How Harlem Eats

How Harlem Eats

Urban restaurateurs, activists and consumers are seeking “food justice,” insisting that healthy food shouldn’t be a privilege for the wealthy and white.


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.

Recent attention to high obesity rates in communities of color–one study reported in The Physician and Sportsmedicine journal found that one-third of African-American and Mexican-American women are obese, compared with one-fifth of white women–has sparked attempts by legislators in New York to take on bodega and fast-food culture in those communities. Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, whose district includes the Bushwick section of Brooklyn and the Lower East Side of Manhattan, is working on legislation that would provide grants to community groups working to help bodegas build the capacity to offer fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods. City Councilman Joel Rivera from the Bronx recently created a stir when he called for hearings on whether New York City zoning laws could be used to restrict the concentration of fast-food joints in low-income areas. Meanwhile, in Washington, the Farmers Market Nutrition Program was established in 1992 to “provide fresh, unprepared, locally grown fruits and vegetables” to families on public assistance and to “expand the awareness, use of and sales at farmers’ markets.” Unfortunately, the federal food benefit per recipient is capped at $30 per year.

At the grassroots level, Melanie Lawrence, a 27-year-old vegetarian pursuing a masters in public health, talks about “building solidarity around the world” between people of African descent around issues of food access. She moves seamlessly from describing a rural area in Africa facing starvation because their farmers are forced into single-commodity production to singling out her local Pathmark in the black homeowner district of southeast Queens for paying low wages and selling lesser-quality, more highly priced food than the white neighborhood supermarket across the tracks.

Lawrence is a manager at Greenmarket, a nonprofit that works with the City of New York to link New York State farmers and their produce with New York consumers. Of its forty-five locations, at least one-third are located in neighborhoods of color. But even Greenmarkets, Melanie maintains, has a difficult time meeting black community interests, on both sides of the equation, because many black consumers cannot afford to shop at farmers’ markets, while only a handful of blacks in New York State have been able to make a living through farming [see Habiba Alcindor, “Black Farms, Black Markets,” page 37].

In Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant, a predominantly low- and moderate-income neighborhood at the center of one of the largest concentrations of African-Americans in the country, Anayah Barney, a 23-year-old special education teacher, is one of several people organizing what she hopes will one day be the Kalabash Food Cooperative. For her the Kalabash organizing effort represents an approach to alternative food access that, while connecting her group to other black and Latino activists across the country, is somewhat distinct from what she perceives to be the governing philosophies of predominantly white-run alternative food initiatives. We are “bringing two conversations together,” Barney insists, “one about access to good food and the other about black spending power and where the black community’s money is going.”

Although Barney praises the management of the nearby Park Slope Food Coop–which is, with more than 12,000 members and a thirty-three-year history, the largest wholly member-owned and -operated food co-op in the country–for being generously supportive of Kalabash, she acknowledges that some of Kalabash’s leaders left the Park Slope Food Coop because they felt it wasn’t particularly welcoming to black members.

Uptown, where Moriba Jackson’s fledgling food-buying club mirrors the increasingly racially integrated, gentrifying composition of its contemporary Harlem setting, Jackson has also observed racial fault lines between the white and black participants, with the latter showing a keener interest in black community self-determination, as well as in specifically African-American health issues and in supporting black farmers and entrepreneurs.

But in the end, whether their primary interest lies in changing Harlem’s relationship to what it eats or in Lillian Butler’s pizza sauce, the multiracial crowd at Raw Soul comes together over healthy food. Some of Butler’s loyal clientele even credit her with being the leader of a “movement.” When asked to identify exactly what kind of movement they’re referring to, Butler says, “This is not just about black people. It’s not even just about food. It’s about healing people.”

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