Poverty, Race, and the Grocery Store

Allison Burkett, in a recent post, mentioned a trip to Whole Foods with Dorothy, a client of Bread for the City, learning how to shop for healthy foods on a limited budget. It got me thinking about my own recent trip to Whole Foods, one that had a very different outcome.

I get into work early this morning. Javonee*, my boss, would scold me. “Our office hours start at nine am, Jacob”, shoots Miss Javonee, with her nails lightly clicking on the keyboard and her lips pursed. “That’s why you should’ve been here a half-hour earlier on Tuesday – then you wouldn’t be trying to come in so early today.” Her voice cadences on “today” with a sharpness echoed by the squeak of the chair as she turns around to look at me. She makes eye contact. She doesn’t blink.

I sometimes feel like I don’t understand Javonee, like we are coming from two different worlds. Of course, we are – she grew up a black girl in relative poverty, I grew up a white boy in relative wealth, and our life experiences have shaped how we look at things as simple as time.

Or food. Our non-profit organization, which works with youth, is throwing a holiday party for our clients. Whole Foods has offered a donation of groceries, which we’re going to pick out today.

We park. “It’s right there,” I point through the window.Produce Aisle

“I know where it is,” says Javonee softly. We walk into Whole Foods. It’s the first time Javonee has been inside a Whole Foods. I am scared of her reaction, but also curious.

“What do you think?” I ask with trepdiation.

“It’s a grocery store,” she replies.

The manager meets us at the front of the store and invites us to begin shopping. “What will the kids want?” I ask Javonee.

“See, I think that’s it,” Javonee chats. “This is Whole Foods. They have organic. They don’t have, like, any Fruit Loops or soda.” I know she’s right that our clients, youth who grew up in some of the poorer wards in the city, have specific food they like. I’ve seen Courtney* prefer fried chicken to vegetables. Or Ashley* not want salad and instead hot sauce. The way Javonee puts it, “These kids like one thing: chicken wings in mumbo sauce.”

I consider myself a part of the food movement. I just spoke as part of a panel at the Hazon Food Conference about my experiences with food justice in St. Louis. And in that work I learned about organic: that it was intended to be healthier for the earth, that it was a step better than regular produce. I never learned that organic meant gross, different-tasting, bizarre. But others did.

“Nothing organic,” Javonee says as we push the cart. “You know, some of these kids might eat some of the food in spite of it being organic, but they might just say ‘eww.’” Organic, for some of my clients, is weird and yucky. “It might be normal food in there, but if they see the ‘Organic’ label it don’t matter.” Her words remind me how ‘normal’ can mean such different things to different people.

When I’m living my life to bring about a just world, it’s uncomfortable moments like this that remind me to be a little less certain. Like the famous rabbi, I’ve started carrying two pieces of paper in my pockets, one reading “The world was created for me” and the other “I am but dust.” Sometimes I get frustrated with Javonee, and sometimes I realize how much I have to learn from her, how much I assume about the world. Sure, ever since I’ve learned about the grain quinoa I’ve loved it as a miracle protein source. But I also need to be careful that my celebration of this grain doesn’t turn into yet another form of cultural imperialism of white preference over traditional African-American foods. Can I start where people are, culturally?

And can I start where they are economically, too, so we don’t end up with the message of “Yes, organic tomatoes are better, and yes, you can’t afford them”?

Success at last – or so I think. I spot a familiar store brand, Tostitos tortilla chips, and pull the bag off the shelf to show to Javonee. She glances at the bags, then looks back into my eyes. “Yes, but do they have the normal white kind?” I glance again at the package I’m holding – multigrain. None of our kids will eat that. I put the bag back on the shelf. 

We leave the store with silverware (compostable), apple cider, and a determination to stop immediately at the nearest grocery store that actually carries coke products.

*Name changed to protect confidentiality.

Written by Jacob Siegel


  • just because people are of a certain age or from a certain neighborhood doesn’t mean that their preferences should be assumed. it does seem like the adults in this story have had consistent interactions with the kids who are being shopped for, so they seem to have a strong idea of what this particular groups of kids wants to eat. however, there’s evidence, anecdotal and not, to suggest that with some intention, communication, and exposure, kids can and will opt for healthy food.

  • Thanks, kc, for the comment! I like your point – that with encouragement, youth from any background can learn about healthy food. I’m excited about the possibility to do some of that growth and education with our organization.

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