Public Thinker: Ashanté Reese on Food Geographies and Food Justice

Thinking in public demands knowledge, eloquence, and courage. In this interview series, we hear from public scholars about how they found their path and how they communicate to a wide audience.
"So many people don’t think about food as political."

Food is political, agriculture is political, and, no surprise, reforming both is cultural, environmental, and political. Food studies, a relatively young interdisciplinary field difficult to pin down with one description, is engaged in understanding and articulating those cultural, environmental, and political dynamics. Ashanté Reese is either right in the middle of that work or at the head of it, depending on which metaphor you prefer. Not only does Reese, an assistant professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, confront those dynamics through scholarship, she also does it through engagement with communities, as a voice of public support for reform, and as a writer who challenges and works with her readers.

She is an anthropologist by training and a food-justice scholar by record. Her first book, Black Food Geographies (2019), shows how and why critical race studies and food studies are wedded. As her publisher writes, her second book, Black Food Matters (coedited with Hanna Garth), analyzes “how Blackness is contested through food.” There’s a suggestion in all of her work that we need to understand the racialized ways the dominant food system is structured, and that food-systems reform is a way to confront racism itself. We talked about these topics over Zoom, amid a global pandemic, and with attention to the ways food studies, as she says, is a place where “celebration and critique can and should occupy the same spaces.”

Benjamin R. Cohen (BRC): Black Food Geographies is a breakout book. It is a well-reviewed, well-discussed, and meaningful treatment of food justice. In fact, that’s too narrow, as the book is a centerpiece for how certain fields intersect—food studies, food justice, critical race theory, geography, anthropology. I have tons of questions, but can we talk about food deserts first?


Ashanté Reese (AR): Of course, you know I have things to say about them.


BRC: I do, and I want to get right to it. I’ve been working on a community food project in my hometown for about a decade now. When it began, it was motivated by what students had observed was a “food desert” (then common, or at least ascendant in local food work): a census tract where there is no access to healthy food and no grocery stores that sell fresh produce.

Since then, we’ve found critiques of the food desert concept; for example, that it is schematic and mechanistic and thus not culturally attentive enough to do the job. As in: Here’s a map and here’s an absence. Just place something in the middle of the absence, and, bingo bango, all is better. Your critique builds on that more substantially, though; you have more to say than the mechanistic criticism.


AR: That’s true, though first I have to credit LaDonna Redmond for redefining and critiquing food deserts in ways that have helped my work and the communities I’ve worked with. Redmond challenged this idea of food deserts not just because of the language, but because the concept was connected to studies that were funded, in part, by banks. The banks weren’t grounded in the work of communities and not even necessarily about transforming space so that people could have access to things they needed. So she was flagging how food deserts have been synonymous with this idea: that there is nothing, there is a dearth, there is an absence of everything in neighborhoods that are mostly Black and Brown.


BRC: It’s defined by negation, but that absence isn’t so neutral an observation as maybe people claimed, you mean.


AR: I’d say it this way: the way an actual desert functions versus how we use “desert” as a metaphor for food access, they don’t match up. The ecosystem of a desert may look barren, but deserts are teeming with life. It isn’t that the desert [resources are] absent, it’s the person or the people who are looking and only seeing what isn’t there that’s the problem. Moreover, the food desert metaphor may have the virtue of being succinct—it’s a thing that people can grab on to, which helps explain how it became powerful in policy and everyday language—but it also obscures important processes: urban disinvestment, redlining, even identification. These processes are about capital, and they intersect with race and racism. “Food redlining” does a better job of getting at what I think people wanted for the earlier food desert idea, but with better attention to the active ways that food access was, in a way, written out of neighborhoods.


BRC: I’ve seen “food apartheid,” too, at least from Leah Penniman.


AR: Yes, because both are active processes done by people, not passive happenstance. And yet, when I started my work in the mid-2000s, “food desert” was the dominant term, as you saw with your community food project.


BRC: That political point comes across in much of your work: that it’s a process, that communities are not inert or static but active in building their food systems.


AR: So many people don’t think about food as political. Or don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the political implications.


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BRC: Black Food Matters came out recently too, a book you coedited with Hanna Garth. In the intro, you paraphrase Sidney Mintz’s insistence that “we see food as a reflection of sociopolitical relations that are much broader than what is on our plates,” the sense of food being cultural and alive and political, not just a product you buy at a store but part of a lived experience.


AR: I read Mintz as offering a real challenge to anthropologists in particular, but to anyone who is doing food studies more broadly, that it can be interesting to trace a food item from seed to consumption. But it could also be interesting to think about what is the context in which this item is going from seed to consumption: who is consuming it, who gets to call it good or bad. These power dynamics are important. And when I was a graduate student, reading some work in food studies, that’s what I was looking for: who was doing work on food that was really centering power.


