The Color of Food: A Critical Examination of Race in Natural-Grocers and Farmer’s Markets
Food scholars have found that some areas within the alternative food movement, such as farmer’s markets and natural-grocers, operate as exclusionary spaces that primarily serve privileged white shoppers. The rhetoric used, attitudes upheld and physical characteristics of these spaces ostracize non-white individuals, effectively making the high quality, organic and locally grown food inaccessible to them. This ethnographic study examines a natural grocer and farmer’s market in Boulder, CO, utilizing the usage of qualitative interviews, a secondary sample, participatory observation and discursive analysis.
Through these methods, similar results were found in conjunction with the previously completed literature on this topic. First off, this research argues that the natural-grocer and farmer’s market are overwhelmingly white spaces and are fraught with simultaneous conspicuous and inconspicuous modes of exclusion. With these characteristics in play, it is argued that the alternative food movement, in the form of farmer’s markets and natural-grocers, is inhibited from its true potential of serving diverse populations. Lastly, this study will attempt to offer up some ideas for improvements in these areas in hopes of turning the white spaces of many (not all) farmer’s markets and natural-grocers into locations that accurately depict and welcome the vibrant community working for them and surrounding them.
The Absence of Foreign Language
In whiteness theory, color-blindness is when the absence of racial identifiers in language is seen as non-racist. Alfalfa’s is inherently a color-blind institution because of its location in the city of Boulder, a predominately white and affluent community. However, the key word here is predominately because Boulder also has a large native non-white population. It is also an international tourist destination and home to thousands of foreign students. Due to the absence of foreign language at Alfalfa’s, some of these people are automatically unable to shop there or struggle their way through the process of translation. None of the items sold, or menus advertising the food at Alfalfa’s are bi-lingual. The only presence of another language is a decorative Chinese or Japanese symbol above the seafood and sushi section.
The absence of foreign languages transforms Alfalfa’s into a white space. The language used at Alfalfa’s makes white people perceive this landscape as normal and natural while non-whites could feel uncomfortable and unwelcome (McCullen 2001). When writing about alternative food institutions Guthman (2008) ascertains, “Few people of color attend these programs; many feel isolated, and excluded…not only because of the language employed but also in fear of challenging” (p.394). In the case of Alfalfa’s, the language employed is English and the idea of convincing an entire corporation to include bi-lingual items and signs is a monumental task, even for a white person. The complete absence of a foreign language at Alfalfa’s discourages and dissuades non-whites from shopping there, inherently defending the whiteness perpetuated there.
White Savior Imagery
Alfalfa’s is very heavily focused on providing local, sustainable, and organic products to their customers. With this mission of providing high quality foods, also comes a commitment to the environment. The institution is very much concerned with minimizing their carbon footprint, further placing this commitment onto their customers. Patrons of Alfalfa’s are encouraged to recycle, compost, re-use and only when absolutely necessary, throw something away. As customers walk to the trash bins to recycle, or compost they read a “Did You Know?” placard. The sign reads, “Did you know we diverted 4,105 food packets, 38,561 energy bar wrappers, 2,658 beauty care packages and over 13,230 bags from land fills?” This is no doubt good work, and promotes sustainability awareness, however it paints a white face over the alternative food movement; because majority of the employees and customers of Alfalfa’s are white, it creates a white savior image, attributing all the good work to white people.
The sign ignores the other persons involved in the process and points all the success to the white customers and employees privileged enough to shop there. There is no reference towards the waste management employees who are doing majority of the dirty work, if not all, transporting and processing the conveniently disposed of trash. Slocum (2007) perfectly describes the effect of this, “These well-intentioned food practices reveal both the transformative potential of progressive whiteness and its capacity to become exclusionary in spite of itself. Whiteness coheres precisely, therefore, in the act of ‘doing good’” (p. 520). The “Did You Know?” signage placed all around the store effectively disconnects the races, creating an unrealistic image of who is really responsible for sustainability practices, and ultimately, saving the earth.
