It’s no secret that Central Brooklyn is a poster child for the term “food desert.” 81% of the retail stores selling food in Bedford-Stuyvesant are bodegas, Only 30% of these bodegas sell reduced-fat milk, 28% of them carry apples, oranges, and bananas, and 10% carry leafy green vegetables. No wonder there are disproportionate rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other diet related conditions.
But if you were to knock on doors throughout Central Brooklyn, asking average people what issues they care about and the problems they’d like to see addressed in the community, access to healthy, sustainable food would not be among the top five mentioned. Maybe not even in the top ten.
How do I know? Been there. Asked that.
Peer a little deeper however in Central Brooklyn’s sub cultures, and you’ll find hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people buzzing around, organizing CSAs and fledgling food coops, strengthening relationships with local farmers, creating recipes for organic dishes, working on food security policy initiatives, and building community gardens and green markets.
Assign whatever activist labels you want: Food justice, food security, food change, the “locavore” movement. The bottom line is people are demonstrating their concern about what and how we eat, not just with complaints, but with action that is literally changing the landscape of areas like Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights, Brownsville, East New York, East Flatbush, Clinton Hill, Fort Greene and Red Hook.
But just how “average” are these so-called foodies? The stereotype of the food activist is middle class, college-educated, a relative new arrival to the neighborhood, and under thirty-five and white.
Like most stereotypes, anecdotal evidence suggests there is truth embedded in it. But there are plenty who rip this stereotype to shreds.
For instance, the healthy food movement is not new to Central Brooklyn. Central Brooklyn activists, like members of the East cultural movement, were running food buying clubs and coops and building relationships with local farmers four decades ago. I was part of a short-lived food coop in Crown Heights in 1988, and organizing a food coop was on the agenda in the early nineties when I was a part of building the Central Brooklyn Partnership in the early nineties. The Magnolia Tree Earth Center, which has pioneered community gardens and green culture in Bed-Stuy, has been around for more than two decades.
And the movement is not racially monolithic. The New York Chapter of Malcolm X Grassroots Movement for instance, whose membership is people of African descent, has put food justice squarely on its organizing agenda. I also happen to belong to a cooperative group of food justice activists, all of whom are people of color, most of whom are long-time Central Brookynites, and many of whom are over 35. Also, if you happened to attend the recent Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference, you would know that there are plenty of working class people of color who are passionate about food.
And if you talk to the “average” young, white food activist, the portrait is also far more complicated and nuanced. Some are hipsters and artists from urban areas, others are agriculturalists or hail from rural areas. Some are professionals, some are on public assistance. Most likely you’ll find an independent minded, socially conscious soul who is increasingly aware of the surrounding racial and class dynamics.
Still divisions, whether perceived or real, threaten the possibility of a broader, more mainstream movement. Many people I’ve talked to dismiss food activism or, for instance, discussions of organic and vegan diets, as luxuries, revolutionary chic, harbingers of gentrification. And when you look at food change efforts and groups in Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights, the fact is most – however not all – are heavily segregated, not just in terms of race, but class as well.
In a recent Newsweek article Park Slope resident Lisa Miller acknowledges that there is indeed a gulf between the aspirations and cultural practices of people who identify with the food movement, and the considerations of families for whom buying organic food from a CSA for instance might be too expensive, impractical, or simply unpalatable.
Miller quotes Adam Drewnoski, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington, as saying “food has become the premier marker of social distinctions, that is to say – social class. It used to be clothing and fashion, but no longer, now that ‘luxury’ has become affordable and available to all.”
The good news is, as even Miller’s article points out,
the food justice movement is young, and there is still time to get it right.
Right now, probable mayoral candidates like Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and City Council President Christine Quinn have both staked out thoughtful positions on creating sophisticated food systems that improve food choices and health conditions in low- and moderate income, are environmentally responsible, and support local farming economies while generating jobs.
Quinn’s proposal, which was unveiled last week, would have the city develop local food economies by investing in local producers and markets, expand local food manufacturing, and getting retailers and restaurants to use regionally produced food products.
It’s also worth noting existing modest policy initiatives, like Health Bucks which provides cash bonuses for using food stamps spent at many city farmers markets, and the Green Cart and Healthy Bodegas programs which try to introduce healthier foods to the front line of food delivery.
But the real challenge is to not just summon the political will and resources to remake local food systems, but to shift the very culture of food in Central Brooklyn itself. We have to make progressive policies and issues relevant to a wide swath of Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights residents, in the way that say, improving public education, reducing crime, or creating jobs commands their attention. We must find ways to make healthy, local food not only available, but as affordable and compelling as high processed foods.
And ultimately, food justice, can’t just be about the food, but about the kind of community we look to build. The programs and the institutions we create, from the CSAs and the green markets and food cooperatives, have to ensure that working class people, and people of color, and seniors, and teens, and long time residents, are not just consumers and members, but leaders, policy makers and shot-callers as well.