Racialization of Food Spaces: A 19th Ward Case Study by Anderson Lim & Eva Reynolds

Do university students isolate their perception of certain Ward food spaces from their perception of the Ward as a whole – and is this a result of racial coding?

Julie Guthman’s “Unbearable Whiteness” article inspired us to consider the fact that “No space is race neutral; there is an iterative coding of race and space” (Guthman 2011, 267). More concretely, we wanted to examine the 19th Ward as a low-income, predominantly black neighborhood with limited food options and a fairly shady reputation among students of the mostly-white university. How do students at the University of Rochester feel about the prospect of eating at a deli or shopping at a convenience store in the 19th Ward? By comparison, how would they feel about going to the Westside farmer’s market, also located in the Ward? (Do their answers differ because farmer’s markets are coded white i.e. “safer”?) Moreover, how do the owners and customers of Ward establishments feel about racialization, student perceptions of the Ward, etc? In addition to using Guthman’s text to analyze these questions, we referred to the music videos “Food Fight” and “Hood Diet” along with our readings from Mills’ book to discuss the impact of discourses of race and food.

To explore our question, we chose to interview the store owners at D&L Grocery and Millennium Deli as well as students from the University of Rochester. Our methods contrast the techniques used by Guthman in her whiteness paper: she recorded the CSA managers’ responses to survey questions and interviews regarding the dearth of participation of people of color in their markets. Guthman also made assumptions based on her informal conversations with loyal African-American shoppers and activists who attend the markets in her home region. While Guthman’s paper mainly represented the views of white CSA managers, our project seeks to provide a different perspective on racial coding of alternative food spaces from our interactions with store-owners of a primarily low-income neighborhood.

Initially, our plan was to conduct video interviews with store owners and customers in the 19th Ward. After attempting to talk to some customers, however, we quickly decided that it would be too difficult because people might feel uncomfortable with us, as we would be interrupting their daily lives, and because there were signs of language barriers. Thus, we decided to abandon the customer interviews. Furthermore, we realized that recording people on video might make them tense, so we dismissed that method as well. The store owners seemed comfortable with us asking them questions and writing their responses down. We asked them about their clientele, what attracts people to their stores, whether they try to cater to a specific group, what kind of relationships they have with UR students, and their opinions of the Westside Farmer’s Market.

In talking to members of our school, our student-selection method was far from scientific: all but two of our interviewees were friends or acquaintances of ours. The two “strangers” are two sorority sisters of one of Eva’s friends and live in Riverview. We also spoke with two guys as well as a female Neighborhood Ambassador who live in non-UR housing in the Ward, a guy who lives in Brooks Crossings, and Asad Muhammad, who lives in the Greater Rochester Area. Asad, a student-entrepreneur selling bakery goods at the Rochester Public Market, is also a vendor at the Westside Farmer’s Market – this year will be his fifth time vendoring at Westside.

Due to the limited time availability we had to complete this project, we did not speak with other local community members from the 19th Ward nor did we speak to other student members residing on River Campus. With the exception of Asad, all student interviewees had lived on River Campus previously, so they also spoke about their prior experiences. All but one of the student interviewees were white and/or Asian-American, and four of them grew up in the Rochester area.

During the student interviews, we were initially vague about our project’s intent so as not to bias the respondents’ lines of thinking. We started by asking the interviewees how they felt about farmer’s markets in general, whether they had heard of or been to Westside, and then segued into talking about the Ward and its food options. For our final prompt to students, we explained the motives behind the project:

This project is about racial coding: the idea that farmer’s markets are inherently “white spaces,” and that shoving them into a low-income, non-white context, like the 19th Ward, doesn’t really address underlying issues. Offering fresh produce in seasonal markets is just a bandaid solution over the problem of food access: that these communities tend to be marked by convenience stores and fast food. Similarly, many people negatively associate places like the Millennium Deli and D&L with the crime and poverty of the Ward but have an isolated perception of Westside market, since it’s a differently-coded space. With all that in mind, do you have any last comments?

