KAYTE YOUNG: From WFIU in Bloomington Indiana I'm Kayte Young, and this is Earth Eats.
ASANTE REESE: We can quantify where to put stores, we can quantify where to put farmers' markets, we can quantify how many black farmers there are, and how much capital might be needed to support but you can't quantify joy.
KAYTE YOUNG: On today's show a conversation with food scholar Ashante Reese. She's a professor of African and African diaspora studies at UT Austin. And she's the author of Black Food Geographies and co-editor of the recent collection Black Food Matters; Racial Justice in the Wake of food Justice. We have a lot to talk about, so stay with us.
KAYTE YOUNG: Earth Eats is produced from the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington Indiana. We wish to acknowledge and honor the indigenous communities native to this region and recognize that Indiana University is built on indigenous homelands and resources. We recognize the Miami, Delaware, Potawatomi, and Shawnee people as past, present, and future caretakers of this land.
Renee Reed is back with Earth Eats News. Hello Renee.
RENEE REED: Hello Kayte.
Some hope the single dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine would make it easier to populations to vaccinate vulnerable hard to reach populations. But as Harvest Public Media's Dana Cronin reports, some health officials won't be distributing the vaccine to these communities for fear of backlash.
DANA CRONIN: The Johnson & Johnson vaccine proved safe and effective and its clinical trial and was 100% effective in preventing hospitalization and death. It did report a slightly lower efficacy though the other two FDA authorized vaccines. Omayra Giachello is a regional health officer with Illinois Department of Public Health. She says that's why the department won't be using the J&J vaccine for underserved communities.
OMAYRA GIACHELLO: It might be, "Oh really? You're going to give them that because they're African American, because they're migrants? Like they should be given the same rights as someone that's Anglo-Saxon get that Moderna of the Pfizer if it's being offered."
DANA CRONIN: Other states though including Iowa are allocating Johnson & Johnson doses to meat packing plant communities in order to vaccinate essential workers as quickly as possible. I'm Dana Cronin, Harvest Public Media.
RENEE REED: Health experts say the best vaccine is the one that becomes available to you first. As freezing temperatures left millions in Texas without power or access to clean water last month, the nonprofit organization World Central Kitchen partnered with local restaurants to provide some relief. Founded by Chef Jose Andres the mission of World Central Kitchen is to partner with local organizations and kitchens to quickly provide fresh and nutritious meals to survivals of disasters.
Starting with the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the organization works all over the world including in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. After last month's storm and power outage in Texas the organization started their work in Houston and then quickly expanded to four of the cities, providing tens of thousands of meals in a few days.
In Houston, Burns Original BBQ prepared chopped beef sandwiches while Thai restaurant Street to Kitchen provided Pad Thai. In Austin, New American restaurant Sala and Betty made beef stroganoff with toast and green beans. Other restaurants chose to work independently to provide meals for the community.
World Central Kitchen has been active across the country throughout the pandemic in response to a growing rate of food insecurity. Their Restaurants for the People Program which was already active in Houston pays local restaurants to provide fresh meals for residents in need. By last July the program had partnered with 2,400 restaurants and caterers to serve more than 200,000 meals a day according to the Food and Environment Reporting Network.
Andres in World Central Kitchen have been advocating for the FEMA empowering essential deliveries act or FEED act which has the support of a bipartisan group of senators. The legislation would provide additional federal funding to pay small and mid-sized restaurants to partner with aid organizations in their communities. On February 2nd Joe Biden issued an executive order that does exactly that, directing FEMA to cover 100% of the costs for restaurants to partner with nonprofits to provide meals.
Nate Mook, CEO of World Central Kitchen celebrated the order noting that it would help businesses keep running and keep restaurant workers from becoming food insecure as well.
Thanks to Toby Foster and Harvest Public Media's Dana Cronin for those reports. For Earth Eats News, I'm Renee Reed.
KAYTE YOUNG: We'll be devoting the rest of the show to my conversation with Ashante Reese Assistant Professor in the Department of African and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She's the author of Black Food Geographies; Race, Self-Reliance and Food Access in Washington D.C. Reese's work examines the structural forces that dictate food access in urban areas and highlights the ways in which black residents navigate the inequities in our food systems. Reese looks at the history of Deanwood, a majority-black neighborhood in Washington D.C., through extensive ethnographic fieldwork. She spent time in the neighborhood in backyard gardens and small stores talking to residents about their lives and their experiences. She connects the stories of community members to larger issues of racism and gentrification. In her introduction she states, "Black Food Geographies is a love letter to and an affirmation of what is possible when we listen to Black people's food stories beyond an all-encompassing narrative of lack."
Reese is an anthropologist and a food studies scholar. I started by asking her what brought her to food studies.
ASHANTE REESE: For people who've read Black Food Geographies, I talk a little about it in the introduction. As a middle school teacher in Atlanta Georgia, and the story I tell there is about taking students to get a physical exam so that they could be on the track team and wanting to feed them before they home and that experience in the grocery store was super interesting. Like watching normally rambunctious 12-year-olds be very quiet, and almost shrinking within themselves. And then getting back to my house and making dinner for them. And one of the students were we're eating and she just says, "Why are your so grocery stores so nice?" And I was like, "It's the grocery store, it's not really that nice."