BRC: Lunch is never just lunch.


AR: Nope, and now, as you know, there are more people interested in centering discussions of not just race and racism but gender and disability, too. I teach a class called Food in the Racialized City, and the students love it. But there’s a period of the class where they say, “This is depressing, I thought we were going to celebrate different food cultures.” And I say, “Yes, that is what people think food studies is.” I always have to remind them that celebration and critique can and should occupy the same spaces.

BRC: Let’s talk about DC and Deanwood. I grew up 60 miles west of DC, but I’d never heard of Deanwood. And this is your main case study.


AR: I can tell you, a lot of people who live in DC have never heard of or been to Deanwood either. It’s a community in northeast DC with beautiful and complicated histories around land ownership and self-reliance. In the early 1900s, it wasn’t uncommon for white and Black families to live side by side there. By the 1930s that had largely changed; by then it was predominantly, overwhelmingly Black. This still included a lot of Jewish families, but they would not have been considered white enough to live in other parts of DC at that point. And because of the city geography, Deanwood doesn’t necessarily feel like it’s a part of the city. Geographically it is very distinct from some other predominantly Black neighborhoods in DC.

The place is one of those examples of how, if you only look at the statistics at this macro level, you miss all of that. You miss these intergenerational relationships. You miss the stories of some of the people in the book, the ones who can tell me stories of their parents buying the house that they now live in.

I chose Deanwood, among other reasons, because it has economic diversities that are important for thinking about food. It also helped that there is a Safeway nearby; it isn’t technically in the neighborhood boundaries, but it’s close, it’s within a mile. And it is, or has historically been, a terribly run Safeway.


BRC: That comes across in the book. Isn’t that the “Unsafeway”?


AR: That is the Unsafeway.


BRC: How did you get to Deanwood? I’m thinking about the ways people find research subjects, the ways scholars choose their work. Actually, let me ask that in two ways. First is more biographical, as in, what led you to this work in the first place? Beyond just graduate research, I mean. What about your upbringing led you into this field?


AR: I’ll say it this way: I’m from rural East Texas, and I grew up in a small community. I tell people I’m from Crockett, Texas, which has a population of about 7,000 people. That’s the closest town. But I actually grew up in an unincorporated community outside of the town that has historically been primarily family.

My great-great—I can’t ever remember if it’s two greats or three greats—grandfather on my mother’s father’s side was gifted land, postemancipation. “Gifted”—I’m putting “gifted” in air quotes—from his slave-owning father. And that side of my family built up a community, which is where I grew up. That’s where my mother still lives. And it’s where my family still owns some land.

Land ownership is a complicated conversation, it’s an important conversation. When you’re in the rural South like my family, it doesn’t necessarily mean wealth. My family was working class, whatever that means for a rural area. And my grandmother and others grew food. We didn’t wholesale farm, but people in our community grew, and there was a lot of bartering.

So some of the themes that come out in the book probably jumped out to me because they were real-life things that I remember from my childhood. We didn’t lock doors. I remember taking bunches of collard greens and running them down the street to the next person, and then running back home with a bag of plums. Those are the things that were part of my childhood.


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BRC: Okay, now I feel like I can ask it the other, more academic way: How did you come upon this case, this place?


AR: For context, I came to grad school in DC after working as a middle-school teacher. But I missed working with middle-school kids. It helped me feel grounded. I wanted to volunteer my time somewhere, and I ended up calling the recreation center in Deanwood one day, and they asked me when could I come? And I went that day.

I was just volunteering then, I wasn’t trying to do research in the neighborhood. But one day I was talking to the recreation-center director, telling him about my research, and he asked me straight out, “Why don’t you think about doing research here? You’re here every day anyway.” At first I thought, Why would I?, but then I started googling the neighborhood.

The central library in DC keeps a bibliography of all the written work on DC neighborhoods. Georgetown had pages and pages of material. Shaw, Adams Morgan, all these others, they had pages and pages. I finally found Deanwood, and there were five sources. That sealed the deal for me, because I began to think, I can contribute to the archive about this neighborhood that may or may not look the same 10 years from now, or 20 years from now.

BRC: Can you give us the basic arc of the book? What’s the story that unfolds?


AR: First of all, part of your question is part of the answer, in that I wanted to tell a story of a community more than just convey research results: a compelling story about this place, about food in this place, about community and all these different things. And although I’m not a historian, I was a history major as an undergrad, so my first inclination is always to think: Where did we come from? Where did we start?

