While I was in Oakland at the food security conference, one of the things that people kept asking me about our store was ‘how do you get people to come shop with you.’ Aside from the obvious answer about creating an inviting space – which owes more to my background studying architecture and my brother’s experience working in high end fashion retail – is that we started from a difference premise: we assume everyone wants to be healthy.
But seeing as how this was primarily a conference about engaging communities and not individuals, my first mental step was to decode the question. By ‘people’ my assumption had to be that when the question is asked (and I have only ever been asked that question by individuals who are not Black) what is meant is: ‘Black people’ or ‘people of color’ or ‘people from underserved communities’. The larger food movement sees these three groups as one large monolithic group that is impoverished, has to be taught, dragged to the produce section kicking and screaming, and forced to be educated about the merits of good eating and good health. It is soo not the case.
What a largely affluent food movement seems to be lacking is any conversation around the radically different historical connections to food and farming that our different communities have. People think they can just hang a sign outside that says “farm fresh food” and Black people will come running. People think that putting up pictures of farms or advertising in a way that evokes old time-y folks hanging around a cow and having fun on the farm is going to somehow engage people of color to eat better or feel as though all these discussions that people are having around, above, and behind our backs is really about us.
To successfully integrate all our voices into the dialogue about health, organic food, and farming, it takes understanding where we’ve been, what we’ve been through, and how we can heal our memories around farming.
There’s a popular women’s studies book called All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men But Some Of Us Are Brave that, through a collection of essays, chronicled the need for Black women’s studies within the feminist movement. I love the title because it aptly summed up what the overall impression was of feminism (all the women are white), civil rights (all the blacks are men), and the ones whose voices were largely ignored but who were doing their fair share (if not more) of the work to help move everyone forward (but some of us are brave).
The food and environmental movements could use such a book. If I were an editor I would assemble essays from wonderful people like Majora Carter, Van Jones, Rashid Nuri, Will Allen, Tyler Perry, Oprah Winfrey, Faith Adiele, Rebecca Walker, Ruth Foreman, Staceyann Chin, Malik Yakini, Dr. Michael Bernard Beckwith, Toni Morrison, ZZ Packer, Alice Walker, Russell Simmons, Iyanla Vanzant, and Isabel Wilkerson. I would ask them to submit stories about food, about what it was like to leave farms and move to the cities during the middle of the last century, what it means to commune over food, how our relationship to food changed as we became more urban and less country. I would have to call it All the Foodies are Rich, All of the Farmers are White, But Some of Us Are Still Cookin’.
One of the first things we did when planning our store and coming up with a name and a brand that would resonate with our communities was to find a connection point that Black people have to farms that is positive. This was very important in terms of establishing a brand. To assume that everyone in this country conjures positive images when the word farm is evoked is naive and condescending. Black people worked and were tethered to farms for years in ways that were painful, destructive, and outright homicidal. To ignore this while talking about how to get Black people to glorify neo-modern images of the farm is like advertising a pair of SS boots to the Jewish community then that advertiser turning to scratch his head to ask ‘why aren’t people buying these’.
We decided that the train was a more positive connection. Trains took people away from the farms they had to leave to survive, and led them back on those special occasions when they wanted to visit the family they left behind. A. Philip Randolph, The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Pullman Porters. These were all influential in how we envisioned our brand reaching out to people in a way that is unique and evocative of a vintage era that our communities could be proud of and feel connected to.
To bring food into a space that evokes pride in one’s past is how we get people into our store.
To hold space for the full story gets people to come to our store.
To make certain that Black farmers are engaged and included in the commerce that is happening at Boxcar Grocer, gets people into our store.
To respect the people we serve and provide what they need to be healthy, gets people into our store.
It’s still a work in progress. We certainly don’t have all the answers. What we have is a different perspective, and so far that is working to our advantage and to the advantage of those who could not wait for an alternative to schlepping seven miles across town to Whole Foods.
© 2012 The Boxcar Grocer.