I mean I was 22! I wasn't thinking about nice, not nice, I'm like, "This is just where I shop." But then we got into a lot of discussion about what was available what wasn't available, what did they notice, and I think I felt like I was naive to a huge part of their world and of the world. Like food where it's located, where it's not. And so when I decided I want to go to graduate school that's what I decided I would study.
KAYTE YOUNG: Her latest book is a collection that she co-edited with Hannah Garth.
[TO ASHANTE] I would really like to start with the title; Black Food Matters; Racial Justice in the wake of Food Justice. There is a lot packed into that title and I would love to hear you talk about that a little bit.
ASANTE REESE: I'm not sure how we got the first part of the title - "Black Food Matters". I think we were you know riffing off Black Lives Matter, like a lot of titles have been doing lately. The second part of the title was actually more intentional I think in the sense that we have been talking and thinking a lot about Christina Sharpe's work In the Wake, and we wanted to think about literally what does food justice mean if we think about it in the wake of slavery.
And then the second thing that we were trying to get at was sometimes there's an assumed connection between racial justice and food justice and we wanted to get at that... maybe we shouldn't assume that. That every food justice effort out there, even if it's good is not necessarily taking up racial justice as a focus or as a lens through which to understand or rethink the food system.
So I think those two things were really important to us and we also wanted to think about how theorizing food justice, theorizing racial justice as the primary kind of driver of the work and food just as being a... I often think about food justice or food work as a way to get closer to racial justice. But I think Hannah agrees with this. So this was something that we were trying to tease out in the book and think through what happens if we explicitly think about theories that come out of black studies for example, alongside food studies, does it open up other things and other ways of thinking? Are there ways that Blackness are taken for granted in food studies and food justice work? Can we highlight that more? Can we be more explicit in our approach? I think those were the kinds of questions we were asking when we put together that title.
KAYTE YOUNG: Well I had just finished reading Christina Sharp's book when I started reading this book and so I was really interested in the ways that you both referenced her work and wake work. And I think that what you're doing in this book and in Black Food Geographies really does feel not just in the wake of slavery what does food justice look like but also those ways that Christina Sharpe talks about black joy coming in and some of the like wake work isn't just about the sort of after death.
ASANTE REESE: I think I'd be remiss if I didn't say that over the last five years since that book has been published it has... if anyone asked me top 5 books that have had an impact on my thinking it is one of them. Always probably the first one that I'm going to name. I have two copies, they're both tattered, I have a digital copy too. I'm always thinking with ideas from Christina's work, and I really appreciate it a lot. And I think part of what you're getting at this idea that wake work isn't just the work of mourning I think was something that we wanted to think about in the text too. Like what is it mean to not just think about black people's bodies is as being at risk for health concerns, etcetera? But actually also think about black leadership and ingenuity and everyday practices.
And I mean essentially like a lot of what happens in the book as world making too, like people are making lives on a daily basis. And I think that's important because I also think that so much has shifted in grown since I first read Cynthia Hartman Lose Your Mother and her definition or her use of the phrase the "after Lazarus slavery", I think that has been taken up in so many beautiful ways, and in so many different directions, in terms of how do we look beyond the kind of skewed life chances, or lessened life chances that are a result of enslavement and all of its accompanying inequities that keep reproducing themselves.
And I think that what that means too though is that you also have to take black world making in Black theory making seriously. It cannot just be that black folks are the subject of the matter but also are producing things. Producing ways of life, but producing epistemologies that I think can really help us understand food justice more broadly.
KAYTE YOUNG: So food justice and food justice movements, they're central topics in Black Food Matters, and I know that the term means different things to different people so I would love to hear your definition, just what is it for you to talk about food justice? I know that's complicated.
ASANTE REESE: It is complicated! I feel like it depends on the day that you're asking. But I will say well the first thing I'll say is that my initial foray into this work, I was very much thinking about access. So I've been working on this paper lately that is really me going back to some of my early thinking and rethinking my early thinking. I've been working on this this paper that basically asked the question, “What is possible when we think far beyond access, when access isn't the end goal?" And so that's a long way of saying that my initial thoughts, I was really... obviously you see in the first book, really interested in questions of like where things are, in particular supermarkets and how did they get there? And then what does that mean for how communities understand and relate to food?
And I think that's important work. But lately especially because I have spent more time working with the organizations like the National Black Food Justice Alliance and like deepening my own kind of understanding, I've started thinking more about who owns the means of production? Who gets to decide what is produced and where it's produced? Who's doing the labor of the producing? And it's not that I didn't think about these things before, but I think they're taking so much more space to me than the question of access. And also how I've come to the belief that it is impossible to think about equity without thinking about who is owning and who's making decisions about what's produced.
And I think the early days of the pandemic, we're coming up on a year of it, made this a crystal-clear. I was living in Baltimore at the time. You've got two things happening, there's a pandemic and then you've got protests in the streets everyday. And I lived close to a grocery store and I would walk to the store, and in the height of the protest in the wake of George Floyd's murder but also the kind of these broader frustrations, legitimate frustrations around racial inequity, and murder at the hands of the state. One day I'd walk to this grocery store to go get groceries and all the windows were boarded up. And there is a sign on it that just said we're boarded up but we're open.
