by Anthony Bayani Rodriguez, PhD
The rising cost of fresh and nutritious foods over the past five decades has not been accompanied by proportional improvements in the income of poor and working-class families, or the socioeconomic conditions of the nation’s most structurally vulnerable regions, counties, cities, suburbs, and neighborhoods. More than 47 million Americans (one in seven) rely on food banks and food stamps provided through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
It is estimated that upwards of 20 million more people receive food from food banks but have not applied for SNAP benefits because their incomes surpass the federal guidelines for eligibility or because they believe they are ineligible for such help (Feeding America, 2016). The immediacy and direct assistance provided by these kinds of government food programs make them a critical primary response and a vital lifeline for low-income families that should be vigilantly protected. Nevertheless, top-down responses to food insecurity must be paired with strategies creating self-sustaining local food economies that lessen dependency on the ebbs and flows of the modern corporately controlled food system.
Being poor and living in an area with little or no access to inexpensive and nutritious foods is the double disadvantage that has led to high rates of food insecurity among the residents of early 21st century American food deserts.
Being poor and living in an area with little or no access to inexpensive and nutritious foods is the double disadvantage that has led to high rates of food insecurity among the residents of early 21st century American food deserts. Recent estimates show that more than 29 million Americans currently live in food deserts, the majority of whom reside in major metropolitan areas. The history behind how and why food deserts exist is linked to both the geopolitical pressures of the industrial agri-food system as well as to state-sanctioned regimes of structural racism that have accumulated and persisted over time. Among the decisive causes for the emergence of contemporary urban food deserts are the intertwined racial/ethnic and economic transformations of residential spaces (particularly from the 1920s to the 1970s) directly tied to the flight of white middle-class populations to new suburban developments and the coinciding capital disinvestment from areas where largely African American and non-white ethnic minorities dwelled.
Early 21st century Baltimore City, Maryland is a case study for how generations of top-down state and corporate social engineering practices produced urban geographies of concentrated poverty. Baltimore is a city shaped by a well-documented history of redlining and racial segregation and a series of subsequent state-sanctioned assaults on largely black low-income neighborhoods that have been consistently treated as dispensable communities. Racially restrictive housing covenants (from the early to mid-20th century) and then mortgage “redlining” policies (from the 1930s to the late 1960s) implemented by the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) and the Veterans Administration (VA), denied low-interest home mortgages and loans to residents of certain neighborhoods based on their racial or ethnic composition rather than on creditworthiness.
While the economic mobility and spatial mobility of individuals and families of color living in areas occupied largely by non-whites was stunted (in spite of class), low-interest mortgages were approved for masses of white families to purchase homes in new suburban developments. One among a series of economic shocks suffered by Baltimore’s black working-class occurred between 1951 to 1971, when 80 to 90 percent of 25,000 families displaced by new highway projects, schools, and housing developments were black (Badger, 2015). The same black working-class families that experienced this displacement then saw the rapid decline of industrial jobs with relatively decent pay in the 1980s, accompanied by state disinvestment from social programs intended to support the basic needs of poor and working-class people.
In the last decades of the 20th century Baltimore’s poor and working-class black neighborhoods became part of an American urban archipelago subjected to unprecedented regimes of militarized policing, criminalization, and mass imprisonment under the guise of “law and order” campaigns such as the “War on Drugs.” Since the Great Recession, studies show that throughout American cities like Baltimore familiar trends of lending discrimination have continued to occur in new forms. It is now known that “reverse redlining” by banks and lenders over the past two decades involved targeting individual and families with subprime loans. Wells Fargo Bank even created a special home loan division with directives to sell expensive and dangerous subprimes specifically to black and latino homebuyers throughout the housing bubble (Wright, 2012).
Grassroots anti-poverty activists “aim to fundamentally change the relationships of poor and working-class neighborhoods to the forces of late American capitalism.”
