Should We Really Be Worried About 'Food Gentrification'?

America's relationship with its greens continues to be a lightning rod.

Should We Really Be Worried About 'Food Gentrification'?

(Photo: Thomas J. Peterson/Getty Images)

Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Have you recently discovered a taste for collard greens? Well, unless you’re poor and black, some critics are suggesting you should feel guilty about it.

That, in short, seems to be the underlying message from chef and commentator Soleil Ho over at Bitch, who’s been railing for a while now on the issue of “food gentrification.” Her beef? Collard greens, once a hallmark of traditional African American cooking, are being hailed by the likes of Whole Foods as “the new kale.” 

“What all of this adds up to is a massive PR campaign aimed at rebranding collard greens, divorcing the vegetable from its working class and indigenous affiliations to place it squarely within the culinary crosshairs of the same massive gourmet health food apparatus that turned acai berries, quinoa, tofu, and chia seeds into ‘superfoods,’ ” Ho complained in January, just as Whole Foods was launching its push for collards. “Though the health benefits of such foods are well-documented, their trendiness within majority populations tends to result in a generally unhealthy outcome for their cultures of origin.”

Ho isn’t alone. Black feminist Mikki Kendall was among the first critics to take Whole Foods’ rebranding of collards to task, launching the hashtag #foodgentrification and writing, “The ability to afford food is being hindered by inflation in basic food costs and the economic impact of a food becoming ‘cool.’ ”

No doubt the cost of food is rising, and that’s particularly troubling when considered alongside issues such as wage stagnation and America’s increasing income inequality, concerns that both Kendall and Ho spotlight. In a follow-up article titled “The Cost of Kale: How Foodie Trends Can Hurt Low-Income Families,” Ho cites USDA figures that show the average weekly cost of feeding a family of four has increased almost 18 percent in five years, during a time median income in the U.S. has remained flat.

But how much of the rise in the cost of food can we attribute to “food gentrification”? That's where the case gets decidedly murky, even as Ho continues:

“The phrase ‘food gentrification’ is a lightning-quick synthesis of complex values and ideas into a compact form. Though it may seem unduly weighed down by its provocative nomenclature and its association with the plagues of coffee shop Columbuses that have descended on places like Brooklyn, Oakland, and New Orleans, gentrification’s original meaning holds true: it represents renovation, refurbishing, rebranding—and, some would add, rebirth—seemingly for the purpose of accommodating WASP tastes.”

It sounds logical, until you look at the numbers. As the title of Ho’s article suggests, she points to kale as prime evidence of the power of marketing to transform a once humble green into a high-profit-margin superfood destined primarily for the plates of upper-middle-class trend chasers. Yet the only figures that appear to support this assertion come in the form of a graphic accompanying Ho’s piece that cites USDA stats: “In 2011, kale was sold in 4,700 stores. Now it’s sold in 50,700. Over that time, the cost of kale increased 25 percent, from 88¢ a bunch to $1.10.”

While a tenfold increase in the number of stores selling kale may well indeed prove that kale has become a super-trendy superfood, the rise in its average price does not indicate it’s being put out of reach for low-income families.

Say stores A, B, and C each sell kale at $1/lb., and then fancy store D decides to jump on the kale bandwagon. Because it caters to wealthier customers, it prices its kale at a whopping $2.50/lb. The average price of kale jumps from $1/lb. to $1.37/lb., a 37 percent rise. But it doesn’t follow that stores A, B, and C all raise their prices as well. They may very well not, particularly if they consider one another their primary competition, rather than upscale store D.

If you’ve ever shopped in Chinatown for, say, ginger or bok choy or tofu, then priced the same ingredients at a place like Whole Foods, you can see this carries over to shopping in the real world.

Without this crucial piece of their argument—that the trendy popularization of certain ethnic foods leads to an overall rise in price—the case made by foes of so-called food gentrification seems to center less on economics and more on a kind of socially conscious outrage over cultural appropriation. But that essentially ignores that you cannot write the history of food and civilization without encountering one culinary appropriation after another (just think: Italy didn’t even have tomatoes until they were imported from the Americas).  

It’s hard to imagine how we might keep any one food (such as collard greens) from being “discovered” by other groups. Instead, better to focus our efforts on those issues raised by writers like Kendall and Ho that are demonstrably having a detrimental impact on our society as a whole and that we can do something about—like supporting an increase in the minimum wage or reversing the devastating cuts to the food stamps program.

We should also continue to champion and highlight the good work that’s being done to address the very disparities Kendall and Ho cite—not by keeping collard greens out of the clutches of Whole Foods but by working to make healthier foods more available to all low-income families. A new $100 million USDA program, for example, builds on the success of state-level NGO programs to double SNAP benefits for things like locally grown produce at farmers markets—collards and kale alike. The Fair Food Network, a Michigan-based nonprofit, found that such incentives led to 95 percent of SNAP beneficiaries saying they had increased the amount of fruits and vegetables in their diets, and 90 percent reporting that they were spending less of their benefits on junk food. To me, those are results worth fighting for.

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