And I just remember feeling like wow like this is that juxtaposition of these worlds that like rub up against each other but not quite meet. You've got hundreds maybe thousands of people in the street protesting and you've got this grocery store corporation concerned about property. That their property might be damaged, and they weren't even close to downtown. I mean we were close to downtown, but they weren't even close to where the protests were happening.
And I just remember thinking that at any given moment any grocery store can pull the plug, can shutter up their doors, their windows, whatever. The same thing had happened in 2015 in Baltimore when Freddie Gray was murdered, grocery stores and corner stores were boarding up to protect their property. And I think all kinds of things just remind me how important, why it's so important that we don't just rely on corporations. Why it's so important that we have to think about community control and in thinking about community control, I don't even the emphasis is on the control part, for me it's on the community part. What does it for someone who produces or distributes food to be deeply embedded within and a part of a community such that meeting community needs really matters. I think those are questions that we have to ask.
Obviously I'm also in Texas right now and so the winter storms further highlighted this for me. Going into a supermarket, seeing completely empty, almost completely empty shells. There's got to be a better way. I think there has to be other models that are not consumer-driven and not driven by this kind of what I think of is deeply entrenched individualism that is like save myself, and that's more important than saving others.
So yeah that was a long response to your question, but I think food justice for me necessarily always has to include racial justice in the sense of thinking about equity, but also who owns the means of production, whose laboring, I think there's a question about land there that we need to be more thoughtful about. Like who actually controls or stewards land. But yeah less corporate control would be nice.
KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah I think it's been really interesting to think about who produces the food and through the pandemic and who's providing food in all the different ways whether it's at a grocery store, or meat packing plant, or farm fields. And it's something that I'm often talking with people about on this show is that access is one piece of it and affordability is in conflict with workers’ rights and being paid well and working conditions. You know all of those things. It's really hard to have both the access, and the affordability, and these more equitable and environmentally sustainable, and all those things. They just always seem to be kind of in conflict with each other. It's really hard to wrap my head around sometimes.
ASANTE REESE: No it is, and I was just thinking about how they're in conflict with each other and that they are not natural conflicts. Right? Like they are like corporately produced conflicts that could be mitigated. And I think that's where my hope lies, reminding myself that the conflicts that exist are not natural. And we can we can find the rupture points or the pressure points and try to make more spaces where maybe we can experiment with other ways of relating to food and to each other.
Which also makes me remember that another part of this kind of food justice thing that I've noticed over the years is that whenever you start to add justice to a thing it gets really serious. I guess what I want to say is it gets serious in a way that lately I've been thinking about where delight, and where pleasure, and joy come into our definitions of justice. And for me it's thinking about like... and I don't think this is distinct from thinking about like culturally appropriate foods and I know a lot of people write about that. But I really mean like the embodied sensations of having food that you enjoy. And I think part of maybe why that doesn't come up a lot in conversations around food justice is that's something that's hard to quantify. We can quantify where to put stores, we can quantify where to put farmers' markets, we can quantify how many black farmers there are, and how much capital might be needed to support, but you can't quantify joy. But I have become much more interested in those things because I think those are the things that are connected to what makes the need for food more than just a biological need. Like what are the social and cultural functions that food serves. Those are messier questions, but they are increasingly more interesting to me.
KAYTE YOUNG: What you're saying is making me think how those aren't natural conflicts. And thinking about growing food and spaces like community gardens, or urban gardens, or neighborhood gardens, or even just home gardens, but that's a place where all those things come together - the affordability, the highest quality, and the joy of producing food. I mean for me anyway; I get all of those things in a garden. And yet I don't think gardening is the answer or something but it's just interesting to think about it that way, that when we all have backyard gardens or we all have the ability to grow food, it does kind of bring all those things together.
ASANTE REESE: Yeah I think one thing that comes to mind as you're talking is really the politics of scale. At what scale is it tenable to hold all these things together, at what scale or what scales. And I think that's part of where the conflict comes in because the pressures of capitalism are to standardize, to make things efficient, and to be able to package and send things out as quickly, and as far as possible. And that's not always a good bedfellow for thinking about questions of slowness, or what does it mean to tend to something food or otherwise that is living and like respond to community needs, respond to the needs of plants and vegetables too. And who can backyard garden easily. Like who has the time, and for whom does that feel like ease. Because often I'm thinking about how especially during the pandemic, like gardening, tending to veggies but also plants generally has been a source of calm and respite for a number of people including myself.
And then I think about how long were thinking about scale and we're thinking about these kind of mass corporate farms, do farmworkers have that same kind of joy? And the answer is likely no, very likely no, and I think all of that is a question of scale. And how scale is not just about what is produced but we have different relationships to things based on at what scale they are produced.
KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah, yeah, I mean I think all I have to do is think about a meatpacking plant in that all just because it's really crystal clear for me.
[NARRATING] If you're just joining us I'm talking with Ashante Reese professor of African Studies and African Diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of Black Food Geographies. Her latest book is Black Food Matters, Racial Justice in the wake of Food Justice. It's a collection she co-edited with Hannah Garth.
[INTERVIEWING] Many of the pieces in Black Food Matters are taking a critical look at food justice movements, various modes and locations and how racism and antiblackness remains present in many of these well-meaning organizations that are focused on food access and food justice.
