We Don’t Live in a Food Desert, We Live under Food Apartheid: Interview with Dawn Blackman

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“Motherdawn” Blackman

Dawn Mosley Blackman, a Chicago native, moved to Champaign in April, 1993. She is the current steward of the Randolph Street Community Garden and a pastor at the Church of the Brethren. As a military wife she lived in Europe and the Middle East, where she apprenticed with native craftspeople, which led to the founding of Motherlands Multicultural Resource Center and Motherlands Culture Club, located at Church Street Square, in 1995. In the spring of 1999, Motherlands Culture Club was adopted as a ministry by the Church of the Brethren. She is a recipient of a McKinley YWCA award for community service, and was named a 2015 Purpose Prize Fellow by Encore.org. Dawn shares her proud achievements within the local community, including hosting a food pantry at the Champaign Church of the Brethren and coordinating the community gardens, which are affiliated with the church.

We Don’t Live in a Food Desert. We Live under Food Apartheid

“When I was growing up as a child in Chicago, there were a few grocery stores in my neighborhood. I remember there were three or four of them; they were close enough to walk to. They mostly had non-parity foods. One chain would overcharge shoppers in our area; another would send bruised and days-old fruits and vegetables and stale bread from stores in affluent neighborhoods and sell them at full price in our area. In the ’60s and ’70s, families with cars would shop outside of the community in order to get fresh produce, fresh bread, and shelf items that were not damaged, dented, or dusty.” This is how Dawn Blackman remembers accessing food during her childhood in the Grand Crossing neighborhood of Chicago. However, she continues, “now when I go back there and drive around the neighborhood, there aren’t any full-service grocery stores within walking distance.” Combining memories of past and present Chicago, she argues that “we currently don’t live in a food desert, we live under food apartheid.”

By food apartheid, Dawn refers to “the whole food system of exclusion based on race, geography, faith, economics, etc. Karen Washington, a food justice advocate, describes food apartheid as a relentless social construct that devalues human beings and assumes that people are unworthy of having access to nutritious food. Food apartheid affects people of all races, including poor white people, although black and brown people are affected disproportionately. What we see when we look at food insecurity among poor black and brown people in this country is that it’s not a naturally occurring phenomenon. I give it more kinship to apartheid than to a desert. ‘Food desert’ sugarcoats the roots of the problem. The term makes it sound like food injustices are a naturally occurring circumstance; something that occurs as a result of the natural course of development, or even something akin to a natural disaster. Everybody can get a warm fuzzy feeling from their altruistic efforts at mitigating the results of a desert. It’s a matter of the people being separated from food access, which is what apartheid does, separating people from one another.”

Dawn goes on and posits that, “similar to Chicago, many poor people in Champaign live under food apartheid—whereby food is separated from a good portion of the population. When the grocery stores first closed or moved, opened [further to the] north, they located outside of the existing bus routes. This was problematic because it contributed to sprawl and placed vital resources out of the reach of those most at risk of food insecurity. These businesses frequently receive tax breaks for locating in an area; this increases the tax load on all residents. Taxing bodies that issue rebates and/or tax breaks should require businesses to pay to expand services so that all residents can have access to them. However, as the stores moved to North Prospect, the lack of buses and sidewalks made it harder for people without cars to get to the stores. Businesses knew that this was a problem; one of the stores provided charter buses to run university students from campus to their store to shop and then back to campus. Whereas residents who live in the near-north areas had no option to get food except to walk to the stores, spend part of their food money to take cabs home with their groceries, or shop at a gas station or convenience stores, which were very expensive, had limited selection, and never any fresh vegetables. Since governing bodies hold the key to where grocery stores are located through the use of  building permits and the building of infrastructure, it would be wise and fair for legislating local bodies to consider the needs of all members of the community, by requiring  businesses who want to locate their stores outside of existing infrastructure to pay to expand that infrastructure and transportation system to allow access to underserved populations.”

Blackman runs several educational projects in the community, especially targeting school-age children. “I asked students who were on a tour at the Randolph Street Community Garden what is the purpose of food pantries, food giveaways, and food kitchens? They said, ‘to feed the poor,’ ‘to have access to food,’ and so on. However, these approaches should be for emergency food shortages only. Instead, they’ve become a way of life for many people. For instance, when the high cost of housing and the lack of affordable housing force families to spend food dollars to keep a roof over their heads; when affordable housing is placed away from grocery stores; when wage earners are forced out of affordable housing due to prior convictions; when there are no sidewalks to walk on or buses to ride to grocery stores; when stores provide buses only for certain non-driving populations; when families are faced with the dichotomy of winter with the ‘heat or eat’ choice; when an interruption in utility service can void a lease, leading to eviction; when medical treatment can be made available only with payment by the recipient upfront, even with insurance, requiring patients to wait for reimbursement from the insurance company (a whole new industry of lenders are salivating at this one); when wages are held at artificially low rates—then families are forced to make regular visits to emergency food providers to sustain their households. A look at each of the above-mentioned circumstances as they apply in our Champaign-Urbana community explains why the term food apartheid perfectly describes this intentional denial of access to food.”

Randolph Street Community Garden

However, Dawn’s sketch of the current situation is not exclusively pessimistic. She adds that “there are some positive efforts going on in our communities. I have made my focus increasing food security; letting people and giving people the tools to grow their own food, because then it can’t be moved away from them. If you know how to grow vegetables, you don’t have to suffer from food shortage and your health will not deteriorate, as it can by relying on fast food and convenience store foods. During the current pandemic, black and brown people are disproportionately impacted because of their pre-existing health issues, many of which are due to poor nutrition because of the lack of options to secure healthy foods close to home. So, all of these things rolled together contribute to layer upon layer, generation after generation of disproportionate opportunities and loss. It doesn’t happen in isolation.”

Randolph Street Community Garden

“Therefore, when we call food injustice food apartheid, the real conversation can begin. A conversation fueled by indignation at such exploitation; a conversation that recognizes that food injustices are no accident; that the food choices, health, and welfare of black, brown, and poor white people are systematically sacrificed for profit. The inhumanity of food apartheid is lodged in the acceptance of capitalism. So perhaps it’s not ‘our’ food that’s killing us, but the food transplanted into our communities by capitalist crusaders.”

– Jacqueline Bediako

Fatou Jobe is a master’s student in African Studies at UIUC. Her research aims to highlight the environmental, economic, and political impact of global aquaculture on local communities. She plans to pursue a PhD to further her study of fishmeal factories in West Africa.

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