Gentrification: Food as Accessory, not Necessity

From Pepper Bowen

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Dwayne Boudreaux, owner of Circle Food Store, said his old customer base is gone. Re-opened eight years post-Katrina, Circle Foods, the first African-American owned full service grocery store in New Orleans[i], is now facing challenges recapturing the market. The old customer base would buy a basket of groceries weekly and “there was never a doubt as to where they would shop”. Despite the specialty offerings, gluten free products, and prevalence of local produce, the new base doesn’t buy enough to replace the old customers.

Regrettably, Boudreaux’s old customer base may simply no longer exist. Grocery stores largely sell ingredients and rely upon people who know what to do with them. The previous customer base cooked regularly. That is not the case for the new residents in the Circle Foods neighborhood of the 7th Ward. This new customer base is gentrifying the old community in a variety of ways not often contemplated.

Defined simply as “the replacement of lower income residents with more wealthy ones”,[ii] gentrification of neighborhoods has gotten much attention. The premise is that gentrification comes after a period of sustained deterioration in central city neighborhoods[iii], then the neighborhood undergoes revitalization or reinvestment with the arrival of upper-income households[iv] Generally the people who are part of the gentrification movement have higher income levels and higher levels of education. In New Orleans, the gentrifiers may have come to support the city through Teach for America, medical personnel for the new University Medical Center, or entrepreneurs who simply want to see New Orleans thrive.  

There are possible benefits to be had as a result of gentrification. Improved public services, rehabilitated housing, and increased amenities[v] are on the list. But what of food access? There is ample research to support the claim that the more education the better the food choices, and logically gentrification should lessen if not eliminate food deserts. Curiously, that has not happened.

“Areas like the Bywater don’t have a sustainable population of income above the poverty level to support a grocery store” says Commercial Realtor Elijah Fiebleman. In an interview, he revealed what every real estate professional knows: although retail can be a catalyst for gentrification when it is planned, retailers tend to follow gentrification. Moreover there are factors that retailers use when deciding where to locate a shop, which are even more stringent and specific for franchises. These factors include expected traffic past the store, median household income of the area, and demographic context of the residents including, but not limited to education, gender, age, and race.

This begins to explain why in neighborhoods being gentrified, like the upper ninth ward of New Orleans, infamously there are food marts, meat markets, and convenience stores, but five miles between grocery stores[vi]. According to maps constructed by Tulane Preservation Resource Center, comparatively there was little access to food in those areas using grocery stores and other fresh food markets as the measurement for adequate food access. Looking at this same area in 2017, the situation is no better despite areas experiencing a great deal of redevelopment and gentrification.

This is to say that food deserts can and do exist in some of the best neighborhoods undergoing gentrification. Consider: high end or specialty markets may carry freshly butchered meat, exotic spices, artisanal cheeses, or even hand-crafted beer; but they might not carry fresh produce. The only real difference between that and the corner stores teeming with meats, packaged foods, processed cheese, and alcohol may be the price point.

Although, in defining food access, some would argue that grocery stores are the wrong metric – that by definition restaurants are food retailers providing access to food; healthy and fresh are debatable. It is illogical to expect low-income residents in a gentrifying neighborhood to spend upwards of $15 for a single entrée. Small business owner Shanell Roberts explains, “it’s basic economics. I can buy fresh pasta for $5, dried pasta for $2, or 10 bags of Ramen Noodles for $1.”  Those words may be the most accurate depiction of food as necessity - only now there is likely a restaurant nearby because if there are multiple criteria to demonstrate market success that food retailers could not survive, restaurateurs found an environment in which they could thrive.

Mark Romig, president and CEO of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp, told[vii] CNBC in a 2015 interview that the number of restaurants had grown from 800 pre-Katrina to over 1,400 post-Katrina. In March WGNO ran a story that in 2016, 10.45 million visitors came to New Orleans marking the highest number of tourists since 2004[viii]. And Nola.com reported in April of 2017 that 68 new restaurants opened in the last 12 months[ix]. So the number of restaurants continues to grow.

Yet if the city could support 10.1 million visitors with only 800 restaurants in 2004, why are there near double that number to feed about a 1% increase? The answer is gentrification. Gentrifiers treat what is on our plates as something that can be bought, whereas residents know it is more than that.