I'm thinking about white lead organizations seeing black communities as problems that need to be fixed, or denying black food traditions, seeing black food ways as largely unhealthy, or focusing on lack rather than what is there, and the ways in which people in these communities are finding ways to get their needs met. So I was just wondering if you had anything you wanted to talk about it specifically in terms of some of those critiques of some of the movements that some of us might be familiar with.
ASANTE REESE: Yes, I think food justice has become mainstream in the sense that there are a lot of funders who are willing to fund to food justice related projects. That is super interesting to watch as a researcher but also as a slight outsider; I don't run an organization or anything like that. Because the question in my mind is always what is fundable and what isn't fundable. I wish we had like data on where money goes to food justice organizations, because I do think you would see some trends.
I think a lot of the trends, this is not necessarily to say that organizations aren't doing good work, but it is to say when I think about the most radical work that is happening most of it is not being funded at large scales. When I'm thinking about, currently I'm thinking about Black Yield Institute in Baltimore it's one of my favorite organizations to think about. They're unapologetically black and radical in how they're thinking about food, not just at the end of like getting food to people and nourishing the body, but they use food to think about how do we how can we revitalize and rethink Cherry Hill as a as a predominantly black community.
And I think that's true of a lot of black lead organizations who are doing that work and I think that's a different kind of work then I'm just trying to get food on people's plate. And so I think there's some ideological differences in the kinds of work that's happening and so that shows up in some of the critiques.
I also I think that for most people questions around food are so bound up in questions around morality that it shows up in the work that is happening publicly. And you see that very well in Hannah Garth's chapter. I think it's one thing to be committed to healthy food. And I think questions around what is healthy are morally charged. I don't think they're just based on whatever guidelines of the moment. And I think that there's a lot of morality there. That's a set of questions.
And then there's a set of questions that are different which I think about in terms of the self-determination thing. And so this is a thing that I often say to people, will you fight for people's right to have access to food only if they eat the things that you think they should be eating? Or are you waiting for people's rights to determine how they want to eat, when they want to eat, what they want to eat, and that have nothing to do with your definition as an organization for what healthy means.
I think that's a really important question to ask because, while I do think it's important to think about are there things we can do, whether that's just kind of understanding what people desire and how those desires and mitigated by what they have access to, I do think that's important. But I also think it's really important for people to be able to make decisions.
We have this kind of false binary around. Like there's this class dynamic here.
And I like to think about it, I use this example when I was in graduate school I babysat for a lot of families because that's how I made extra money. Almost exclusively white families. We talked about fast food in relation to low-income, poor, or communities of color, but do you know what these kids wanted to do after school? They always always wanted to go to McDonald's. And you know where I took them? McDonald's. Like that's we would go, that's where they went.
And so I guess I say that to say that like the conversations have become so manufactured and so limited around... and so to me sometimes the question is what are we actually talking about. What is the problem that we're actually tackling, is it about health and healthiness? I think that could be it. Is it about access? Is it about labor? Is it about people being able to self-determine the kinds of lives they want to live?
I fall mostly into that camp. It’s not that I don't care that people get to be healthy, but it is that I think that people get to have some say and what they determine healthy to mean. What I think of as my work is that I want to fight really hard for the conditions where people can have a plethora of choices not just the one that I would want them to make.
KAYTE YOUNG: Or that when you do go to grab something quick to go that maybe there's a lot of options and not just McDonald's, and Burger King, and Wendy's which were all the same option.
ASANTE REESE: And I'm not pro fast food by any means, in the sense that I'm not I'm not a fast-food apologist. But I am practical, and I do understand that people have stressors and have things in our lives that make it difficult to always get home and spend an hour cooking a meal. I love doing that and then there's some days were that feels nearly impossible, and I only take care of myself. So imagine that feeling multiplied by having a family to take care of.
So I think there's a part of me that always wants to make sure that we're kind of straddling this line between the freedom dreams that we have, for what we want the food system to look like and then also have a foot in the actual material lives of people who are experiencing the brunt of the inequities that this is the food system produces.
KAYTE YOUNG: Your chapter and your book Black Food Geographies, you focus on Deanwood which is a community in Washington D.C., and some of what you're looking at especially in the book are focusing on looking at supermarkets and the availability of how many supermarkets in a in a particular area. And yet I also know that you're critical of or not adopting of the term "food desert". And I would love to hear you talk a little bit more about that because a lot of times what people think of when they think of food deserts is the absence of grocery stores. I would just like to hear you talk about how you navigate that term.
ASANTE REESE: And yeah so I guess the first thing I want to say is I think there are lots of people, both activists and academics who have critiques of the term. For me it has always been that I think the metaphor doesn't hold up when we actually think about what a desert is and how it how it functions.
And so ironically, or maybe not so ironically part of the reason why Black Food Geographies doesn't only focus on supermarkets is because like a desert I want to think about the life that's underneath. Like underneath the bareness that we might see on a regular basis or if we're not looking for the right things. And so that's why there's partly the focus on the small store and the focus on the community garden because the story of food doesn't start and stop with supermarkets.
But the other thing around the food deserts that is important and I think we can see this in how we can track some of the policies related that use food dessert as a term and like use it as a way to think about food justice, is that focusing on the product we never really get to the underlying processes that created a play. Places don't just end up a certain way.
