Once again, restaurateur and chef Jose Andres has shown leadership in the face of calamity. Just last week, he was the cover story on Time Magazine. You may recall he set up kitchens in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria, in the Bahamas following Hurricane Dorian, and in North and South Carolina following Hurricane Florence. This time his response is to the coronavirus. Closing his multiple restaurants in DC and elsewhere, he will continue to pay his workers at least for the next few weeks and has set up community kitchens to provide take out options. And I hear many other restaurant owners are coming up with creative ways to support their workers and to meet community needs.
Food is one of our first thoughts in a disaster.
Like many of you, when the dimensions of this emergency became apparent, I went to the grocery store. I stocked up on everything I needed should I be unable to get to a store for some time. My initial thought was pure survival.
It wasn’t hard to get the food I needed. I live less than a half-mile from two chain grocery stores and a farmers’ market and within a mile of three additional major grocery stores. Plus, there is a slew of corner stores sprinkled throughout my neighborhood. Food availability is not an issue. Quite a different reality from my neighbors who live in the poorer sections of town, the parts of town with more black and brown people. Getting to the food they need may not have been as easy. For the poorest sections of my city, there are only three major grocers for the approximately 140,000 people who live there.
Food desert has become the term typically used to describe those parts of the city with a dearth of everyday resources, including quality grocery stores. Well, that term fits. A desert is a “barren area where little precipitation occurs, and consequently, living conditions are hostile for plant and animal life.” Plant and animal life… hmmm. Sadly, poorer communities are often devoid of the lush greenery of parks seen in more affluent parts of the city. And, if we connect the “lack of precipitation” reference in the definition to the colloquialism, “make it rain,” few financial resources come into these communities.
Food desert is an apt term, but I have been urged to use the term food apartheid. Yes, that works too, “a policy or system of segregation or discrimination on the grounds of race.” The communities I noted above, with only three grocery stores, are 95% African American. These communities, lacking quality, convenient grocery stores, didn’t just happen naturally like a desert. They were created. Those in power—who own the stores—decided where their stores would… and would not… be placed.
Consider what happened to my neighborhood 15 years ago. I, along with quite a few neighbors, signed a letter to a major grocery chain requesting a store in our area. Surprisingly, the chain responded, and responded quickly, but noted that our community did not meet its desired demographic. No dog whistles here. The chain was clear on their reason. Mega gentrification later, that grocery store is now one within a half-mile of my home.
The food story isn’t just about convenience. It is about sheer availability. As we face this coronavirus emergency and try to prevent community spread, it is good to hear state and local officials acknowledging the need for food for students as they close schools. They know that far too many children rely on school breakfast and lunch programs as their only meal for the day. The most recent data from the US Department of Agriculture noted about 12% of Americans are food insecure, meaning they don’t routinely know where their next meal will come from. But when you disaggregate that data by race, we again see the disparate realities faced by people of color 22.5% of African American, and 18.5% of Latinx households are food insecure.
I find myself cooking comfort foods as I self-quarantine. For me, pot roast is one of those comfort foods, and pot roast just isn’t pot roast without potatoes, carrots and onions. When I peel those onions, I sometimes cry. A chemical in the onions has irritated my tear glands. I can just as easily cry for the inequality so many people face every day. Even more so in times like now.
News stories are highlighting loss of income for minimum wage/hourly workers and gig workers not working due to coronavirus related shutdowns or lessened hours. When was the last time you thought about minimum wage workers? Do you know what the minimum wage is? How far does a minimum wage worker’s paycheck go? As we come to rely more on grocery store workers, think about their salaries, their benefits. So many of the people who hold the fabric of our society together receive little of our attention or our support. As your knowledge grows and you realize the unequal treatment and disparate outcomes, you may experience tears, sadness, or regret.
There’s no time for tears and let’s not look back with regret. Take action. Let’s turn these moments of realization into catalysts for transformation. You have free time now. Google to see where and how you can become an advocate for change.
As I sit down with my pot roast, it’s not just a meal providing sustenance, it’s comfort food. We must work to fix inadequacies in the way things are, so they become as they should be for all people. We must thank and support the stockers in grocery stores, the restaurateurs like Jose Andres, and all who are helping us to get through this situation. It’s not just about survival, it’s about the nourishment of our souls.