Liz Williams, Director of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, recounts the jury duty experience of a friend. “He was bored. There was only a black and white television in the corner playing without sound. The whole room was disaffected. … So, he started talking to his neighbor about whether he should caramelize the onions in the roux separately from the rest of the trinity or should you put all of three into the roux at the same time. Before long everybody in the room was talking about food … the methodology of cooking.”

However, that sense of belonging and the ability to contribute to how to cook gumbo only comes with knowledge. Knowledge that the trinity is onions, celery, and bell pepper. Knowledge that gumbo is dependent upon a roux of just the right color and smell. Knowledge that the way to achieve that taste - like ya momma made - will take hours of slow cooking love into the pot and no one else’s will ever be as good.

Not coincidentally, in the French Market is Gumbo Marie – a local woman in traditional garb who does cooking demonstrations educating attendees on the history of New Orleans. She dices historical facts like onion into digestible bites, sprinkles in stories of old, and ladles out culture in a bowl of gumbo because she knows that much of New Orleans history is passed on a plate.

Gentrifiers have come for a variety of reasons, but by all accounts, they came because they were attracted to the culture, the community that is New Orleans. Unfortunately, many unwittingly have begun to disrupt the very culture that brought them here because they may not fully understand that food is integral to the culture. By habitually eating out, gentrifiers treat food as an accessory, a service that can be outsourced like changing the oil in a car or getting a manicure. People who have lived in the heart of the city have always known that food is necessary to pass on traditions, necessary to preserve a culture - even if it was never articulated with words.

In a conversation about the food of Hispanic and African American families, Chef Melissa Araujo said, “Food is basic to bring the family together, to have family time.” She recalled that as a kid her meals were served at the table, at a scheduled time. “It wasn’t strict. It was the point you had to be at the table to communicate with each other.” So is that over or has it just changed?

The majority of restaurants that open are casual joints, not fine dining restaurants. They are blending food cultures and flavors and are presenting “new takes” on traditional New Orleans dishes. So it may be that the table has moved from the house to the restaurant.  However, this adds no value to the availability of fresh food markets. And it certainly doesn’t improve food access for the original residents.

Sources

[i] http://circlefoodsnola.com/about_us/ Last visited May 29, 2017.

[ii] Fullilove & Wallace, Serial Forced Displacement in American Cities, 1916-2010, 88, no. 3,  J. Urb. Health: Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, (2011) at 383.

[iii] Smith, Toward a Theory of Gentrification A Back to the City Movement by Capital not People, J. APA, (Pub. online 26 Nov 2007) at 538.

[iv] Freeman, Displacement or Succession? Residential Mobility in Gentrifying Neighborhoods, Urb. Aff. Rev. (2005) at 469.

[v] Freeman, Displacement or Succession? Residential Mobility in Gentrifying Neighborhoods, Urb. Aff. Rev. (2005) at 489.

[vi] Distance between Circle Food Store and the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Chalmette, the closest two grocery stores to the 7the Ward, Bywater, Marigny, Upper and Lower 9th Ward neighborhoods. https://www.google.com/maps/dir/Walmart+Supercenter,+West+Judge+Perez+Drive,+Chalmette,+LA/Circle+Food+Store,+1522+St+Bernard+Ave,+New+Orleans,+LA+70116/@29.9649486,-90.164615,11z/data=!4m13!4m12!1m5!1m1!1s0x889e1d40de526bb9:0x777a46fb89b98172!2m2!1d-89.9839444!2d29.9590023!1m5!1m1!1s0x8620a602cb6d9e0f:0x6dcdf504eadc26a4!2m2!1d-90.0654935!2d29.972301 (last visited May 30, 2017).

[vii] Sarah Whitten, New Orleans’ Tourism Booms 10 Years After Hurricane Katrina, http://www.cnbc.com/2015/08/28/new-orleans-tourism-booms-10-years-after-hurricane-katrina.html (last visited May 30, 2017).

[viii] A Record 10.45 Million People Visited New Orleans in 2016, http://wgno.com/2017/03/24/a-record-10-45-people-visited-new-orleans-in-2016/ (last visited May 30, 2017).

[ix] Todd Price, 68 New Orleans Restaurants Opened in the last 12 Months: How Many Have You Tried?, http://www.nola.com/dining/index.ssf/2017/04/new_orleans_new_restaurants_1.html (last visited May 30, 2017).