And D.C. is interesting because at the time that I was doing research in Deanwood there was some efforts to start to revitalize the Deanwood. The Office of City Planning and others kind of actively admitted that there had been 40 years of disinvestment in this area, and they wanted to make it "right". And I'm using "right" in air quotes for those who are listening. And that level of awareness with super interesting to me because the "making it right" meant in part tearing down some low-income housing to, eventually - which hasn't started yet, build some mixed income, mixed-use housing.
And to think about these things like food that Deanwood used to have a plethora small groceries and restaurants that no longer exist and how do we rebuild that? The problem is in that acknowledgment there's nothing about process. The city is not implicating itself in this process. And it's not an effort to repair, it's effort to remake. And I think that's part of what happens with food deserts. It's not a repairative frame. It's not thinking about how do we make something right that was that was the result of processes of redlining, of disenfranchisement, of not being not being willing to give loans for example to black entrepreneurs. How do we even begin to make that right?
And one other thing I like to say about food deserts when I'm talking to people is that as much as I don't like the term and I don't use it I think we should just completely do away with it, I also was one of those people who thought it was okay when I initially started my work. I think the more, and I learned, and the more I talked to people the more it didn't hold up. But it was it was a more progressive frame than locating a problem in an individual's bodies though.
KAYTE YOUNG: Right, yeah, definitely, definitely. It was a step.
ASANTE REESE: It was a step! So I would be remiss not to say that because I think it's a really important thing that language matters, but language also changes, and it develops over time. People always ask me, the next thing is, "Okay so what do we use instead if we shouldn't say food desert?"
And my first response is well A. I want you to just kind of reflect on that this isn't just about being politically correct, that how we name things has certain outcomes. Maybe just step back and think about why you want to get this right. But also I think with my students I often talk about low or unequal food access especially if we're thinking outside of urban areas. Because I think there's some specificity to urban food access. And people who are doing rural food access definitely helped me understand that better. My own upbringing in rural areas I think also helps me understand that better.
But if I'm talking about like cities, particularly cities with black majorities, I do use the term "food apartheid". I think it's important because I do think apartheid points to policies in a way that is really important. I get people's hesitancy around using "food apartheid", they think about the South African context. But the word "apartheid" itself, this partitioning, this divvying up of people along racial or ethnic backgrounds and policies that uphold that. When you think about food in the U.S., especially the urban U.S., it makes perfect sense.
KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah, and when you look at D.C. in particular and just how clear those divisions are. And I'm sure many many other cities.
ASANTE REESE: Yeah. I should do this, I always say this, and every time I say it I think, "You should actually do this." But it's true, if you look at maps of LA, you look of Detroit, you look at maps even of Atlanta, I haven't actually done this for Houston yet, but you look at these massive other cities that have either black majority or sizable black population and you see very similar trends. Milwaukee for example. And that's when you know it can't just be about individual bodies. That's when you know it can't even be just about individual cities. That there are policies that travel, and they have kind of similar impacts in these different in these different cities.
And this again going back to my thoughts about politics of scale, at that level like that is the brilliance of GIS mapping, for me part of the brilliance. That you can see these trends across cities. And then the question of what you do about it, I think that has to happen at a different level. That isn't kind of trying to make everything uniform across the cities, but really thinking about, "Okay we know this is produced and their similar patterns across cities but what were the actual policies that were put in place in these different instances, and then how do we go about undoing the work that those policies did."
KAYTE YOUNG: So I would love for you to talk a little bit more about your book and also about the chapter in Black Food Matters about the ways that people in these communities that have dealt with these policies that have created these inequities. How are people making a way and finding their ways to thrive and survive?
ASANTE REESE: Black Food Geographies as a book isn't the book that I thought that I was writing, in the best ways possible. And part of it is because I had these thoughts; I thought that I would spend a lot of time with people in their kitchens, that I would go on these grocery shopping trips with them, that I would maybe cook with them. All things that maybe I'll do in the future for a different project, but that's what I thought.
But then when I started in field work for Black Food Geographies I was super interested in how self-reliance kept coming up in conversations, and I wasn't asking about it. So it wasn't that I was asking people questions, it was coming up kind of naturally. And I thought that was really interesting.
And then the other thing that was something that I had not expected and maybe I should have, was that many people wanted to know if I was in nutritionist or if I was there to teach people how to eat better. And I think that was probably one of the best gifts because it made me rethink my methodology. It made me think about how being in people's kitchens, cooking with them, going on grocery shopping with them, even if it wasn't intentional creates a certain kind of surveillance for them that I think black folks are subjected to in various areas of life including health but other things too.
And I didn't want to do that. I thought I could earn people's trust, but there's still this kind of uneasiness that I had with, even though this isn't causing harm, I still couldn't for myself name how to mitigate the feelings that come with knowing you're being watched. That's the only way I could put it. And I know that feeling, and I didn't want to reproduce that particularly with food because most people have some understanding that black food is demonized. Or most mothers for example will have heard in some contexts, even if it wasn't directly directed at them, that like feeding fast food to your children is bad. Like I just didn't want to contribute to that, so I didn't do that.
But what I did do, I spent a lot of time on my own exploring the neighborhood, spent a lot of time talking to people in places that they chose. So sometimes it was their homes, sometimes it was Denny's, the only sit-down restaurant in the neighborhood. Sometimes it was in Mr. Jones' store that I write about in one of the chapters, sometimes it's at the community garden. I let people decide where they wanted to spend time with me or welcome me into those spaces, and I think that was a really good choice.
