«Nicolas Larchet École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales Abstract The problem of changing food habits has once again become a major public ...»
My boys are five and three so we come in, and our five-year-old reads the name of the vegetables. He‘ll identify the numbers, and then we do a very touchful experience, so that‘s smell what it is, touch what it is, so they identify that. Well, we‘re hoping that they get good eating habits … What‘s really amazing is that, to me, once you have the memory of food and this experience, you begin to remember all the things around it. So it‘s really a way to communicate, and that‘s a thing that a lot of people don‘t recognize as a manner of communication. Those are the kind of things that we as people can use to get to know each other.
If the market can be a way for a mother to communicate with her children, does it facilitate exchanges across racial and class boundaries? Of the twenty-two customers interviewed, more than three-quarters were white, half were from out of state, and while they all lived in the city, 90 percent lived out of the neighborhood. Most of them were in their late twenties and thirties, living in cohabitation or married with children. The clientele represented a highly educated public of young professionals, most of whom were working in education (elementary and high school teachers being the most represented profession, followed closely by university professors), health, media or technology. Three-quarters of them had at least a master‘s degree, while three of them had PhDs. Only one, a chef in a renowned downtown restaurant, had no college education. Indeed, it seems like such customers do not really need to be educated about sustainable living but are themselves in the role of educating others about it.
Reasserting the “Food Desert” Thesis: Spatial or Social Inequalities in Health?
While it has long been known that the urban poor are disadvantaged in their everyday consumption practices, paying more for lower-quality goods (Caplovitz 1963), in the past decade, a growing literature has focused on identifying ―food deserts‖ in English-speaking societies, that is areas that lack access to affordable, ―healthy‖ foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables (Beaulac et al. 2009). In the United States, most of these have been found in low-income black neighborhoods; other studies have shown the same areas to have a higher density of fast food restaurants (Block et al. 2004). As such, these results have been used in social surveys and epidemiological studies linking food access and diet-related diseases, suggesting that environmental factors such as lack of access to supermarkets have a major responsibility in the current obesity epidemic (Gallagher 2006; Morland et al. 2006). However, as every student of epidemiology knows, ―correlation is not causation‖: what if these observed spatial inequalities were merely a symptom of social inequalities in health—or as epidemiologists would say, a confounding factor? Because the poor and minorities tend to live in heavily segregated neighborhoods in most American cities, it is certainly difficult in this case to isolate social factors (such as one‘s position in the class and race structures) from environmental ones.
Then, if it is true that the urban poor have a lower access to fresh fruits and vegetables in the United States,15 assuming that one can significantly alter their diet through changes in their retail environment may amount to ―wishful thinking.‖16 For instance, noting that the lower availability of ―healthy‖ foods in poor or black areas may be due to low demand, Steven Cummins and Sally Macintyre—both among the earliest researchers of ―food deserts‖ in the United Kingdom, where the expression originated— warn against overinterpretation of the link between food access and health in an international review of
the literature (Cummins and Macintyre 2006).17 The United Kingdom is indeed a compelling case:
although evidence for ―food deserts‖ there is weak or at most ambiguous (Cummins and Macintyre 2002; Beaulac et al. 2009), British obesity rates are converging with those of the United States, while they are twice higher than in other European societies with similar retail environments, such as France or Italy.18 International comparisons do suggest that socio-economic and political factors are stronger determinants of obesity: ―market-liberal‖ societies like the United States and the United Kingdom tend to have a higher prevalence of obesity than ―social-democratic‖ societies, which may reflect the effect of weaker business regulations as well as higher levels of stress caused by economic insecurity in the former (Offer et al. 2010).
Still, one may ask why would food reformers focus their efforts on increasing fresh food access in poor neighborhoods if they encounter such difficulties in reaching their residents, not to mention changing their behavior? Part of the answer may lie in the legacy of nineteenth-century sanitary reformers, who successfully fought diseases like yellow fever and cholera by improving urban environments.19 But a broader intellectual tendency may be at work here. As Georges Canguilhem has argued, ―To act, it is necessary at least to localize‖ (Canguilhem 1989 : 39): in the same way physicians localize diseases in organs and tissues of the human body, reformers frequently localize social problems in what they perceive to be ―pathological‖ or ―disorganized‖ spaces of the city, attempting to change human behavior through the physical environment—a belief Paul Rabinow terms ―the myth of ecological determinism‖ (Rabinow 1989: 6). Such localized interventions are politically far less controversial and appear to be more economical (at least in the short term) than comprehensive social and political reforms. Thus, in order to make a change in the food system, it is certainly less costly for food advocates to produce data on food access at the neighborhood level to apply for a grant to open a food co-op or, say, to write to one‘s congressman to call for a soda ban in one‘s school district, than to raise an army of lawyers and lobbyists to compete with the likes of Monsanto and PepsiCo in influencing the next Farm Bill.20 To test the hypothesis that the framing of the problem of food access is influenced by a process of ―spatialization‖ of a social problem, whereby questions of poverty and social inequalities are governed through the management of urban spaces (Topalov 1990; Tissot and Poupeau 2005), I will now analyze the consumption practices of low-income black customers of a convenience store, looking for class-based determinants unaccounted for in the literature on ―food deserts.‖ Customers Hungry for Respect: The Social Meanings of Food Consumption at the Corner Store Generally owned by East Asian or Middle Eastern immigrants, small convenience stores known as ―corner stores‖ work as important sites of community interaction in poor black neighborhoods otherwise devoid of public spaces. Because they usually lack fresh fruits and vegetables, these stores are among the food reformer‘s priority targets. For example, the recommendations of the city‘s food policy council resulted in a financing program aimed at retailers willing to sell fresh produce, including corner stores, while the community health research center which initiated the council has published a ―toolkit‖ to help stores‘ owners develop healthy strategies. This brochure reports the results from a survey of 303 low-income residents, 59 percent living a few blocks away from a corner store, where they shopped an average of fourteen times a month, walking to the store on two-thirds of these visits.
