Thursday, March 31, 2011

In Defense of Doof

One of  my favorite things to listen to on NPR are the sponsorships ads because I'm interested in who else, besides me, is paying for all this news.  My favorite line goes, "The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation...dedicated to the belief that all people deserve to live a healthy and productive life."  Between shows and the news, I wait for it, then happily mouth the words while driving to work in Boston.  I'm gleeful because at that moment I, too believe in these same ideals and the power of lots of money to change this world.  It's easy to believe because one the reasons my life and life of my family is healthy and productive is that I have two cars, one of which is paid off,  that drive me to work and back.  I'm not reliant on iffy public transportation to get me where I need to go. My cars also afford me the luxury of choosing where I shop to buy food.  If I don't like Stop and Shop's prices on Cheerios and crackers, well I'll just take my business elsewhere.  As long as one of us has a job and at least one car, my husband and I are pretty sure that we will not starve because the price of wheat and corn has increased.

My story is only one part of this hungry equation:  some people can afford to have choices, others don't.  Take the now two months old debate about Whole Foods moving into Jamaica Plain's Hyde Square district.  Whole Paycheck, er, um, I mean, Whole Foods is replacing Hi-Lo, a Latin American grocery store that served the diverse Latino communities in JP for 47 years.  Hi-Lo's owner is retiring and the owners of the property are leasing the space to the upscale supermarket chain.  Some residents are crying "gentrification" while others applaud the move to revitalize an area hit hard economically. The heated conversation  largely centers around the fate of Hi-Lo's employee and the disenfranchisement of its Latino shoppers.  It also surfaces stereotypes about Latinos and responsibility, as written so acrimoniously by someone responding to a WBUR article on the subject:

super 88 has done well because the asian/chinese community did something about what they saw as an unmet need and opened a very successful and consumer friendly business. if the latino community wants a store like hi lo in the hood they gotta work for it. the economy doesn't work on handouts, it works on entrepreneurs/business groups/civic groups DOING something. can't just sit on your ass and expect things to not change. 

He's right about one thing-- there was a need for a business to cater to a growing Asian American population.  Where he goes postal is in vilifying the Latino community for not doing anything to stop this food monolith from taking over. Perhaps what he envisions is a civic uprising akin to the Sadinistas in Nicaragua where everyday people take up their hoes and signs and band together to defeat an oppressive supermarket.  Sometimes, things can successfully work this way, but this takes knowing who your enemy is. The other side of the food justice debate urges consumers to rage against totalitarian, corporate machines like ConAgra Foods and buy local and organic to make a point that we will no longer stand for high fructose corn syrup and genetically modified whatevers in our foods.  Unfortunately, these would-be guerrillas literally cannot afford to participate in this eco-revolution because the price of local and organic foods are in themselves oppressive. Defending food is crazy and backwards when the food that you're defending is good for you and also bad for you because you simply can't afford it.  Add to it that fact that the diversity of food choices, meeting the needs of its multicultural neighborhood, and more importantly low prices, kept customers making the trek to Hi-Lo from as far away as Lynn.  To think that one would spend the money on gas for a round trip to save money on hard to find food  items is at the heart of a demanding need of non-white American enclaves to have a comestible connection to their culture.  It's not just about picking up eggs and a gallon of milk on the way home from work.  It's a process of recognizing that certain foods and having access to them regardless of the fat content nourishes the soul and makes for consumer friendliness.

Like Hi-Lo, Super 88 in Dorchester and Brighton, and Tropical Market in Roxbury are markets that cater to very specific ethnic populations in which people will drive over hill and dale to get very specific items.  I know no other store close to me, even in Framingham with its diverse South American population, where I can buy sorrel and oxtail in the same place, but at Tropical Market.  I don't make these foods often, and I delight in knowing exactly where to get them even though I have to drive quite a distance.  When my husband was hooked on collecting bombillas for his mate gourd, he could always count on a selection at Hi-Lo to satisfy is intense cravings.  Living in a metropolitan area, I'm lucky to be a short drive from deciding to eat at a Dominican, Vietnamese, or Ethiopian restaurant all within a seven mile radius of each other.  My easy access to dine out in a city rich with ethno-flavor also magnifies the fact that these same communities which cook the delicious food I crave do not share in the privilege to be able to eat as one chooses. 

As much as I think stores like Hi-Lo and Tropical Market are national historic sites, they have their dark sides.  Fresh food rarely smells, and having patronized both places, I know that these stores can emit an odor of decay.  Tropical Market's produce section sits at the back of the store, I mean, way back.  They've jammed pack foods from  Africa to Latin America, which is good, but the store is dirty and small.  I don't write this to make light of the trials of small grocers and bodegas, but I've always noticed, having grown up in a small city, that the most unkempt markets reside in the poorest sections of a city.  My father would go out of our neighborhood to a supermarket two towns away in a wealthy, Jewish area to shop at the same supermarket chain.  He always told me that rich customers demand the best quality of food.  Living in New Jersey, I remember seeing the stark contrast between a Shop Rite in affluent Livingston versus the one in East Orange. I interpreted my father's remarks to mean that if you were poor then you had no say, no power in what stores came in into your neighborhood. While bringing businesses into the 'hood is profitable, it doesn't ensure the economic livelihood of those for whom these businesses are to benefit.  This is why new "affordable condos", independent-minded bookstores, and cute cafes that may change the complexion of their neighborhood don't eliminate the disparate reality that these well-intentioned purveyors still leave out a huge slice of their residents.

If you live on limited means, then your circle of nourishment is small and contained within a unending cycle of dead ends: no supermarket chains nearby or within walking distance, thus no passage to fresh foods, no fresh foods, so increased reliance on fast foods, fast foods lead to obesity, and obesity occurs because there are no supermarket chains nearby or within walking distance...  It's no wonder that obesity rates, which topple at 66% of all Americans, are higher for Blacks, Latinos, and some Asian cultures, especially when you find the majority of these ethnic minorities living in impoverished urban areas.

Let's hope that the coming of Whole Foods to JP will bring in jobs (they say about 100 employees will be hired) and that they will do their best to have products that reflect the demographic. What many do not realize is that Whole Foods and its more affordable step-brother, Trader Joe's, accept food stamps and WIC approved items. Arming oneself with this little known fact can make the dream of eating good, healthy food more of a reality.  All we need now is to convince Trader Joe's to go urban and assimilate itself into the more colorful spaces of Boston that look less like Brookline and more like Dorchester.