The Moralizing Diet

Anacostia Neighborhood Museum's Vegetable & Flower Gardens, 1982 by Chris Capilongo

Black people are often told that we do not know how to eat, which is why we demand fast food to be in all of our communities and fastidiously patronize those establishments. Instead of supermarkets, we “prefer” cornerstores with multiple processed corn products, and we disdain fresh produce. This is akin to the financial argument: we would get more for our money if we invested and saved. My question is this: who chooses what goes in Black communities? The residents, the local government, or business owners? Between those three options, it is vital for people outside the segregated community–which was created by the real estate industry and government on all levels–to understand that there is no reason other than the dominant narrative that Black people do not have consistent healthy food options in their communities.

First of all, nothing stops cultural markets from locating in Black communities, which is why they generally do. The problem of the “grocery store” in Black neighborhoods is one of perception: people are often calibrated towards corporate grocery stores instead of cultural markets. Plenty of cultural markets with produce are located in communities of color because of the correct assumption that people want to eat food familiar to them. Despite the fact that these stores have several products that Black people can and do eat, their reputation within the dominant narrative is that they have “foreign foods” that “no one understands.” Much commuting time has been lost because of this successful falsehood that has been maintained. After all, tomatoes are tomatoes regardless of their source.

Moreover, most Black people do not have single family homes; those that do often live in planned communities with strict homeowners associations (“HOAs”) that dictate how people use their property. When renting, very few apartment complexes would consider putting community gardens while they oftens have pools. House rental restrictions also do not allow people to do much with “their” yards beyond maintenance. HOAs have aesthetic guidelines that demand people maintain uniform lawns to keep the neighborhoods uniform. None of these scenarios make room for Black people to control their diets by gardening from home.

Lastly, time is the most crucial element that determines people’s diets. If one is convinced that the only food available is at a corporate grocery store, more time is spent traveling to that grocery store, often far outside Black communities. Gardening takes time, and if most Black and Latino people work hourly jobs, the entire household must be committed to maintaining a garden due to sporadic availability. Cooking requires equipment and skills in addition to ingredients, all of which take time to acquire and develop. The lack of time available has dictated unfair assumptions that has led to disastrous consequences in investment and community engagement with many, if not all, Black neighborhoods.

It is easy to assume that Black people are unwilling or unable to learn how to cook. While it is more difficult, more people outside the segregated communities need to start asking harder questions. For example, why are people calibrated to shop only at large corporate supermarkets? Why is there consistent zoning for cornerstores and gas stations, but not for grocery stores? Why are there no allocations for gardens/farmlands until an area is no longer predominantly Black? Understanding the history of how Black diets have been controlled should generate more awareness of why displacement has meant more to Black diets than lack of a corporate grocery store.

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