So the book starts by grounding us in the early 20th century, when Deanwood becomes a neighborhood. I wanted people to understand that (a) Deanwood didn’t become a predominantly Black neighborhood overnight, nor was that an accident; and (b) despite what we accept as normal in terms of supermarkets, there was a different landscape and network of food in the early 20th century. I wanted to place that landscape and network in the context of a racialized history of Deanwood, and within a general history of Black self-reliance.

I also wanted to contrast that with what was happening in the present. So you go from a chapter talking about a Deanwood with small-scale grocers to a time where people are talking about the Unsafeway. This contemporary Safeway is a problem for many reasons. Not only is it not meeting the community’s food needs, but it’s not meeting their needs in terms of cleanliness, in terms of staffing, in terms of community health. I wanted to understand how people understood that.


BRC: Right, the grocery store, the grocer, has such a thick history of power and access and community, as an anchor for neighborhoods in many ways, historically.


AR: It’s true, and you know, initially I wasn’t looking to write about Safeway. But once I started doing a community survey, everyone kept telling me things about Safeway that I didn’t ask.


BRC: Like what?


AR: Well, from my standpoint, I wanted to understand how the residents were recalling those food histories, and how those memories led them to interact in certain ways. And what I was finding was that people used their memories and histories as ways to critique the present. Sometimes that was hard, because it wasn’t just a critique of capitalism or of supermarkets. Sometimes it was a critique of themselves. That was hard for me to listen to as a Black woman researcher, where here I was considering all the bigger, macrolevel things, like capitalism, like corporate power. The residents took a lot of responsibility for the loss of self-reliance, for the loss of community, for not taking the opportunity to open new stores. And yet, there is something I call a community market in the book—


BRC: This is the memorable Mr. Jones?


AR: That’s the gentleman. Mr. Jones was a character. He was one of my favorite people. His small community market wasn’t quite a supermarket, but it also wasn’t quite a corner store. Mr. Jones and his family had a reputation in the neighborhood. People respected him; they valued the store. And I wanted to understand what role it was playing in the neighborhood because people were not shopping there regularly, so why was it important to folks?


BRC: You’re not heavy-handed, but there is a latent capitalist critique: that the Safeway is a challenge to self-reliance.


AR: You’re right, that’s right, it’s not so heavy-handed, though looking back, maybe I could’ve been more so [laughs]. Because there are so many things that happen in cities, including the kinds of back-door deals that city officials are making with large big-box companies like Safeway. And DC as a city has had numerous opportunities to attract smaller businesses or home-grown businesses, or food cooperatives. But somehow these big businesses—a Safeway, a Walmart—they get the deals, the tax breaks, the opportunities. So much of our US food system is in the hands of just a few corporations.


BRC: Yeah, you often hear that in the abstract, or it’s just a sound bite, but in your book readers get the feel of it. It’s a grounded point about why it matters, the corporate control. The grocery isn’t just a place for financial transactions, but a space of interaction and place making.


AR: And it’s culturally specific, too. As in, even if too many people don’t primarily think about food as political, almost everyone has a food story that includes shame. Or someone telling them what they should eat. And that is especially so if you’re Black, if you’re a woman; there is so much shame wrapped up in food. So I wanted to be careful about writing truthfully, but also writing in a way that is sensitive about how food has been weaponized against particular people and communities.

So it was important for me that, in the chapter about where people shop, there’s only a small section about health. That was intentional because the language of health and healthiness has been weaponized against Black people so often, without any interrogation or even asking someone, “When you hear the word ‘healthy,’ what does that mean to you and for you?” There isn’t enough room for self-determination around health and healthiness. And that’s work that people can do and people do well. But it was a hard line for me to not delve too much into conversations around what is healthy and what isn’t healthy.


BRC: I don’t know if I’d picked up on the nuance before, but I can see that now. It fits with and brings us back to the larger theme of food and the culture of the neighborhood, which you also discuss with a community gardening project.

AR: The book ends with that community gardening example. It was unlike any community garden that I had been to. There weren’t individual plots. Instead there was this fairly open space that anyone in the housing project had access to—and that struck me as a usefully radical understanding of what community meant. I loved it. Not that it wasn’t without its problems.

The thing was, I didn’t want to write a history of supermarkets, and I also wanted to think about what a community feels like to people who live there. It’s not just supermarkets, it’s also these things like community gardens, it’s also these things like Mr. Jones’s store.


BRC: Right, so, these are common topics in food-studies literature, but you’re doing something more, something a little different.


AR: I think so; I tried to, at least. A lot of people write about community gardens in food-studies literature; we have some great histories of supermarkets and grocery stores; we have articles [about] and analyses of small stores. But I wanted to challenge myself to think about them as a collective and not as separate systems.