Unsurprisingly, most of the student interviewees were a little overwhelmed by the topics.

Background & Experiences with Store Owners

The D&L Grocery is a Jamaican-run convenience store selling primarily imported products from the West Indies. There is also Caribbean-inspired hot food and a limited selection of fresh produce for sale at the back of the store. Deloris, a co-owner who also manages the store, claims that her clientele is very broad, including students from UR, RIT, and Brockport as well as customers from the Greater Rochester area seeking for Caribbean products.

The Millennium Deli, on the other hand, is located down the block from the D&L Grocery and is run by Shamsan, an immigrant from Yemen. Similar to D&L, there is a hot food station at the back of the store, but it offers American fast food (e.g. fried chicken, burgers, gizzards) rather than ethnic cuisine. Whereas the D&L offered more imported “taste of home” goods, the products at the Millennium Deli were limited to American packaged food products and a range of cigarette brands and hookahs.

In our interviews, we tried to gather the owners’ perceptions on the Westside Farmer’s Market, which is located a few blocks down the street from their stores and opens once a week from June until October. Shamsan initially did not know the Westside Farmer’s Market by name, but when we said that the market was located in the the neighborhood, he recognized it but had no comments about the market. Deloris, on the other hand, recognized the Westside Farmer’s Market and described it as being “good for the neighborhood because they have fresh vegetables and such.” We certainly noticed that Deloris’ D&L store had more fresh produce to offer compared to Shamsan’s Millennium Deli.

Color Blindness

Throughout our interviews with the D&L and Millennium Deli store owners, we found evidence of colorblindness in their responses. Similar to the responses of the CSA managers in Guthman’s whiteness article, both Shamsan and Deloris expressed eagerness to attract all types of customers regardless of race and income. The store owners also welcomed having more UR students as customers. In Guthman’s paper, one of the CSA managers stated, “We also hope for more people and do not focus on ethnic — what we present attracts all!” (Guthman 2011, 269). The similarities in the responses of the CSA managers and the store owners that we interviewed raises the following question: Are the store owners and CSA managers responding in a way to sound politically correct?

Both Shamsan and Deloris were indifferent in their responses when asked about their perceptions of UR students. The store owners admitted that they didn’t really know much about the students. Perhaps our interview questions pressured them to respond in a way to sound politically correct (i.e., “we want UR students here”), and perhaps their markets’ exclusivity is needed to make nonwhite and other 19th Ward customers feel comfortable. After all, the Millennium Deli and D&L Grocery are both market-driven businesses. The store owners may feel obligated to say that they welcome UR students to their stores, especially since we, the interviewers, are UR students. We are not claiming that the owners want to restrict their markets’ exclusivity to the 19th Ward, but if they had simply responded with negative or apathetic perceptions of UR students, they might have been afraid that it would ultimately hurt their business.

Farmer’s Markets as White Spaces

When asked what they thought of farmer’s markets, the students had overwhelmingly positive reactions. They said that they love being able to buy cheap produce and wish they had more time to shop at markets regularly. Most of the students hadn’t been to Westside Market, although they’d heard of there being a market in the Ward. Some said that they would go if it were at a different time or didn’t only take cash, but there wasn’t a ton of enthusiasm. One even admitted that it sounded fine but added, “I don’t know if I’ll actually be committed to go.” The students that had been to Westside had differing experiences. For instance, one was disappointed by how small it was because it couldn’t offer much produce, while another said he loved getting cheap produce there and was surprised more students didn’t go. He added that the vendors seemed to be extra friendly towards students because they were so surprised by and grateful for their presence. Contrary to our assumptions, students did not consciously register Westside Market as a separate space. They all said that the market was populated primarily by African-Americans.

When we described farmer’s markets as being coded white, some interviewees more understanding of concept than others. On the one hand, two student interviewees were in strong agreement (“Oh yeah”), and another said that she hadn’t thought of farmer’s markets that way before but could definitely see our point. Others, though, argued that markets simply reflect demographics of their location. Many of them cited the diversity of the Public Market as evidence that farmer’s markets are not coded white. However, it is important to note that the Rochester Public Market is not, in fact, a farmer’s market. Tour guides there will tell you that outright, explaining that the Market gives preference to local farmers and producers but still offers a variety of non-local products, even items from wholesale clubs. The misunderstanding of the Public Market as a farmer’s market confused some of the students’ views of racialized spaces.