Fewer than one-third of these stores sold any fruits or vegetables, and they made most of their profit from ―a mix of liquor, beers, cigarettes, soda, candy, chips, and cookies.‖ Whereas this toolkit pointed to a set of reasons for corner stores not to sell fresh fruits and vegetables (such as limited shelf space, cost of refrigeration units, or contracts with soda and snack vendors), little was known of the reasons why these products may not appeal to their customer base in the first place.
Hard Workers and Wanderers The store where I made my observations21 is owned by Mohamed, a thirty-eight-year-old Mauritanian immigrant who has been in the United States for the last ten years and used to be a taxi driver in another state, before moving to the city in 2008 to join his brother, a gas station manager. He bought the store from a Palestinian immigrant, on the site of a former theater—a mosaic star on the front step of the building being the last remnant of its glorious past. After an unfortunate cooking experience Mohamed decided to hire a cook, Neshia, a black woman of the same age as him who was previously working in a seafood restaurant. He explained to me that he used to prepare chicken with olives but that his customers did not like it, justifying his failure on the grounds that ―Black people are picky with their food.‖ While Mohamed looks half black, half Arab to me and is married to a black American social worker, his customers do not consider him black. Even though they have christened him ―Mike,‖ his Muslim faith and his foreign accent make him stand out from this heavily Baptist neighborhood, where a lot of people still dress up for service on Sundays (children especially have a hard time understanding what Mohamed is doing when they see him behind the counter during his prayer).
There are between 150 and 200 customers a day, including the ones who come several times a day.
Most of them are regulars who live in this segregated neighborhood where blacks make up 87 percent of its population of 11,000, and which is considered the poorest and most dangerous of the city. Some 53 percent of its residents are out of the labor force (either because of long-term unemployment, or because they are retired or disabled) and 50 percent of them are below the poverty level (75 percent among children under five), whereas a few years ago it had a record murder rate of 316 per 100,000 residents22 (Mohamed once complained to me that his customers only bought the local newspaper to read the crime section, as his newspaper sales would typically rise following the report of a murder).
The median household income is about US$21,000, which compares with US$40,000 citywide and to US$71,000 in the nearest neighborhood, home to million-dollar antebellum mansions. The neighborhood, located across an elevated highway from the city‘s business district, could qualify as a ―food desert‖ as the closest supermarket is 1.5 miles away from the store, while half of the households do not own a car.
According to Mohamed‘s estimates, about half of the store‘s sales are paid with food stamps.23 Some of the customers are overweight or obese, but most are not. Indeed, some are really thin, especially children and the elderly. If one can see all types of body shapes among this population, a lot of bodies are marked with some kind of physical alteration, either deliberate or inflicted: many women dye their hair blonde, red or pink, while the men favor tattoos; some customers have a reduced mobility or walk with a limp; some men have bloodshot eyes and others are sweating ―like they come from a coal mine,‖ in Mohamed‘s words, as a result of their drug addiction. Here is how Mohamed describes the
different people making up his clientele:
We have the regular folks, fathers and mothers who go to work, wake up on time, either work in the night or work in the day. Regular people with decent manners and work ethics. And we have people who don‘t work at all, the last time they worked is 10–15 years ago. We have people with mental problems. We have ex-homeless. We have people with prostitute issues, or alcohol or other things. And we have just the jobless who don‘t believe in the system and don‘t believe in working hard and think the society is failing them. People who are wandering, doing nothing … watching.24 Customers who are currently employed pride themselves on having a job. They may be janitors, nurses, caregivers, housekeepers, construction workers or dishwashers; they may work in restaurants, at the local YMCA or in homeless shelters, but seldom talk about their work in itself. Their social prestige is based on not being unemployed rather than on doing low-paid, often boring, disregarded or ―dirty‖ work. Invariably, when a customer one has not seen for a while is asked by others about his whereabouts, he will answer that he has been working—and working hard: the main dividing line between customers passes between the employed and unemployed, the law-abiding, hard-working citizens and those who depend on illegitimate or illegal sources of income to sustain themselves, as the customers recreate in their everyday life the longstanding administrative classifications between the ―deserving‖ and ―undeserving‖ poor.
Still, some customers explicitly talk about their work when it implies greater responsibilities or betterthan-average salaries. Once, an old, slender man with a blue hat came to the store with a paper sheet in
his hands, enthusiastically asking Mohamed for the phone:
It‘s for a job training program … That‘s a construction job thing, but they don‘t want you to jump into the job, first you got the training, you learn drywall, plumbing, carpentry, and they see what you want to do.
Another day, Neshia spoke to a middle-aged man wearing a safety vest:
Neshia: You‘re still working on that train?
Man: Yes but I work on my own, you make good money, good tips! 16–17 an hour!
Neshia: You said you‘re doing 16–17 an hour?
Man: Yeah, but only if you got the personality for that… Some professions stand out for the respect they command: the occasional policeman is repeatedly addressed to as ―Officer,‖ and Mohamed often praises the work of nurses, teachers and other civil servants among his customers.
In the Realm of “Proletarian Hunger-killers” If customers demonstrate a concern for social respectability in their mundane interactions,25 this concern is also objectified in their consumption practices. Considering that objective social structures are embedded in subjective mental dispositions such as manners in food and fashion (Veblen 1899, Elias 1969 , Bourdieu 1984 ), to what extent do the customers‘ social positions influence their food preferences?