The full-service supermarket that Circle Food Store owner Dwayne Bourdeaux runs in New Orleans’ 7th Ward is clean and stocked with locally sourced produce that arrives with days to spare. The butcher cuts meat daily in the store and offers not only standard cuts but also items that are locally popular—raccoon, pig lips, pig ears, rabbit, and so on.
Concerned about the rates of diabetes and hypertension among black Americans—the majority of his customers—Bourdeaux not only sells healthy food but also incentivizes it by offering $5 worth of free, fresh produce to those who spend $5 on it.
“You should serve the community, because it’s not all about making money,” says Boudreaux, a black American in his early 40s who lives seven minutes from the store he worked at nearly his whole life before taking it over from his father. “I’d sell more liquor, alcohol, cigarettes, and fried foods if I wanted to make more money.”
But, he continues, “to be a part of the community, you don’t take the money out of the community and not reinvest it back into it. It’s like a family—you have to nurture it, you have to provide for it, you have to look out for people. To be a part of the community, you have got to care.”
His is a rare success in black and brown communities nationwide but not for lack of effort. In fact, Boudreaux is one of the nation’s few remaining black people operating full-service supermarkets. No organizations track the number, but sources familiar with the situation and some of the remaining grocers suggest that fewer than 10 black-owned supermarkets remain across the entire country. And the number continues to shrink: In the past two years alone, Sterling Farms in New Orleans, Apples and Oranges in Baltimore, and several branches of Calhoun’s in Alabama have all gone out of business.
This is problematic because strong anchor businesses like grocery stores can serve as the center of neighborhood economies, recirculating local revenues through wages and nearby businesses. They can also be neighborhood hubs where people go to buy good food as well as employment centers and sources of community pride. But where there are no grocery stores, or where they’re not enmeshed in the fabric of the community, problems arise: Grocery-store ownership directly ties to larger struggles and themes like economic stability, self-determination, power, control, and racial and class stratification, says Malik Yakini.
Yakini is the director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, an organization that builds self-reliance, food security, and justice in Detroit’s black community. When a neighborhood loses a local grocery store, he says, the black American community essentially becomes what he describes as a domestic colony.
“[Black neighborhoods] are seen as a place for the more dominant economy to sell things,” Yakini says. “We’re more interested in building community, self-determination, and self-reliance. We’re interested in being more than consumers of goods that others bring to sell, and often goods that are inferior to what’s sold in the white community.
“We’re not a place to dump cheap goods,” Yakini continues. “African-American communities need to be producers of goods and stand eyeball to eyeball and shoulder to shoulder to other economic groups. Those that haven’t are subject to all sorts of abuse.”
In Detroit—a city that’s 85 percent black American—there are no black-owned grocery stores. Instead, Chaldeans—Middle Eastern Christians—living in the suburbs own the majority of the grocery-store options. A recent Fair Food Network study found Detroit’s residents spend an estimated $200 million annually on groceries in the suburbs.
Large chains like Walmart capitalize on this phenomenon. The company was one of three to partner with former First Lady Michelle Obama on a controversial plan to build 1,500 grocery stores in food deserts; fewer than half of those stores were ever built or renovated, and many of them were shuttered within the first five years.
In addition to building (and then closing) stores in underserved communities, Walmart has also been known to bus city residents out of their neighborhoods and into the suburbs to do their shopping under one roof—an attractive option for a population that’s not totally mobile in a sprawling city like Detroit.
Also working in the large chains’ favor is the fact that many stores in black neighborhoods like Chicago’s South Side or Detroit’s east side are dirty, the quality of their food is often lower, and there’s a well-documented pattern of distributors supplying expired or nearly expired food. Additionally, local shoppers often say that management can be disrespectful, and staff often don’t live nearby.
At a now-closed Jewel-Osco location on Chicago’s South Side, Dara Cooper, co-director of the National Black Food and Justice Alliance, says she used to find rotting vegetables, old fruit, and green meat, whereas Jewel’s stores in more affluent white neighborhoods stock better produce and meats.
A neighborhood’s class and race correlate with the quality of food found in its grocery stores, Cooper says, adding that she witnessed the same phenomenon in Philadelphia’s Fresh Grocer chain. (Jewel-Osco and Fresh Grocer didn’t reply to requests for comment.)
In Chicago, food activist Sheelah Muhammad’s father ran a Nation of Islam grocery store that opened in the mid–20th century and partnered with black producers to set up businesses to supply its food. But, she says, that fell apart in the century’s final decades as society integrated and people gravitated toward large, white-owned chains in a way that earlier generations didn’t.
“When you’re coming out of slavery, Jim Crow, and having to do for yourself, having to work within your own community after being segregated—there are some positives to that. Not that I want to go back to it,” Muhammad says. “But having to do for yourself and working within your community—we should go back to that.”