And in doing that, I think sometimes food gets abstracted from everyday life. I don't know if that makes sense, like food is a product of everyday life and yet sometimes it gets written about as if it's not connected to other things. And I think the beautiful thing about changing up my methodology is that I got to think about how the store operated just on a daily function regardless of what people were buying or consuming, or how this garden functioned regardless of what people are eating. So in other words my methodology shifted from like what was on people's plates, to really just trying to think more like about the context in which people were operating in.
I wanted it to feel, and you can tell me if you felt this way to you as you were reading, I really wanted it to feel like I was writing a book about a community and food happened to be the topic that I was using as a lens to understand this community more broadly. That was the goal. And it wasn't hard I think because people kept telling me about the community. It's like talking about food brought up other things, it brought up memories, it brought up past stories that they knew. And it was easy.
One example, one of the people who I called Allison in the book, whenever I go to visit I go visit her. And what's been interesting is over time, like when I was doing fieldwork we're sitting in her living room, we're chatting, she's telling me stories about her childhood. And then she takes me out onto the porch and we're looking at what is an empty field across the street from her house, but she's telling me what used to be there, that it used to be a bakery. There was a store that ended up turning into a church.
And she's like, "Yeah that's where the old Safeway used to be." Like she's telling me these things that I can't see, but like I can imagine because she's narrating the memories to me.
I guess the last time I visited her, it was ago two years ago, it before the pandemic. Gosh, pandemic time. Two years ago and when I went I was like, "Oh man, what are they building over here?"
There is now like these apartments or condos or something in that space that she narrated to me that you could be something else, are now places where people live. And so that's what I mean by people like, I came to her to talk about food and because of our relationship I've literally seen the space change. She's seen it change her entire life; she's lived in the same house her entire life. And I got a glimpse of that because she's like narrating things to me. So I think that's one example.
Mr. Jones' is store is another example. It first opened in 1948. It has been in continuously owned and operated by the same family. And being in that store... it's a food store. It's something like a corner store except it's not. I call it a small grocery in the book, and I still think that doesn't quite approximate how it operates. But being there I learned a lot. I learned what families have been in the community for a long time, I learned about people's relationships, why kids for example would want to come to Mr. Jones' store versus a corner store that was a block down the street. A lot of it has to do with long-term relationships that families had with the store owners. But also a lot of it had to do with the kind of respect that the kids thought they experience the store.
There are stores in the neighborhood that have signs on the door that say leave your backpack upfront, no more than three students in the store at a time. Like there are like these rules. And it's not true and it wasn't true at Mr. Jones' store. Kids could come in, he would tell them how to line up, they would line up, and like make their purchases and they would leave. So I think that's what I mean by, there are these ways that I got to learn about community that weren't... food brought me to it, but they weren't ultimately just about the food.
KAYTE YOUNG: I probably should have asked this before, can you explain what you mean by "black foods geographies"? Why the term geographies?
ASANTE REESE: This is interesting because "Black Food Geographies" wasn't the title of the book initially. So it turned out to be a really good title, shout out to the press for making good sense, and making good choices, and helping me make good choices. For me, so there two geographers I want to shout out Maggie Ramirez and Naya Jones who are two actual trained in geography, who write about black food geographies.
And I think we write about it differently. Maggie Ramirez was talking in her work, has talked a lot about organizations and how they fit into this kind of concept. And Naya Jones I think we do some similar work, but she actually has done a lot of work here in Austin with thinking about the ways that people's embodied experience, particularly black youths embodied experiences, when navigating an antiblack food landscape. And she's done work with co-producing research with these youth, that I think that's I think that's a pretty beautiful way to think about how to do this work.
For me I kind of think about black food geographies in at least three ways. There is the affective connections that people have to food, and to space. There is the literal kind of boundedness of space, and I mean that not just in terms of neighborhood boundaries but more so in terms of how people traverse the neighborhood - where they're willing to go, where they're not willing to go. So I think about memories and nostalgia. There's a chapter in the book that is all about memory and nostalgia. I think that's significant because so much of food access and food justice work talks about the present. And people talked to me a lot about the past and so I wanted to think about how the past informs of present. Not just in terms of policy, which is on one hand what we do really well in food justice but in terms what people remember too, and how those memories and informed what they thought they should or shouldn't have, or how they should or shouldn't be relating.
So there's the emotional connection, and there's the actual geography or the boundedness of the space, and memory, and nostalgia. I think those are the three tenants that I included in Black Food Geographies.
KAYTE YOUNG: Could you say what you and Hannah Garth were hoping, what you had in mind was putting together this collection, what you were hoping to come up this book?
ASANTE REESE: That's a really good question. I mean I wish Hannah was here so we could both like answer this. One of the things that we were definitely thinking about is how do we showcase black scholars, particularly junior scholar who are doing this kind of work right now. And not just showcase them because they're black but truly because I think that there were some epistemological differences showing up in the work and we wanted to try to bring them together. Because we thought maybe if we bring more of it together it becomes clear that there are critical food studies that we are all engaged in, and I'm really grateful for that. And then there's a strand of critical food studies that is drawing specifically from black studies in some innovative ways we wanna to bring them together. So I think that's the first thing.