Asad offered an important elaboration on the fact that farmer’s markets tend to reflect their location’s demographics by saying that most are focused on targeting white suburban neighborhoods. “Lower income families need access to alternative food institutions,” he added. This harkens back to Guthman’s whiteness article, in which she points out that “few farmer’s markets are located in communities of color…and those that exist in African American neighborhoods tend to be very small” (Guthman 2011, 268-9). Yes, farmer’s markets in non-white neighborhoods will likely have predominantly non-white customers; but when speaking of farmer’s markets generally, the fact that they tend to be situated in white, affluent areas codes the entire institution as white. Moreover, Guthman observes that, even in locations with fairly mixed racial demographics, blacks do not participate as much in alternative food opportunities (Guthman 2011, 269). This could be a reflection of the fact that they do not feel like these institutions, generally, are “for them.”

The Effects of Discourse on the 19th Ward

The students exhibited varying levels of comfort towards the Ward. Some described it as “fine,” “a decent place to live,” while others perceive it as unsafe. One local girl said that she doesn’t worry about it, but her parents do. The safety concerns are undoubtedly the product of a dominant discourse that paints low-income, black, urban neighborhoods as being ridden with crime. As Mills says, “each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth: that is the types of discourse it harbours and causes to function as true” (Mills 1997, 18). One interviewee made a comment that spoke precisely this idea, saying that “the Ward represents the space in [students’ minds] that pop culture has depicted blacks to be criminal…Most students don’t make an effort to think that they could be wrong, nor are they ever told they’re wrong.” Specifically, Public Safety reinforces the idea of the Ward as dangerous by sending out emails every time a student falls victim to mugging or other injury. These stories dictate students’ perceptions of the Ward, especially when they’re living on campus and only venture there for parties. Campus students don’t register it as a family neighborhood and make no effort to interact with residents and experience it for themselves before making comments on its “sketchiness.”

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In addition to creating fear of violence and theft, the “sketchy black neighborhood” discourse presumes that these types of areas are full of drug activity. When I (Eva) was a freshman, I was told that the Millennium Deli was a drug front, so I came into this project curious about what our interviewees thought of it. Most said that they did not see it that way or had not heard that “conspiracy theory.” However, one friend of mine had more to say on it. In speaking casually about this project with me, he confidently said, “The Mil Del is a front…People will just park their cars at the stop sign, go in for five minutes, and walk out with nothing.” This prompted me to ask him for an interview, which he gave a few days later – only he toned down his answer, saying it only seems like a drug front and might just serve as a popular meeting place because it’s very centrally located on Genesee Street. Still, he said he does his best to avoid the store.

The Millennium Deli might strike someone as a drug front because, in terms of offerings, it is very reminiscent of the types of convenience stores depicted metaphorically in “Food Fight.” It doesn’t occur to people of more privileged backgrounds that the unhealthy, industrialized food that it stocks might be most of what’s available in low-income, in this case also non-white, communities. Because UR students have access to healthier foods from a variety of sources, and given the Ward’s unsavory reputation, we might assume that a store like this isn’t really trying to feed people but rather just serve as a front for illegal activity. While visiting the store and speaking with Shamsan, we did not observe anything suspicious.

Despite our awareness of discourse and biases, the two of us certainly felt out of place when we were in the stores, as the only non-black or Middle Eastern people there. We compensated by being overly friendly to make sure we didn’t come across as critical, judgmental, or hostile. This feeling of intrusiveness and not belonging is something most of the student interviewees mentioned, but they did not attribute it solely to overt racial differences. “The thing about the 19th Ward is there’s like two different communities: the students and then the families.” Students living in the Ward typically don’t think of it as super unsafe, though one interviewee did say that he is “glad [to] live on the outskirts, closer to the school.” Our interviews and, to be honest, personal experiences have also demonstrated that they/we will not necessarily try to interact with residents. “When students move off campus, they have the opportunity to reshape their misconceptions” about the Ward, one girl noted; but dismissing misjudgment doesn’t translate into integrating into the community. The Public Safety emails play a role in this as well by employing an “us vs. them” rhetoric that underscores difference and fosters a gap between the Ward residents and the students. Even if off-campus students don’t feel scared of the Ward, they don’t feel like a part of it either.