And a common argument that blacks hear from the right and libertarian whites is, “Black people should just go and open grocery stores” or some variation of the “bootstraps” cliché. But that ignores the difficulty black people often have in obtaining capital or experience. Malik Yakini claims that black people in Detroit are often shut out of management positions at stores run by those from outside their community, so they don’t have the experience necessary to successfully run a supermarket or obtain capital.
And they’re already at a serious disadvantage when it comes to lending, says Dara Cooper.
“Everybody’s not starting from same playing field, and there’s a history of and contemporary acts of anti-blackness that lead to inequalities around access to capital and massive disinvestments in neighborhoods,” she says. “You can’t take lightly that banks actively drew red lines around black neighborhoods and said ‘I am not lending to you’ while white people got lent to. Active discrimination continues to happen in 2017, and you just can’t say, ‘Pull yourself up by [the] bootstraps.’ Not only is that unfair, it’s offensive.”
Ultimately, it’s all connected: the wealth extraction, the national chains, the rotten food, the redlining, and the lack of ownership. And when all the pieces are assembled, a clear picture of an economic system that’s stacked against black Americans begins to emerge. It’s the forces of racial and class stratification at work, Cooper says, which aren’t unique to the grocery industry.
“It’s based on inferior positionality of black people,” she says. “If we buy into the idea that every owner is white and that’s not a problem, and that black people have no other position but to be empty consumer[s], then that’s perpetuating white supremacy, and that’s a grave injustice.”
Despite the obstacles and competition they face, there are examples of locally owned grocery stores thriving in Detroit and elsewhere. The Honey Bee Market, centrally located in the predominantly Mexican stretch of Southwest Detroit, is co-owned by a Mexican woman. It’s a clean mom and pop shop that provides healthy foods, fresh produce, and employs neighborhood residents in its management.
The Grocery Outlet in Compton, California, where Kia Patterson, a black woman, is an independent operator, is another good example. Though the store is part of a chain, Patterson grew up in Compton, lives nearby in Long Beach, and talks about the need for grocery stores to support the community.
“It’s not only about providing good-quality food. What I’ve always been about is giving back. Like I have a school drive at the end of August. It’s about playing that role, helping with fundraising with schools, and being there not just to say, ‘Hey, come get your groceries from me,’ but also helping out the community,” Patterson says.
But perhaps the best solutions exist outside the traditional grocery-store model. Bodegas and smaller stores, which increasingly provide more produce and meats, require far less capital to start than traditional supermarkets. In Chicago, where wide swaths of real estate are considered food deserts, Cooper, Muhammad, and two other partners launched a mobile grocery store called Fresh Moves. The mobile model provided them flexibility while allowing them to form partnerships that helped reach more people, Muhammad said.
“It was a good alternative because we could hit multiple communities in one day or one week, and people didn’t have to travel to it,” she says. “It’s a really great way to do community outreach and engagement, and we partnered with schools, senior citizen centers, health clinics, and other community stakeholders … so it can be a different kind of way to get people eating healthy.”
As traditional food systems fail black Americans (not to mention low-income communities and other communities of all colors), effective alternative forms of ownership, like the Southwest Georgia Project food hub, look increasingly appealing, Cooper says. The Georgia nonprofit owns 1,600 acres of land on which black and other socially disadvantaged farmers grow food to meet regional demand.
“Private ownership will not free us, [will] not get us equity, so we have to think about how class inequality is reproduced and challenge that,” Cooper says.
Examples of alternatives are sprouting up around the country. In Minneapolis, the long-standing Seward Community Co-Op last year opened a new supermarket in the minority-majority Bryant neighborhood and went to great lengths to let the neighborhood’s residents shape the new market.
In Detroit, Yakini and the Food Security Network are planning a grocery cooperative for the city’s North End neighborhood, while in northeast Greensboro, North Carolina, the Renaissance Community Cooperative now services what was long considered a food desert. In 2016, Renaissance’s 1,300 owners chipped in at least $100 each to build an 11,000-square-foot, $3 million full-service grocery store.
Ed Whitfield, the co–managing director of the Fund for Democratic Communities, helped organize Renaissance, which is led by a largely black American board of directors, and Whitfield describes as a well-managed, attractive, friendly supermarket that sells high-quality products and serves as a community hub. Should the store find itself holding a surplus, Whitfield says it would hypothetically spend the funds on band uniforms or some other community need—and that, he says, is a mold-breaking strategy.
“Unfortunately, we live in a society that says it’s legitimate just to maximize profit at any cost, and that generates a whole set of problems,” Whitfield says. “This is a place that meets a community need and has good jobs, and when there’s a profit, the board can decide how to put it back into the community.” At Renaissance, Whitfield continues, “we can meet a need and elevate the quality of life in a community without just trying to make a profit.”
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