Baltimore is among numerous major cities in the United States where local organizers are leading grassroots social justice campaigns that aim to fundamentally change the relationships of poor and working-class neighborhoods to the forces of late American capitalism. Creating “food sovereignty” is among the key issues for these organizers, and it represents something far more revolutionary than the urban farming trends that are emerging as a hot new trend among middle-class city dwellers and hipsters. Ex-Black Panther and prominent community organizer in West Baltimore, Marshall “Eddie” Conway, sees the revolutionary potential of grassroots food sovereignty struggles like those in West Baltimore:
[W]hat’s most important about all of this is not just the food and the farming, it’s the culture and the sense of power it creates for the community. And, it’s also about the kids seeing people doing creative and new things in their urban environment…Food is always a good starting place for a revolution because you’re always going to need three things: food, clothes, and shelter…These local movements are really important for protecting these communities’ futures, but they are also important in terms of finding out what might work for other communities. I think if we create a local movements on the ground that actually works to change an impoverished neighborhood into a thriving community, we can set an example that will work for an entire city, and then from there people can do the same thing in other levels, and from there you can influence the regional and national level (Rodriguez, 2017, p. 148).
The neighborhoods of early 21st century West Baltimore residents have been shaped by decades of state-sanctioned disinvestment, economic vulnerability and catastrophe, violent and hypervigilant policing, and the historic housing crash of 2008. Food insecurity is certainly only one among a number of public health crises that the people of West Baltimore grapple with on a daily basis. There are also high rates of lead poisoning in children, pollution-mediated lung disorders, and addiction to powerful and unregulated opiates like heroin. Nonetheless, as a vital necessity and a fundamental determinant for community health, food justice is an issue that local activists consider a primary arena for engaging in political work that can generate social transformation at a larger scale.
In Spring 2016, residents and local activists in West Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood took over one of nearly 17,000 squalid and boarded up vacant houses scattered throughout the city of Baltimore and—without the permission of city officials—turned 1618 Presbury Street into a multipurpose community center. Tubman House sits next to Gilmor Homes, a public housing development that has long been the subject to local scrutiny for the deplorable conditions that its residents have lived with despite persistent appeals to the City of Baltimore’s housing authority. Only a year before Tubman House was established the death of Gilmor Homes resident Freddie Gray under the custody of the Baltimore police sparked the urban rebellion now known as the “Baltimore uprisings.” In 2015 nearly 84 percent of Baltimore public school students were poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price school lunch, and the closing of schools in the week following the historic uprising that shook the city was cause for concern among the city’s low-income families because so many children depend on their schools for food. One of the lead organizers of Tubman House, Dominque Stevenson, insists with no uncertainty that even if the Baltimore uprisings had not occurred, Tubman House would have been created anyways (“The Tubman House: Commemorating the Uprising”). Tubman House organizers have hosted free clothing giveaways, cultural and educational events, and public forums for discussing local and national political issues. They have also established three “farms” in and around the property that are actually feeding local children and adults.
We need to start reclaiming our communities.
Stevenson comments in a 2017 interview: “[W]e ain’t going nowhere…and it’s overdue. We did this hoping other people in Baltimore will do similar actions. We need to start reclaiming our communities” (qtd. in Linderman, 2016). Rather than simply give in to city officials’ campaigns and developers’ plans to raze city blocks and neighborhoods in order to force low-income families to make way for higher-income populations and commercial ventures, community activists among Baltimore’s low-income communities of color are taking on the seemingly herculean endeavor of securing land, determining the safety of soils, constructing gardens, and mobilizing community volunteers to cultivate alternative food economies that reinvigorate what “democracy” can and should look like.
Community organizers scattered throughout the country recognize that the creation of places like Tubman House represent small but critical steps towards developing locally driven food economies that can transform neighborhoods like Sandtown-Winchester for the long term. Even in the face of opposition and daunting odds, the organizers of Tubman House are using the space they have claimed on behalf of local residents to mobilize local resources that are available to them and to foster a radical culture of community activism and solidarity that resembles nothing short of an experiment in grassroots democracy. In addition to the three urban farms that are already in operation and are actively cared for by local residents and outside volunteers, organizers are in midst of developing a food co-operative that can support the everyday dietary needs of the community; they are also experimenting with growing cash crops that can be harvested and sold with all proceeds returning to the people of Sandtown-Winchester. Under these early 21st century socioeconomic contexts, Tubman House’s urban farming campaign is exemplary of the kind of social justice work that is being facilitated by low-income communities themselves.
