black Rice, In the Shadow of Slavery, afroculinaria.com, Maroon Societies, The Jemima Code, Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs).

This is not the typical portrait of Black lack or disempowerment. Though this research is available on-line, on blogs, in bookstores, and in libraries, it does not inform most food access work and related policy.

Flipping the script

Lurking here is a racial script. This script casts Black folks as perpetually unwell and uneducated about food. The script sustains white superiority and Black inferiority while keeping African-Americans in their social and economic “place.” When food access work builds from this script, it perpetuates the injustice that fosters food injustice in the first place.

Instead of assuming Black populations don’t know about food, why not ask what they know? What they remember? What are they already teaching or learning about food? The work of authors and researchers noted above, and the work of organizations like Oldways, asks these critical questions. The opportunity is for food access work more broadly to do the same, and for these questions to shape policy, interventions, programs, and the quote “built environment” on the ground.

On a deeper level, the opportunity is to ask if you or I or others involved in food access work are truly willing to flip this script. After all, doing so does shift Black people, youth and adults, from being in need to being resourceful. While this shift is easy enough to write down on the page, it’s a profound one that disrupts all kinds of assumptions, relationships, and roles predicated on Black lack. What’s really at stake if this script is flipped? If we dare believe that African-Americans can be and have been knowledgeable about food?

Last blog was about how none of us are immune to stock stories because of white supremacy, patriarchy, and other pervasive social structures. And, these questions hold a different responsibility for me as an African-American/Xicana than for a white woman involved in food access work. My partner’s responsibility as a Black man is different from mine.

As who you are, how will you challenge the “feeding the Black body” stock story? How do you already do this work? Are you willing to listen instead of speak, pause rather than act, learn rather than teach – if that’s the socially-just thing to do?


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 activism and 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. 

Copyright 2016 Get Rooted Consulting LLC