I think the other thing we were hoping for, and this is where Hannah and I, where I think our different areas complement each other really well. There's a strand of critical food studies that I do that focuses a lot on geography. That is like thinking about space and place. And then there is a strand that is largely in the humanities that is really taking up like food cultures. And we wanted to think about what happens if we bring these two strands together, especially in the context that mostly social science, or social science adjacent researchers.
So I have historically done less of the food culture stuff, but Hannah has done that a lot more. And so we were able to bring those two strengths together I think in a really meaningful away.
KAYTE YOUNG: So the last thing I wanted to ask you about was... you're living in Austin Texas now?
ASANTE REESE: Yes
KAYTE YOUNG: How long have you been in Austin?
ASANTE REESE: I got here July. So I drove here from Baltimore. I think I took like a month-long road trip from Baltimore to Austin, making stops along the way.
KAYTE YOUNG: And so you just experienced this winter storm, the freeze, the power outage, and from what I understand you went straight to work in the community with Mutual Aid efforts. And maybe food was involved with a part of that? I would love to hear you talk about your experiences with that.
ASANTE REESE: Yeah, so (when) Texas storms (came) through, I lost power the first day. And the next day, I'm going through this kind of process of, "Do I try to find a hotel? Do I not?" I think even I still wasn't thinking that maybe things maybe things will blow over quickly and I could just ride it out at home. Super glad that I didn't.
But I have really good community both within and outside of Austin and had friends looking to find hotels and that's when I realized that it was actually going to be pretty rough because hotels were a pretty booked up all over the city. My best friend who lived in Honduras was able to book a hotel for me and my pod person who lives 5 minutes away in downtown Austin.
So once we were safely at the hotel with electricity, with water, I just kept thinking about how there's an incredible amount of privilege at play with me being able to get to a hotel. I have a car, and I not only do I have a car, I have an SUV. I have experience with driving in ice and snow. I had again, four or five friends looking for hotels. So it wasn't just me trying to find something on my cell phone, there are people doing all this work. And I felt uncomfortable with the idea that I would just be satisfied with being safe myself.
So the next day my pod person, I tell her, I said, "I'm going to go on Twitter and I'm just going to start asking questions to see if people have resources that they might be able to share with other people, or like be willing to donate." And that's kind of how it started. And she's like, "Okay I can help too."
And then we had a friend who had brought us food, who actually, I don't know if I asked her if she wanted to be involved, I just added her to WhatsApp group. And then my colleague who works in anthropology, I created this very crude spreadsheet. And he was like, "I can make this better and I can make a form so that if people have needs they can fill it out and it'll populate the spreadsheet". And I was like, "Great, you're part of this leadership team now too!"
And so it grew from just the kind of gratefulness that I had for the community to have, to wanting to extend that kind of care to other folks. So over the course of the week, or ten days we collected just under $35,000 that we used to buy food, prepped food and delivered hot meals. We got hotel rooms for people who didn't have power or water. We did direct cash payments for people who had problems with plumbing for example. We did a few pharmacy runs for people who couldn't go pick up their medications. All in all we helped over two hundred households. And our initial team of 1-4 grew to 40 people who had volunteered at some point over the course of the week. And it was really cool.
Let me just say that that is not my normal mode of doing things. I don't know what compelled me. I am usually, in that in terms of that kind of work more of a background worker. Like I just wait. Tell me what I will plug into an organization and you tell me what to do and I will do it.
I think partly because I couldn't figure out the landscape of what was happening in Austin. It's not that I didn't think people were doing work, I just couldn't figure out who to tap into to support and because I was like, "It doesn't make sense for me to have this fairly decent platform and not use it." And so then I have to kind of channeled that. I think maybe a combination of those two things just made me spring more into kind of public action than I would normally do.
KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah I think that's what really surprised me is how I new you were to the community and how you seemed to really tap right in. I'm just trying to figure out how the people who needed help found the help that you guys were offering. It's incredible how quickly.
ASANTE REESE: I know I was going to say word of mouth spreads quickly. I mean there's a social media piece, but then there's also there's an organization on Twitter that works with elders and one the volunteers within our group was like, "I will take it upon me to find the names of elderly people because I think they're not on Twitter. So let's find out what they need." And so I definitely want to give a shout out to Kristen Smith for that because I think that's an important thing. Like a lot of mutual aid, not all, but a lot of mutual aid organization depends on the internet. And that kind of leaves out elders.
And so yeah it was a very tiring time, but I felt like my heart was full. It was just seeing so many people wanting to help and we haven't figured out if we want to have any long-term work. And maybe part of why was important because it made me feel like I was more here connected too. I mean I moved here in July but because of the pandemic, like I haven't met most of my colleagues in person. And I'm not really out and about a lot. And though I'm originally from Texas, Austin's new to me. And also I haven't lived in Texas in 15 years, so it also still feels new to me.
So I think it helps me feel like, I can do this. There was a moment where I was like, was like "Take your organization skills, and use it, in this way."
KAYTE YOUNG: I know that it just happened and I'm sure that everybody is still kind of reeling and trying to reflect but do you have any reflections on just the whole catastrophe that happened?
ASANTE REESE: Yeah so I do have some preliminary reflections, I still feel like there's a lot to think about. But there's the idea that for at least a week, watching the news stations here, listening to NPR everyone talking about this winter storm that's coming. And for the life of me I'm like, "If we knew it was coming I do not understand why there weren't more things put in place to protect infrastructure." So that's one thing that boggles my mind and also makes me frustrated.