Poverty data strongly suggests that implementing national policies to create jobs, raise wages, and expand safety net programs will lead to a drastic and rapid reduction of poverty, and by extension, the alarming rates of hunger and food insecurity among poor and working-class families (Kirkendall et al., 2013). The implementation of such measures nonetheless depends on the adoption of government policies that would make the wealthiest Americans actually pay a share of taxes that is proportional to the exponential income increases they have garnered since the mid-1970s. This kind of shift is a far cry from the prevailing “trickle down” policies of the past fifty years that simultaneously reduce taxes on the wealthy and cut safety net, job creation programs, and other vital services for the poor and working-poor. Furthermore, compelling the modern food industry’s multinational corporations to create more low-cost supermarkets in areas of concentrated poverty through government subsidies may offer one solution to the problem of food insecurity in urban food deserts. However, appealing to “big business” to provide better food access to low-income consumers is only a partial solution to the broader structural and ideological issues that are the cause for the food inequality experienced by Americans in the early 21st century.
Grassroots community-led food sovereignty campaigns like those led by the organizers of Tubman House are forerunners in the creation of local economies that do not depend on the ebbs and flows of capitalism and do not rely on public policies that often fail to take comprehend what local communities need to create sustainable change in their neighborhoods. Studies show that the presence of community gardens not only increases the fruit and vegetable consumption of individuals and families who operate and live nearby, they also have the social effect of reducing the desirability of engaging in illicit activities to make ends meet, and even to have the immediate potential health impact of lowering the blood pressure and stress hormone levels of gardeners themselves.
These positive health impacts are joined by the invaluable social benefits of nurturing a progressive political consciousness that mobilizes local residents to stake a claim over the health of their community. Tubman House is only one example of how the residents of low-income neighborhoods are using urban farms as spaces to cultivate cultures of collective agency, mutual-aid, and self-sufficiency with political potentials beyond the achievement of food justice. As local food sovereignty movements create spaces for adults and children to plant seeds and grow their own food, they are also creating fertile ground for the development of new strategies to survive and potentially move beyond the top-down economic logics of racial capitalism. In doing so, these places are critical landmarks in the 21st century global geography of social movements “from below” that are in praxis transforming the nature of democracy in ways that will continue to prove relevant to structurally subordinated communities in the 21st century.
Anthony Bayani Rodriguez is an assistant professor at St. John’s University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology. Rodriguez is also a 2017-18 Scholar-in-Residence at the Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture, in Harlem, New York City. His research explores new conceptions of “the human” that are driving the grassroots social movements of late modernity’s structurally marginalized global populations. He is currently writing an intellectual biography of decolonial theorist Sylvia Wynter.
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Badger, Emily. “How Redlining’s Racist Effects Lasted for Decades.” The New York Times. 24 Aug. 2017.
“Baltimore Activists Defend Tubman House Against Threats of Demolition.” The Real News Network. 8 July 2016.
“Baltimore Coalition Transforms Vacant Home into Community Center.” American Friends Service Committee. 26 Sept. 2016.
Kirkendall, Nancy J., Carol C. House, and Constance F. Citro. Research Opportunities Concerning the Causes and Consequences of Child Food Insecurity and Hunger : Workshop Summary. Washington, D.C. : National Academies Press, 2013.
Linderman, Juliet. “In Vacant Baltimore Home, Gray-Inspired Groups Find New Life.” AP News 22 Apr. 2016.
Rodriguez, Anthony Bayani. “Former Black Panther Marshall Eddie Conway on Revolutionary Political Education in the Twenty-First Century.” The Journal of African American Studies 21.1 (2017): 138–149.
“The Tubman House: Commemorating the Uprising.” The Marc Steiner Show. 18 Apr. 2017.
Wang, Dong D. et al. “Trends in Dietary Quality Among Adults in the United States, 1999 Through 2010.” JAMA Internal Medicine 174.10 (2014): 1587–1595.
Wright, Kai. “Wells Fargo Settles for $175M Over Steering Blacks and Latinos to Subprime Loans.” Colorlines 12 July 2012.