We often hear the “Whole Foods effect” of gentrification. A new farmers market, a Starbucks, or a hip fusion restaurant are all indicators of gentrification in our cultural lexicon. Yet when we talk about gentrifying neighborhoods, the conversation is focused on property values and cost of living, both of which are incredibly important to the topic of housing accessibility. On the other hand, gentrification strips away culture and community of the original residents, often communities of color. Food isn’t just sustenance, but a medium for socialization, for creating and building identity and culture. When neighborhood demographics change, so does our palette.
So how central is food in the process of gentrification?
The Process of Gentrification
Firstly, what is gentrification? Speaking to Lizzy Barrett, a Boston College 2019 graduate and the director and producer of an upcoming documentary called “Divisible” about redlining in North Omaha, Nebraska, she sees gentrification as a two step process: firstly, the targeting of often formerly redlined areas of low-income and minority neighborhoods by property developers; and secondly, the rising property value and cost of living that displaces the original residents of that neighborhood.
“Because of [redlining], today these [neighborhoods] are normally looked at as low income or low resource areas. They tend to have higher vacant lots, higher abandoned buildings, [and] bigger food deserts,” Barrett said. “This sets the stage for cheaper land. Developments are starting to look where to expand after the more desirable neighborhoods have increased prices or there is nowhere near to build, so they start to look at these inner cities because it’s cheaper to build.”
When real estate developers start to propose large scale luxury apartment buildings, commercial mixed-use buildings, co-working spaces, and higher cost food and dining, the original residents are left out of the equation.
“The main problem is when you’re putting housing developments and businesses that are not aimed at providing housing, resources, or rental properties that businesses already in that community need for development or help to get started,” Barret said. “Instead you’re offering new developments to people outside that community coming in.”
From 2000 to 2013, 135,000 residents have been displaced from their homes in gentrifying areas, most of whom are Black and Hispanic populations.
“There are less restaurants in formerly redlined areas and in areas that haven’t been gentrified yet,” said Barrett, “because there isn’t this tax base that can support them to the same level when you are in a more densely populated, higher income area.”
If there is a lack of interested food businesses in low-income areas, what does access to food look like?
Food Deserts: A National Problem
Photo courtesy of Michigan State University
Source: McKinsey & Company
“Redlined areas tend to be food deserts where there is limited access to nutritional foods that one can afford,” Barrett said. “It’s not just how far away it is to a grocery store or where to go eat at a restaurant, it’s also how nutritious is the food available at those locations, and is it within one’s buying power.”
Food deserts are areas in disproportionately high poverty areas where residents have a lack of access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly fruit and vegetables. According to the USDA’s most recent food access research report in 2017, 12.8 percent of the US population were living in low-income and low-access areas. Within this group, 19 million people, or 6.2% of the country’s population, are in food deserts with limited access to supermarkets and grocery stores. Food deserts correlate with higher health risks such as coronary heart disease. But it also can be traced back to the historical neglect and racism of housing policy.
Barrett’s documentary, “Divisible,” focuses on the long term impacts of redlining specifically in North Omaha, Nebraska. Omaha remains to be one of the country’s worst examples of wealth and income inequality among racial groups, and is still highly segregated by racial lines. In the city alone, the average income for the bottom 99 percent is $64,051, whereas the top 1 percent has an average income of $997,691. North Omaha has historically been and still is predominantly Black, whereas West Omaha remains predominantly white. Downtown Omaha, on the other hand, sits between these divisions.
“As you go North from the downtown area, you start to see less and less restaurants, grocery stores, coffee shops; and there’s entire neighborhoods where you can’t walk to a grocery store. You can’t walk to a coffee shop or to a restaurant,” Barrett explained from spending months in North Omaha to shoot for her documentary. “The only restaurants within the area are drive-through fast food restaurants that don’t have the same nutritional value as other establishments. This is what we call a food desert.”
“Just North of the downtown area – reclassified as the North downtown area – used to have more industrial areas and a lot more vacant lots and empty properties. Old industrial warehouses are being renovated into apartments, business spaces, and into restaurants and into coworking spaces that are generally geared towards higher income, young professionals, and transplants from outside the city,” said Barrett.
This isn’t to say low-income neighborhoods are completely devoid of a thriving food culture; in fact, the opposite is true. Food remains to be a cultural and societal connector. Long-time residents, mainly people of color, have established convenience stores, ethnic restaurants, and gardens to feed themselves. Think immigrant hubs like Chinatown. These establishments met the needs of the people that were ignored by mainstream retailers.
But food deserts remain a pressing issue forgotten in legislation to improve inequality in the US. Despite needed access to nutritional food options, as more restaurant and grocery store businesses enter a gentrifying neighborhood, these establishments that are desperately needed in the area become inaccessible to original residents.
In this sense, food becomes both the solution and the gentrifier.
Solutions for a Different Future
At the core, gentrification reduces neighborhoods to a selling point. In doing so, erasing the history of neglect, divestment, and violent discrimination. The appetite of gentrification is profit (and hip $9 coffee).
The solution is then to radically rethink urban planning and development. To truly uplift low-income communities and close the racial and income gaps in this country, legislators and city officials need to create and facilitate accessible opportunities prioritizing the residents themselves beyond a need for profit.
“So it could look like subsidies to grocery stores that decide to be located in a lower tax bracket or an area of a city that is less densely populated,” Barrett suggested, “It’s also really important to support small businesses.”
Other possible solutions could be funding a city-wide health promotion program, establishing rent control to help mitigate rising cost of living, and supporting the growth of small businesses. Solutions should always have the intention to keep the current residents from getting displaced.
“Lastly, one alternative that has been really popular in Omaha is creating community gardens, and helping people become self-sufficient and to provide food for themselves and their families,” Barret said. “But it’s important we don’t put the onus on individuals who have been stuck in it for the longest period of time.”
In terms of our own personal lives, always be cognizant of what’s behind our own consumer decision and its domino effect in displacing low-income communities of color. Find and explore neighborhoods on the cusp of gentrification and support their long-time small businesses and restaurants, rather than the newer establishments geared toward white, young professional palettes.
Food will always be a signifier of wealth. An excess, a lack of accessibility, a revamping of a cuisine, or a concentration of fast food – each have their connotations to the wealth landscape. In many ways, a growth in “foodie” culture in these newly developed areas “is like a foot in the door for gentrification.” As a food magazine, we have to be conscious of what we’re reporting about, the stories we’re telling and the stories we’re leaving out. Gentrification isn’t just the displacement of people, but an eroding force against minority cultures, and that includes their culinary histories.
Follow “Divisible” on Social Media, @divisiblefilm!
“Divisible” is a documentary film focusing on the history and current impacts of redlining in the United States. This film highlights the specific case of Omaha, Nebraska to illustrate the overarching issue of redlining and show how this practice continually affects and harms people in cities across the nation. The interwoven narrative of “Divisible” is told through a collection of interviews with individuals who are experts, either through their profession, their lived experiences, or both.
Lizzy Barrett, the director and producer of this documentary, graduated from Boston College in 2019. She began working on “Divisible” in 2020. The film is in its production phase and is slated to come out July, 2023. Help spread the word out about “Divisible” by following and sharing their social media pages. Learn more about “Divisible” here.
Cover photo courtesy of Medium