Perpetuation of Whiteness
Looking further into the language used at Alfalfa’s, I found that whiteness is not only defended through rhetoric, but also prolonged. Alfalfa’s provides numerous local options for produce, and other products in their store. Each is labeled uniquely, informing the customer where it came from. In addition, scattered throughout the store (almost like a brainwashing technique) are signs that read, “Shop Local, Shop Alfalfa’s”. Language such as this is an example of the prolongation of whiteness because it creates what Alkon and McCullen call the “white farm imaginary”.
Customers of Alfalfa’s valorize the predominately white vendors who “grow their food”, rendering invisible the low-paid predominately non-white workers who do the bulk of the cultivation (Alkon and McCullen 2011). The “Shop Local, Shop Alfalfa’s” signage fetishizes the products, creating a white and ideal conceptualization of embeddedness (within a community and lifestyle of sustainable living) that seductively brings patrons back time and time again. Alkon and McCullen argue, “…The color of faces customers see at the market influences who they believe grows the food they buy, and in the case of our markets, confirms the customers’ notion that sustainable agriculture is done by white family farmers” (p.946). Similarly, employees and customers of Alfalfa’s hold romantic notions of what farmers and community members should look like that both defend and perpetuate an affluent habitus of whiteness.
The lack of color at alternative food sites constructs color-blind conceptualizations in the minds of white patrons and farmers. This in turn is acted upon using mechanisms of racism such as racist language (McCullen 2001; Guthman 2008). When examining a place like Alfalfa’s with a sociological imagination I also found this to be true. The signs, menus, and labels all maintained an unfortunate white mentality. The racist discourse paired with the complete lack of foreign language inadvertently excludes potential non-white customers.
Furthering the exclusion is the insider ambiance found at natural grocers. The attitudes attached to shopping sustainably, local and organic are inherently white. Valiente-Neighbours (2012) writes, “The unequivocal celebration of the local foodshed neglects a discussion about the power relations and social inequalities (such as racism or sexism) within the supposed “foodshed” or locality” (p. 533). In the case of Alfalfa’s, the “celebration” that Valiente-Neighbours brings to light is connected to the insider ambiance. The ambiance has a universal quality, in other words it is assumed to be widely shared and normal. This is precisely the ambiance’s ostracizing characteristic, othering whoever else does not fit into it; because Alfalfa’s is such a white space, the insider ambiance is therefore white, further gentrifying color to the fringe.
Additionally, whiteness theory gives a perspective in which to analyze the different aspects of white privilege at play in the alternative food movement. McIntosh (1989) vividly depicts white privilege “as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless backpack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and bank checks” (p. 1). Within that knapsack is not only the access to high-quality organic food, but also leisure time to enjoy shopping in a space overwhelmingly your own color, down to the words being read or spoken. To have such good food with such willing employees to serve you is a privilege. Alfalfa’s disproportionately benefits white people and provides pathways to block attempts to change it.
The mere completion of my participant observation and involvement in academic research is an item of white privilege. Along with that is the privilege to further the research, to continue asking questions. Whiteness studies and the alternative food movement create an incredibly interesting intersection. Racial studies of food are a crucial focal point in the flattening of the uneven road that is the alternative food movement. With that, I believe my study contributes some questions, or tools if you will, to help galvanize the construction. (1) What physical changes can be made to natural-grocers in order create a more encompassing environment, further creating a more inclusive ambiance? (2) With a better understanding of privilege, how would the interactions within natural grocers between whites and non-whites change? However, physical changes to the landscape will not completely solve the inequitable characteristics found within the alternative food movement. A social revolution is needed; a type of awareness that sweeps over the color-blind rhetoric and universal whiteness, adding color to the alternative food movement and exposing the truly vibrant communities surrounding the markets. Hopefully in the future, the veil overshadowing the inequitable alternative food business will be torn away, revealing the true structure and color of food.