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«Nicolas Larchet École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales Abstract The problem of changing food habits has once again become a major public ...»

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Learning from the Corner Store


Nicolas Larchet

École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales


The problem of changing food habits has once again become a major public issue in the past decade in the United States. One

of the main strategies developed by food reformers to change popular eating habits is to increase access to fresh food in poor

urban areas identified as “food deserts,” in an attempt to address the obesity epidemic and to revitalize the local economy by creating “healthy”, “sustainable” environments. Based on a participant observation study in a large city in the Southeastern United States, I will start by discussing two of these initiatives: a farmers’ market and a Community Supported Agriculture program. Although both were located in underserved communities, they failed to reach their poor black residents, attracting instead a clientele of white middle class professionals. To account for the urban poor’s resistance to alternative food practices, I then turn to the results of an ethnographic study of consumption practices in an inner-city convenience store, where economic constraints and distinction strategies help to shape its customers’ tastes for energy-dense, high-calorie foods. While these data are consistent with quantitative studies underlying the importance of economic access over physical access to food, the ethnographic method has the advantage of bringing food consumption back into its social setting, allowing it to reveal its significance in the competition for status and respectability, which takes on different meanings in different classes and cultures.

Keywords: African Americans, consumption practices, convenience store, distinction, ethnography, food deserts, food policy councils, obesity Introduction In Outsiders, his classic sociological study of deviance, Howard S. Becker stressed the need to study both ―moral entrepreneurs‖ and ―deviant groups,‖ in contrast with most studies of deviance that focused only on the latter to discover the causes of unwanted behaviors such as juvenile delinquency, drug or alcohol use (Becker 1963: 22). Moral entrepreneurs, also called after Joseph Gusfield (1955) ―moral reformers‖ or ―moral crusaders,‖ were defined by Becker as individuals with the power and legitimacy to determine what is deviant, and who attempt to force their own rules on those who do not subscribe to them and are thus labeled as deviant. But Becker did not see moral entrepreneurs as illintentioned—quite the contrary: ―Moral crusaders typically want to help those beneath them [in the FOOD, CULTURE & SOCIETY, VOLUME 17, ISSUE 3, SEPTEMBER 2014.

social structure] to achieve a better status. That those beneath them do not always like the means proposed for their salvation is another matter‖ (Becker 1963: 149).

This interactionist perspective can be applied to the growing constellation of social movements promoting fresh, local or organic ―natural‖ foods in the United States, echoing a long tradition of health and food reform movements (Gusfield 1992; Du Puis 2007; Biltekoff 2013). From the volunteer urban gardener growing food on abandoned lots in the inner-city to the likes of Alice Waters and Michelle Obama, today‘s food reformers can be referred to as moral entrepreneurs in their efforts to reform others‘ diets and lifestyles, labeling as deviant those groups who are ―at risk‖ of overweight and obesity1 (conditions which affect the poor more than the rich, women more than men, and minorities more than whites2). As Becker stated, ―the real attack on the social order is to insist that all parties involved are fit objects of study‖ (Becker 1974: 54): by studying reformers‘ claims in relation to what people actually do, one can make sure that their definition of the situation is not taken at face value as the sole explanation of people‘s behaviors.

In the following, I will examine the activities of both groups, based on a participant observation carried out over ten months in 2009 and 2010 in a large city in the Southeastern United States, characterized by high levels of poverty and racial segregation. I will define food reformers as members of a ―food policy council,‖3 an advisory body to the city council that was recently established to make recommendations to increase fresh food access in low-income neighborhoods identified as ―food deserts,‖ as part of a strategy to revitalize the local economy and to reduce the city‘s high obesity rate.4 Housed and staffed by a community health research center in a school of public health under a federal grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the council brings together representatives from government agencies (public health professionals, urban planners, city administrators), the private sector (wholesalers, retailers, bankers) and non-profit organizations (farmers‘ market managers, urban gardeners, community organizers, educators, philanthropists).

These actors, who regularly meet at the council‘s meetings to share information and resources, are mostly white, upper middle class, college educated professionals, the council having an equal representation of men and women and one-fifth of blacks. They derive their legitimacy from their civic engagement and from the mobilization of scientific knowledge, which allow them to make claims about community needs:5 from epidemiology, nutrition and agricultural sciences to economics, law and sociology, there is barely a discipline of the natural and social sciences that is not included among their fields of expertise.

Symmetrically, the deviant group is to be found among groups targeted by the reformers‘ interventions. Variably labeled as ―low-income residents,‖ ―underserved communities‖ or ―at-risk populations‖ in the food policy council and other organizations‘ documentation, this group can be more straightforwardly defined as the ―black urban poor.‖6 One can follow this process of labeling by looking at two surveys presented by community health researchers at the city council meeting that established the food policy council. The first one was a map of the city‘s supermarket infrastructure, contrasting existing stores with the ones that had closed over the years. As the food policy council coordinator put it, anyone familiar with the city could see at a glance that most of its poor black neighborhoods were underserved by supermarkets.7 The second was a survey of 219 ―low-income residents‖ recruited from ―clinic waiting rooms, Medicaid office, and low-income neighborhoods,‖ 50 percent of whom stated they would buy more fresh produce if it were available at their local grocery store. Then, the resolution establishing the council mentioned ―communities with the least access to affordable healthy foods‖ and the need to ―increase the availability of fresh produce in low-income, inner-city neighborhoods.‖ How do these two worlds interact? Ironically, while food reformers honestly wish to improve the condition of the poor and while the latter claim their respectability in their everyday consumption practices, the following is the story of a misunderstanding, as the voice of reformers crying in the ―food desert‖ fails to reach beyond the already converted white middle class.8 To illustrate this case, I will question the ―food desert‖ thesis by looking at two experiments launched in the city to increase fresh food access, before providing a counter-narrative to the reformers‘ story by exploring the social meanings of food consumption among customers of an inner-city convenience store.

