Former Spelman Professor Ashanté Reese explores food access in new book

Author looks at under-served communities and their lack of food access.

Credit: (photo credit: Furery Reid/Spelman College)

Credit: (photo credit: Furery Reid/Spelman College)

Getting her students to speak up in class was rarely a problem for Ashanté Reese when she was a middle school teacher at Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy on Atlanta’s west side.

But then came the afternoon in 2009, when, with the permission of their parents, she took two students with her to a Publix grocery store near her home in Smyrna to buy ingredients to make the teenagers dinner. As Reese walked through the store filling her cart with items to make a vegetarian lasagna, she noticed her students were unusually quiet. It wasn’t until they sat down to eat that Reese learned why they hadn’t talked in the store.

“’Why is your grocery store so nice?’” Reese recalled one of the girls asking.

Reese was startled. She just saw it as a basic, neighborhood grocery store.

“’We don’t have anything that nice in our neighborhood,’” Reese recalled the other student saying.

As they ate, the teens talked about their own neighborhood off Bankhead Highway, with its preponderance of convenience stores, fast-food restaurants and corner stores. Nothing like the well-stocked grocery store Reese had taken for granted.

That moment was a catalyst for Reese’s book, “Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance and Food Access in Washington, D.C.” Released in late spring, by the University of North Carolina Press, it is already in its second printing. Reese, 34, went on to get her Ph.D. in anthropology at American University. Until this past summer, she was an assistant professor at Spelman College, where she taught in the food studies program. Over the past several years, she has become recognized nationally for her research on food access inequities, corporate supermarket policies and how those things intersect with race, class and racism. This fall, she became an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her second book, “Black Food Matters: Centering Black Ways of Knowing in the Wake of Food Justice,” which she is co-editing with Hanna Garth, is due out in 2020.

Though Reese’s current book focuses on a D.C. suburb called Deanwood, in many ways, it is reminiscent of the Atlanta neighborhood Reese moved to after she left Symrna: Southwest Atlanta. Southwest, which has long been a working-class, African American neighborhood, has substantial pockets of poverty and suffered plunging property values in the aftermath of the Great Recession. It is also marked by a strong sense of community among longtime residents. But gentrification is transforming the neighborhood, which will inevitably lead to the sort of high-quality grocery stores that have been scarce in the area. We talked with Reese about food access, community and preconceived notions of working-class neighborhoods and the people who live there.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Q: If a person of privilege, regardless of race, were to look at communities like Southwest Atlanta or Deanwood, which you focus on in your book, is it likely they’ll see the community through a lens of lack?

A: I would say there is lack, but not in the way people think about it. The lack is what happens when racial capitalism is the law of the land; there's going to always be this unequal distribution of resources. So, when I think of lack — what we see as an absence of supermarkets or options — it is really the result of a system that is built on exploitation and built on inequity. What ends up happening, though, is lack gets inscribed onto people's bodies; 'They're lacking information. They're lacking will. They're lacking desire. They don't know how to eat healthy. They need us to teach them. They need us to bring these things.' That's the 'lack' that I critique. What I'm interested in is what happens to the actual people who live there.

Q: For years there have been conversations suggesting that local farmers markets might be a way to address food access in a limited way in some neighborhoods.

A: There are these studies that talk about how low income and or black folks don't always feel comfortable at farmers markets. I often have students who never went to the farmers market. So, and I give them an assignment to go do that. And I always tell them, 'Now after you have done that, now think about if someone had never been to a farmers market before, would that space make sense? Where are you supposed to pay? If you have SNAP benefits unless someone is telling you right out, who do you ask about how to do double dollars?'

Q: Aren’t there some that work?

A: MARTA's fresh farmers markets are a really interesting model that I love to watch because it's a play on, 'How can we be where people are and also create a model that isn't a one size fits all?' Another place that I really think is interesting is the Carver Market in South Atlanta, that's attached to the coffee shop. I find it interesting because the model is based on the idea of people don't just need a place to get food; they also need places to just sit and chill. So, the coffee shop, people just come and sit or the community folks come and have a meetings there, or I have been there and watched this mom with her two kids use the Wi-Fi and her kids could watch shows on their laptop. So, it's been a really interesting and beautiful space. Because often, communities that don't have supermarkets don't have a bunch of stuff, including places where people can just go sit.

Q: There’s a tiny neighborhood corner store in the book that is such an important part of the community, but it can’t serve everybody’s needs. That creates another set of issues for the people who live in the neighborhood.

A: So, I (used to) live in Southwest Atlanta. And we have a supermarket…but just because you have something doesn't mean it's good quality and that it meets your needs. That's the biggest complaint … in my neighborhood is the quality. It's the quality in terms of the quality of the produce, but then it's also the variety. When I shop there, and I do shop there, because knowing more stuff than I probably should know about supermarkets, supermarkets have very thin profit margins. Having a concerted effort not to shop there with enough people means the supermarket could fail. I can go somewhere else, but my elderly neighbors need that store, so I shop there for them.

Q: So, a little store, like the one you describe in the book, might not have everything, but it still serves a very vital role in that community that people who don’t live there wouldn’t recognize?

A: Right. Supermarkets are another space where we get just further disconnected from the process. Think about how now we've got these self-checkout lanes. You don't have to have any exchange with anyone. In a world where we are increasingly more and more connected, I feel like we're increasingly more and more disconnected … I'm saying that these institutions, like supermarkets, aren't just about where we get our food. They have an influence on the way to build relationships with people…and those relationships matter.