I also think that it affirms for me what I also believed to be true a lot of times during disaster, which is that the people who on a daily basis might bear a lot of the brunt of systematic inequities are often the people who jumped first to try to support other folks. So I'm thinking about just I'm just thinking about our little collective of 40, how many of them were students for example, and how many of them were women, or people of color, like folks who are doing a lot of work but also not necessarily positioned in places of authority or power jumped to do a lot of the volunteering. So I've been reflecting on that.
I also think, I already believed in mutual aid so there was no need to convince me about that, but I do think one of the things I've been thinking about a lot lately is more about getting very clear about the differences between mutual aid and charity work. So in the same way that food desert has traveled I think mutual aid has traveled. And I think an important in principle thing for me and maybe for others who were interested in mutual aid to do is to really map out our genealogies of when we say mutual aid what do we mean. Whose work are we inspired by, and how do we connect this aid work to larger political struggle or imaginings of a world where we don't necessarily need to have this mechanism in the middle of crisis in the same way. So those are some of the things I've been thinking about.
KAYTE YOUNG: Well I've taken a lot of your time today, and I really so appreciate you talking with me is there anything else that you wanted to add or say before we go?
ASANTE REESE: I'll say one thing that has nothing absolutely nothing to do with any of the stuff we've been talking about, kind of, but maybe. I've been thinking, a lot of people started baking during the pandemic as a way of dealing with anxiety and all that. And I wasn't one of those early bakers but lately I have taken up baking as a part of a new project. And I will say that one of the things have been really interesting is thinking about the contradictions or the possibilities between baking, which is considered one of the more scientific forms of cooking, and the kinds of improvisation that I think people make when they're baking or at least I make, and I don't know if that ruined things.
So I've just been thinking about these kinds of embodied work. I think so much of my work in food like I said has not necessarily been on the food culture side, hasn't been around the actual like cooking of food and so baking has been really changing some things for me in terms of how I think about what food can do in the world. And maybe that's partially where the joy and the delight conversation connects to this, but it's been a really interesting set of experiments, I'll call them.
KAYTE YOUNG: So what do you mean like, what have you discovered while baking?
ASANTE REESE: So there are things like memories that I will have, that I do not remember, like I've not recalled before or in a very long time that may come back. I think for me I am really getting into this idea that embodied practices, produced knowledges, that you might not otherwise have access to.
When I say I didn't bake I mean I didn’t have any of the baking tools necessary to bake. Like I was making these making do you know what tea cakes are?
KAYTE YOUNG: Kind of.
ASANTE REESE: People call it like a southern shortbread cookie but is not really a shortbread cookie, but that's the closest thing. And so I was baking tea cakes, it's a thing my mother used to bake for me when I was in grad school and she would send packages to me.
So I was at home, and I was like baking it, and I don't have anywhere to roll out dough except for my counters, and in my mind I remembered that whoa, that's where my mother and my grandmother, they always rolled it out on the counter, there was no special equipment for that. Clean the counters, put down flour, roll out the dough.
So then I was doing that, and then I remembered that I didn't have a rolling pin, and I remembered, my grandmother always had rolling pins, but she never used them, she always used mason glasses. So I just pulled out a class and was just rolling the dough.
Like for me it felt very interesting, but it also connected to all of these things that I read in black studies around black freedom being a process of experimentation and improvising and just trying things. That whole concept of making a way out of no way. It just makes things a little bit more real in some ways. So I haven't tried to bake a cake yet, so I think that's my next thing.
KAYTE YOUNG: That's great. I'm a baker. I love baking and I totally know what you're talking about. I think that's why I like baking. It's just that connection.
ASANTE REESE: I'm going to have to ask you for some tips, so my KitchenAid mixer comes on Tuesday so I'm really excited about it. I mean I went all out.
KAYTE YOUNG: That can help a lot. Well I hope you continue to enjoy that, it's great. It was wonderful to talk with you I really appreciate you taking the time, all the coordinating we had to do.
ASANTE REESE: No thank you for asking and inviting me. I think this was fun.
KAYTE YOUNG: I've been speaking with a Ashante Reese about her book Black Food Geographies. Ashante Reese is assistant professor in the department of African and African Diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
Thanks for listening, I hope you've enjoyed our conversation. Please head over to our website for links to a Ashante Reese's work and to the work of Hannah Garth. You will also find information about two other books mentioned in this interview; Christina Sharp's book In the Wake; on Blackness and Being, and Cydia Hartman's book Lose your Mother a journey along the Atlantic slave route. Find those links at EarthEats.org
And a quick reminder before we go there's a new recipe video from my home kitchen on our YouTube channel. I'm making a rustic savory tart with caramelized onions and goat cheese. Search for Earth Eats on YouTube and subscribe.
RENEE REED: The Earth Eats team includes Eobon Binder, Mark Chilla, Toby Foster, Abraham Hill, Payton Knobeloch, Josephine McRobbie, Harvest Public Media and me, Renee Reed.
KAYTE YOUNG: Special thanks this week to Ashante Reese.
RENEE REED: Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey. Additional music on the show comes to us from the artist at Universal Productions Music. Earth Eats is produced and edited by Kayte Young and our executive producer is John Bailey.