When it came to food, all respondents said they don’t really eat in the Ward. However, those that had done so said they’d been to the The Wok or Brue Coffee, as is probably the case for most students. A couple interviewees described the plaza as a student space, essentially extensions of the college, where they never saw Ward residents. We realized that the university’s presence in the Ward is not limited to its official spaces, Riverview and Brooks Crossings, but also includes the food plaza and the houses that landlords cater to students. The off-campus girl commented on this, saying that she feels like she’s contributing to a gentrification of the Ward that is facilitated by the school. For instance, UR offers to subsidize housing for professors who choose to relocate to the 19th Ward. Though gentrification is a larger topic than our project was aiming to tackle, it is worth noting that the Wok plaza is coded white for students rather than for the Ward’s black community. It is also worth wondering what might happen to the Millennium Deli and D&L if the university establishes more housing on that side of the river.

The reason that students gave for not eating in the Ward was, to borrow the words from “Hood Diet,” “choices are few and slim.” They prefer to drive elsewhere to eat out and do their grocery shopping. “Everybody goes to Wegmans, Costco, an actual store,” one student said. The choice of words “actual store” reveals a degree of unacknowledged privilege, the same that makes people assume the Millennium Deli is a front: many of us would never consider convenience stores or ethnic grocers as primary sources of food. We might try the D&L as a cafe, for a convenient, “exotic” meal, but we would go to a larger establishment for more grocery options. However, as “Hood Diet” and “Food Fight” emphasize, many low-income and non-white communities have limited immediate choices. As one student succinctly put it, “the big problem for the Ward is that there’s no real good grocery stores that provide fresh produce year-round. The farmer’s market is a nice touch, but it doesn’t run year round, and the selection is small.” Though he didn’t use the phrase “food desert,” that is exactly what he described. However, he tried to argue that the Rochester suburbs where he grew up were technically more of a food desert than the Ward only “everyone had cars,” which demonstrates a blatant misunderstanding of the idea of food deserts. Whether an area is a food desert is not a question of sheer geographic distance but rather of the ability of the majority of the residents to access fresh, healthy food options. The Ward could be described as a food desert if many residents lack the means or time to get food elsewhere, given that Rochester does not have a very efficient public transportation system. If so, the Westside Market is nothing more than a bandaid on the issue of food access. It provides the neighborhood with cheap, fresh produce, which the local establishments lack, but it only does so once a week, certain months of the year. The market doesn’t solve the scarcity of healthy food in the Ward.

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A second problem with the Westside Market’s performance of fresh food access is that it perpetuates a discourse of individual responsibility to make healthy choices. The United States’ current episteme –  “the sets of discursive structures as a whole within which a culture thinks” (Mills 56) – of food and diet is based on reductive nutrition science, focusing on educating people about nutrients based on the assumption that informed consumers make smart choices. For instance, there is a stand at the market for Cornell Cooperative Extension that offers nutrition education. In the photo above, there is a demonstration of how much salt is hidden in popular foods. The MyPlate prop in the background suggests that there was also a lesson about nutrient servings. While teaching people how to eat better is important, the issue is that it reinforces the importance of responsible choices rather than addressing the underlying causes of poor diet, namely lack of access. The Cornell Coop says, “This is how you should eat, so now go do it.” To get a frozen dinner from the Millennium Deli rather than buying raw, whole, fresh fruits and vegetables at the market is then interpreted as the shopper’s bad decision. However, in the months of the year that the market is not running, residents are stuck with their same old, less than ideal options. Again, the market fails to call attention to (effectively invisibilizes) the problem of food deserts and how they can be intertwined with institutional racism.

