By JULIA TURSHEN
The Spelman College professor reveals what you find when you see supermarkets as more than just a place to buy some bread.
Like everything in food, grocery shopping gives us a lot to unpack (no pun intended). So when I heard that Epicurious was dedicating 30 days to talking about groceries, I immediately thought of Dr. Ashanté M. Reese. Dr. Reese is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Spelman College, a 2017 Southern Foodways Alliance Smith Symposium Fellow, and the author of a forthcoming book, Between a Corner Store and a Safeway: Race, Resilience, and our Failing Food System. She tweets prolifically about her work, which is lucky for those of us who don’t have a seat in her classroom. I jumped at the chance to talk to her about what grocery stores tell us about ourselves, the problems with the term ‘food desert,’ and why some people just really, really need to shop with a grocery list.
Grocery stores operate as a ‘third space’ in most communities, something you’ve talked about. Can you explain what that term means and also how grocery stores operate as third spaces?
People define and use the term differently, but when I use it, I’m referring to these spaces of contact—places where people are social, particularly (and potentially) across lines of difference in ways that they may not be in other primary spaces that we intentionally cultivate (like our homes, or social spaces like church). So when we grocery shop, even if we don’t talk to people, these spaces are important for being in contact with others and the potential of what this contact means. For example, when I lived in D.C., I would see the same cashier at one of the local stores. That point of contact eventually became something I looked forward to and the cashier became someone I developed a relationship with. When we think of grocery stores in this context, it forces us to think about the multiple functions of stores.
Owning a grocery store means holding power in a community. Who owns most grocery stores in America?
I think it’s important to note that grocery stores (and here, I’m mostly referring to supermarkets and not the independently owned grocery stores that were more common in the early 20th century) in the U.S. are multinational corporations, which means people who have a ton of capital are those leading these corporations. Of course there are different forms of power, but yes, supermarkets are significant in neighborhoods for not only their role in providing food but also in the economic role.
We have to stop pretending that our food system is not broken. It is broken.
Your tweet thread about two Kroger grocery stores in Memphis so expertly broke down the politics of grocery stores. You said that grocery stores can “tell you much more than where people are buying food.”
What can grocery stores show us?
Supermarkets provide food for us, yes. But they also function in ways that reveal inequities, even if that is not their intent. When supermarkets are mapped across the U.S., what we see is that neighborhoods of color, particularly predominantly Black neighborhoods, regardless of income, have lower access than their white counterparts.
When we see supermarkets within historical context, this makes sense. Post 1960s, supermarkets followed the flight to the suburbs, chasing profits and stability, which also meant following mostly white and middle class consumers. This wasn’t something people didn’t know. As early as 1967 Trade Commissioner Mary Gardiner Jones was publicly commenting on supermarkets’ role in creating (or addressing) racial inequities. So when I say they tell us more than where people buy food, I am saying that they tell us about neighborhoods, they tell us about how deeply entrenched inequities are in U.S. society, and they tell us about why we should deeply question our investment in food corporations if we’re committed to increasing access and sovereignty for all.
When grocery stores shut down, what impact does that have for everyone who lives in those places?
What I know qualitatively from my research is that for elders in D.C. who I interviewed and could remember changes in supermarkets/grocery stores, the loss of a neighborhood store meant they had to alter their food geographies—where they were shopping, when they were shopping, and in some cases, how they would get there. We can’t assume that a store close to you will be the store you will choose. But it does make a difference when you don’t even have that choice. It may change one’s relationship to time and shopping.
The decline of grocery stores is not a new story, right?
No, it isn’t. We can map the decline, at least in major cities, since at least the 1960s. We have seen some change and growth as supermarkets return to the city alongside white and middle class people returning to the city. But by and large, we’ve seen waves of change as stores have grown in size and consumers have been offered other options that do not require them to go to a physical store, such as shopping online, Instacart, and the like.
You've said that the term 'food desert' should die and we need to all be part of an intersectional approach to understand food access inequality.
So the first of a two-part question: why is ‘food desert’ a broken term?
Well, first let me say that my critique of this term has evolved over time. I remember using it when I first started graduate school in 2009. I first started thinking about its problems when I was thinking about what a food desert actually is and how it functions. I felt that, just as we often only see barrenness in a desert and don’t consider the wildlife and critters that call it home and maintain that ecosystem, we ignore the people and institutions that exist in these neighborhoods that we call “deserts.”
Secondly, and I have been deeply influenced by activists like LaDonna Redmond and more recently Dara Cooper, this term points to a static problem and totally ignores processes. There are no grocery stores here?
That didn’t happen overnight. And actually, the roots of these processes—capitalism, racism, etc.—are no different from those from which other inequalities stem from. So if we’re interested in radically changing the food landscape, we can’t just focus on adding stores. We need to think about how supermarkets are intertwined with capital, neighborhood values, etc.
I will always fight for people’s right to have a choice.
Now part two: what does the intersectional approach to understanding food access inequality, and the intersectional approach to creating food access equity, look like?
I’ll try to keep this succinct, but it may be hard. First, I think we have to stop pretending that our food system is not broken. It is broken, and it isn’t just broken because of the threat of GMOs or people not knowing their farmers or where their food comes from. That is, indeed, part of it. But it is also broken because it has always reflected back to us the inequalities that exist in our society. To really reckon with that means that we have to consider how race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, etc. are not just individual experiences or identities.
They are structures, often oppressive structures, that we cannot ignore. To treat them intersectionally is to consider how food is not separate from race, not separate from gender, not separate from ability, etc. and that where a person or community stands at these intersections means that they have radically different life chances and access to food.
A really important element of grocery shopping is having agency to choose whatever you want. There’s freedom in not only having access to food, but having access to a variety of food. Which brings me to your very helpful tweet thread about the proposed SNAP boxes.
Why is the elimination of choice such a vital thing to pay attention to?’
Another big question! Everything about this country and our food policies suggest that we a) do not trust poor people, b) do not believe poor people know how to make good choices for themselves, and c) we have a disdain for poor people. I am using “we” here to signal that this is a nationwide problem, and we see it in our policies, we see it in much of our philanthropy, and I certainly see it in the assumptions that go into much of the food work that people are getting funding for. We say we believe in choice in this country, that it is a fundamental right—except when you’re poor and a so-called “burden” to the state. I have said this before: while I want people to be healthy, I will always fight for people’s right to have a choice to define that for themselves, live that out for themselves, and have access to everything they need to make that a reality for themselves, even if that doesn’t look like my own definition or life. If I am only willing to advocate because of how I think other people should live, that’s just another form of bondage.
If we’re interested in radically changing the food landscape, we can’t just focus on adding stores.
A lighter question for you: where and how often do you shop for groceries?
I have a housemate, and we share grocery shopping and cooking responsiblities. We typically do shopping on Sundays and we alternate between Kroger and the Dekalb Farmer’s Market, which is an international market which has everything I need, and things I don’t need. Sometimes my housemate shops at Trader Joe’s, and I also love Sprouts. We live on the westside of Atlanta, though, and neither of those stores are close to us. We also support local farmers from whom we buy produce and are considering a CSA with an urban farm close to us.
Do you write a grocery list or are you more of a wanderer?
I make a list based on what we have decided to cook for the week, but I am a terrible shopper. I end up getting more things than I ever plan for. Just yesterday, I went to the grocery store and after, I texted my housemate (who is a much better shopper than I am) and declared she should never allow me to do the shopping again.