BRC: It looks like we ended up doing this mostly chronologically, because I want to ask about the future now, as in, where do you see food studies going? What do you love about the work that others are doing?


AR: I was just thinking about this earlier, actually, as I sometimes get emails from graduate students telling me what they’re working on. And I get so excited about how bold students are, trying new things with their work. I’m working with an undergraduate student right now whose thesis has to do with race, gentrification, and food aesthetics in Houston’s Chinatown. She’s thinking about gentrification and food aesthetics together, and I haven’t read as much about Asian and Asian American communities in the US, so I’m learning a lot from her, too. I read her work and I think, This is great, we need more work like this in food studies. Work like that excites me. I’d say too, more work on the way disability is treated in food studies would be exciting. I mean, we’d all do well to reflect on how we bring disability to the forefront of food studies.


BRC: It’s a good point.


AR: It’s something we can think about at the intersections of questions around food justice, food sovereignty, race, and racialization. I want to see more work there. I was reading a paper recently, it’s a student of Monica White’s [author of Freedom Farmers] who is writing about queer farmers. And I thought, Oh, this is super cool, because in my nonwork life, when I’m thinking about food justice with folks who work in organizations, a lot of the organizations that I work with or think with are being run by not just women but queer and nonbinary folks.


BRC: What about you also, what are you working on next?


AR: Josh Sbicca and I are coediting an issue of Food and Foodways on food in carcerality. We were both surprised to know that so many people are doing projects that have to do with food in prisons. That’s an emerging area of scholarship. I’m glad to be working on that with him. As for my own work, I keep describing it as rewriting Mintz’s Sweetness and Power through the lens of carcerality in prisons. About sugar products and the convict lease system in Texas.


BRC: That sounds huge.


AR: I’m trying it, I am. I’m trying to think about the functionality of sugar in our everyday lives. And to me there’s an argument to be made about how carcerality extends well beyond prisons, and sugar is a prime example.

So I’m trying to trace sugar’s cultivation, but also its use, from the prison to the kitchen, basically.

BRC: Much from food studies that I first learned leaned to the consumer side. A focus on kitchens, on recipes, culinary arts, nutrition. As an environmental historian, I thought there always seemed to be a split: there was the consumer side, food studies, and there was the producer side, the agricultural context. In your work, in part because you have both community markets and the community gardens, you didn’t really have to make a choice that was one or the other; you have them together. So I’m making a plea that the future will have more of these really interconnected producer-consumer stories.


AR: If I can invoke Sidney Mintz again in Sweetness and Power, one of the first things he says is that to divorce consumption from production is a problem. We need to be thinking about them collectively. I take that seriously, both as a problem for thought and as an opportunity. As I’m working through this next project, that’s part of the tension: to try to think about production and consumption together, and to use what I’ve been calling sugar as a carceral technology and how it functions. I think about the literal policing of people’s sugar consumption as an example of that. We’ve got these histories of convict labor to produce sugar; that’s one way that it functions. And then we have these things like soda taxes, which is another way that it functions. To me it’s not a conversation around whether a soda tax is good or bad, it is a conversation around who and what is being policed.


BRC: Then you have Mr. Jones; he’s watching sugar intake too.


AR: He is, he is. And that’s one of the things that I struggled with, writing that chapter—asking, Is there something different between someone who is of a community making decisions or vetoing, in his case, things that kids can buy, versus a government entity taxing a consumer rather than actually addressing something at the company that’s producing it?


BRC: Right, there’s something different in it. Your attention to themes of self-reliance seems key there.


AR: So now I’m looking at self-reliance from a different perspective, which is: What happens when the state adopts the language of self-reliance? This has been part of the history of Texas state prisons, and it’s a push to be self-sufficient. And this is partly why the state owns almost 150,000 agricultural acres, which are worked and produced by folks who work for the prisons and folks who are incarcerated. It contributes to that narrative of self-reliance.


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BRC: One last question, and it feels like I should’ve asked this a lot sooner: you’re a geographer. What does it mean to you to have time in East Texas, in Atlanta, in DC, in Memphis, in Baltimore, and now in Austin? Working in these different geographies, if this interview was at Eater or some such, I’d ask, Who has the best food?


AR: Ha! I’m addicted to breakfast tacos. So I’ll just say that. I eat too many breakfast tacos here. In DC, I could get any type of food fairly easily; the diversity of food was really lovely. Obviously seafood in Baltimore is top notch. Memphis barbecue is everything that people say it is. So I appreciate different things about different cities.


BRC: You’re an interdisciplinary eater, too.


AR: I am! icon

Featured image: Ashanté Reese. Photograph courtesy of Ashanté Reese