The pizza served at the Harlem spot Raw Soul could hardly be considered traditional African-American Southern fare. The “buckwheat, carrots, and flax, topped with a walnut/brazil nut cheese and sun-dried tomato pizza sauce” isn’t fried or dripping with flavorful grease. Still, there’s something about it–the rich colors, the multiple textures–that seems to tell the story of a black and soulful experience. “People have an emotional connection to food,” explained Lillian Butler, who, along with her husband, Eddie Robinson, is an owner-chef of Raw Soul. “We provide that here.” Raw Soul is more than a restaurant and juice bar. It serves as a nutrition and healthy-lifestyle educational center, as well as a hub for a diverse group of people who are determined to shift Harlem’s food consciousness.
One of the local food activists who frequent Raw Soul is Moriba Jackson. When Jackson thinks of buying food she always sees color. Not just the race of the people who populate Harlem and the South Bronx, the areas where she lives and works, but the color of the local food itself. Jackson tells the story of buying a head of lettuce from a corner grocery store in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx and forgetting it in her office refrigerator. When she returned to the lettuce more than a month later it was as if it had been suspended in time, with only one small brown spot betraying its advanced age.
“I ran around my office screaming, asking what was going on with this food,” Jackson, a 36-year-old African-American, recalls. Within a year Jackson had joined an effort in Harlem to start a food-buying club, a cooperative association that allows people to pre-order fresh, seasonal foods from farmers or distributors at wholesale prices.
Jackson is among thousands of consumers who have organized buying clubs, joined CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) or sought out food cooperatives as a way to access healthy foods and to support neighborhood-based food delivery systems. But what she shares with a smaller subset of neighborhood food activists is a race- and class-based critique that weaves in notions of black community leadership and responsibility. For Jackson and others like her, “food justice” is not only about supporting local farmers, battling the corporate hold on food production and breaking the tyranny of bioengineered foods and a fast-food nation; it’s also about using food as a means of re-educating, reinvigorating and liberating the black community.
Over the years, social science research has documented the race- and class-based differences in food access and consumption that were already obvious to many. For instance, City Limits magazine reported in 2004 that in New York City, the wealthiest residents have five times as many square feet of grocery-store space as do the city’s poorest. A 2006 University of Michigan study conducted in New York, Maryland and North Carolina found that neighborhoods of color and racially mixed areas had half as many supermarkets as predominantly white neighborhoods and twice the number of smaller corner and bodega-like stores, which carry little fresh produce. Similarly, low-income neighborhoods were found to have half as many supermarkets as the wealthiest communities, but four times as many of the smaller stores. Low-income and nonwhite communities in general had fewer natural food stores and fresh produce markets.
Jackson, who said that her interest in community food alternatives was prompted in part by a desire to control her weight, was able to rattle off the locations of seven McDonald’s within walking distance of her Harlem apartment. At the same time, she described taking two trains and a bus to get to a market that sold organic fruits and vegetables and a broad selection of healthy foods.