If many works have shed a critical light on providers of ―good food‖ in the inner-city to make sense of their lack of appeal to the poor and minorities, most notably from an anti-racist, ―whiteness‖ perspective (Slocum 2007; Guthman 2008; Alkon and McCullen 2010), food scholars must still compare these initiatives with businesses catering to poor black residents of US cities such as take-out restaurants or convenience stores,9 in order to account for this group‘s resistance to alternative food practices.10 Beets „n‟ the Hood: Reformers Lost in the “Food Desert” Among the many programs developed by food reformers in the city in recent years are a farmers‘ market and a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) site,11 both located in poor black neighborhoods where fast food joints, donut shops and liquor stores overwhelm the few ―healthy‖ food options available. In these two cases, the programs failed to reach their residents, even though attracting them was a primary goal of their managers.

The Demise of the “New Age market” The market was launched two years before my observations by a non-profit organization with the goal of improving quality of life and developing self-sufficiency among the city‘s impoverished residents. It consisted of a dozen vendors who gathered every Saturday from 1 pm to 4 pm on the parking lot of a church on a major commercial avenue not far from the downtown core, between a poor black neighborhood to the north and a gentrified, racially mixed neighborhood to the south. It had from fifty to hundred customers a week, most of them middle to upper middle class whites, although some of the regular customers were elderly residents who lived in a subsidized apartment complex next to the church.

Among the vendors was Margery, the market manager, a sixty-year-old white woman who used to work as a caterer. She sold fresh products that she collected in the morning from local producers.

Although she had no profit margin, her prices remained quite high, even among the area-limited shopping options: specialty breads was selling at US$2.50 a loaf, eggs at US$3.50 a dozen, cream cheese at US$4 for 12 ounces, cauliflowers at US$2 apiece, onions at 50 cents, tomatoes at US$1, oranges at 75 cents, etc. Contrary to what one might expect from a place claiming its authenticity, most of the vendors were new to the trade, like the former engineer for Lockheed Martin and NASA who bought a citrus farm downriver on his retirement, or the good-natured man selling green vegetables at six different markets in the region with the help of his wife and children, whose denim cap and southern drawl made one forget that he took on farming at forty-five years old, after being laid off from his refinery job. Other vendors were new to the region, like the retired farmer who had recently moved from Upstate New York, bringing with him a load of organic, kosher grape juice.

The fact that the market was failing to reach beyond middle class whites was a major concern for

Margery. She said:

I think we didn‘t have as much participation as I have wanted. And I was always determined to get the other part of [the avenue], which means, the black people, involved in that market. And I never could do it. Except on a very small scale … I worked to do that. I used to pick up produces and drive around, and say ―Look, I have a market right down the street, you see this bunch of mustard greens? US$1.50.‖ ―Where ?‖ ―Right over there, [at the church], you know.‖ And I would get, I would get people. That was the hardest thing that I had to deal with.12 At some point, while discussing an upcoming ―raw food party‖ with a new vendor selling kombucha—sweetened black tea fermented with a culture of yeast and bacteria, highly prized by followers of detoxification diets— Margery told me in a half-amused, half-delusional way: ―We are gonna end up becoming the New Age market … This is the way it‘s developing.‖ The market closed after three years of operation. In order to reach its target population, the organization behind it developed a new project: selling fresh produce baskets at a reduced price (US$15 instead of the usual US$25) at various food pantries, where needy families get free food. Its president, a forty-five-year-old black woman who had been a candidate for mayor and who describes herself as a social entrepreneur recognized the failure of the farmers‘ market in an evaluation form she

sent to a foundation to renew a grant. She wrote:

Increasing access to fresh produce among high-risk populations through farmers markets seemed like a positive intervention. As it turned out, our market attracted more white middle class clients who had cars than our target population of African American and Latino single female-head households with children. In response to this additional information and poverty data for our neighborhoods, we are realigning our food delivery system with 25 food bank agency locations.

Preaching to the Choir at the CSA Located across the street from a baseball field in a working class black neighborhood, the CSA sells weekly baskets of seasonal produce harvested fresh from local and regional farms for US$25. While it operated on a membership basis at first, this organization, which presents itself as a CSA-style ―nonprofit store and farm education center,‖ is now open to anyone without requiring them to buy shares in a farm and boasts in the region of 150 regular customers. Raised bed vegetable gardens have been built on the site, lining the path to the store which looks like an ascetic temple with its sober displays of fruits and vegetables on U-shaped tables. According to its president, a fifty-year-old white man with a master‘s degree in sociology who manages a community development corporation, its primary goal is ―to give residents [of the neighborhood] access to locally-grown fresh produces,‖ while its long-term goal is to open an ―educational center‖ to educate them about ―sustainable agriculture and sustainable living.‖13 Following the advice of a biologist volunteering with the CSA, I conducted a small survey of its clientele, interviewing customers as they left with their baskets over three Saturday mornings.14 The following paragraph describes one of them, whose profile echoed many others.

Shannon is a thirty-seven-year-old black resident of a predominantly white and middle class neighborhood across the river from downtown. She was born in the city but moved to Southern California as a child, where she completed a master‘s degree in computer information systems, and is now a project manager for a local IT company. She goes to the market every week with her two sons,

aged three and five, and her husband, a thirty-five-year-old white physician. She said:

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