Shortcomings of our Method (What our Research Leaves Out)

Whenever interviews are used as a method of research, it is important to acknowledge that the respondents might be speaking carefully, i.e., not as candidly as they could. The student who adjusted his comments about the Millennium Deli as a drug front was a glaring example of how the formality of an interview makes people more self-aware by forcing them to be accountable for their remarks. We had encouraged our student interviewees to put their guards down, such as saying “Just be honest, don’t worry about being PC or whatever, there’s no judgment,” but we cannot know whether that worked. And, as mentioned earlier, there is good reason to suspect that the Ward store owners were speaking politically.

We should have interviewed more black students to hear their views, given the racial sensitivity of the topic. Specifically, it would have been interesting to explore how they perceive the gap between the Ward and students, how comfortable they feel in the Ward compared to non-black students, and whether they feel just as intrusive because of their student status or if this feeling is mitigated by a lack of racial disparity. By saying “they,” we are not claiming that one or two interviewees would encapsulate the experience and opinions of the entire black student population, of course. All of our research is anecdotal and, as stated earlier, unscientific.

Findings and Potential Solutions (but not really)

The three recurring themes that came up during our interviews were colorblindness, divide between students and locals, and the lack of access to healthier options. Deloris and Shamsan were both open to attracting more people including UR students, which shows evidence of colorblindness that is similar to the responses of the CSA managers in Guthman’s paper. To a certain extent, our findings from the interviews supported our assumption that certain Ward food spaces – the Wok plaza, rather than Westside Market, to our surprise – are isolated from students’ perceptions of the Ward as a whole. On the other hand, the students’ perceptions of the farmers market were mainly positive, but their discourses on the 19th Ward were mixed with both positive and negative reactions.

The divide between locals and students is only a small example of the ongoing socio-economic disparities between whites and minorities in the country. In “Food Fight,” the rapper states, “It’s the wild wild westernized world of deception and lies” (Food Fight). This line reinforces the concept of universalism – the spread of the “right” values and knowledge held primarily by whites – which often creates barriers to participation for non-whites, not just in alternative food institutions, but also in other socio-economic aspects of life. One student interviewee said, “Our history needs to be thrown out and replaced with the actual events and not a representation that pushes aside and dismisses blame, committing people of color to cycles of poverty and the inability to accumulate wealth.” In order to address the racial coding issue in alternative food spaces, we must first address the ongoing institutionalized racism that is prevalent in our economic and political system.

With the seasonal exception of the Westside Farmers Market, there is certainly a lack of access to healthy food options in the 19th Ward. A rapper in “Hood Diet” suggests that there is “a  fabulously ghetto shortage of nutrition on my block/The farmer’s market’s missing/They don’t come up in the hood … And that’s why I be racking up this corner store credit.” The lack of access to healthier food option is an ongoing problem in lower-income neighborhoods across the country because many alternative food institutions, although claiming to be a social-driven enterprise, have market-driven intentions. Thus, these institutions typically choose to locate their markets away from lower-income neighborhoods due to a lack of demand or even the lack of the “right” values and priorities that are shared with the people who live in those neighborhoods. Instead, lower-income neighborhoods often succumb to industrialized food options, becoming food deserts where there is lack of healthy options and the population falls prey to fast food companies.

A student suggested that “a lot of the reason that poor communities eat poorly is because bad food is made available cheaply. I think food that is healthy does not necessarily need to be expensive. Providing resources to make that more clear would be good.” This comment begins by making an important point about how healthy food is made expensive not only monetarily but also in terms of time and effort required to secure it but then takes an unfortunate turn that reestablishes individual responsibility. Teaching people about what food is healthy and the fact that produce is cheap at farmer’s markets does not help them gain access to it. Policy solutions should not stop at consumer education but rather look to reducing the ubiquity of egregiously unhealthy food and making fresh options more accessible across all income and racial demographics. We don’t claim to have the answer to this issue, but we recognize that the problem is there.

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