Editor’s note: On this last day of (officially) celebrating Black history, we’re turning our attention to Black Futures and what that can look like. So we asked our essayist: What would a future without food scarcity look like?
When I moved to Memphis in 2014, there was a common refrain among people who talked to me about the local food system: Memphis is simultaneously the hungriest city and one of the most obese cities in the U.S.
Some will see both of these issues as individual moral failures, despite decades of research indicating discriminatory practices espoused by corporate food chains, particularly when it comes to access in Black and brown neighborhoods.
People are hungry because they have failed to provide for themselves or their families, some say. Obesity is a symptom of a lack of self-control. And still, others will see it as a paternalistic opportunity to correct Black people’s consumption. They don’t know any better. We should just teach them how to eat less junk and more healthy foods.
But I see it as an opportunity to reimagine abundance. In his book, “Freedom Dreams,” historian Dr. Robin D.G. Kelley writes, “a map to the new world is in the imagination.” There is no shortage of imagination among people in power who don’t choose to wield it for good. Every system of oppression and every decision to design a city in service to wealth and whiteness began in someone’s imagination. So, too, do our attempts to create a world with abundance at its center.
During the uprisings after Freddie Gray’s 2015 death in Baltimore police custody, Rev. Dr. Heber Brown III leaned into his imagination. Stores and schools were shut down, and people called Pleasant Hope Baptist Church for food. Brown was not ignorant of the dire impact of food insecurity in Baltimore. In 2010, he and his congregation began a vegetable garden on the church’s property. So, by the time calls started rolling in, he saw a solution: mobilize churches to get food to people as quickly as possible.
Vans from all along the I-95 corridor delivered food to Pleasant Hope and turned their church into a distribution center. “When city services backed up off the black community,” Brown is quoted as saying, “I saw an opportunity for the church to lean in.”
That same year, Brown started the Black Church Food Security Network with a mission to mobilize Black churches to co-create sustainable food systems across the U.S. The Network works within a tradition that is not unfamiliar to Black folks: in the face of corporate and state neglect, we imagine otherwise.
I evoke Freddie Gray and Brown’s work here because I am thinking heavily of Tyre Nichols and the impact his killing has on Memphis and beyond. It is a similar moment to that which activated Brown’s work. In moments like this, we recognize that the failures to protect Black life are built into the systems that we’re taught are supposed to keep us safe and nourished. We see with clear eyes that the same cities and neighborhoods that are overpoliced are the same that disproportionately experience hunger. I have wondered what stores in Memphis have boarded or closed their doors out of fear of property damage. But I have also wondered: What are Memphians imagining? How will the sadness, rage and exasperation be channeled?
There may never be a world where anti-Blackness is not a foundational logic of how those in power distribute resources. I hope that there is, but maybe not in my lifetime. I have studied food systems for over a decade, so I am not naive about the enormous task of transforming systems.
But I am also clear that scarcity is a manufactured phenomenon. If some people have their way, we would never imagine ourselves able or worthy enough to have sustainable access to the healthy, affordable, culturally appropriate, soul-nourishing, delicious foods that we love. But if scarcity is human-made, why can’t abundance be? I want to live in a world where lack does not exist.
I am not the first, nor will I be the last person who wants that. Building that world is a matter of resource distribution, yes. But it is also a matter of creating communities of care in which abundance for everyone is at the center of our food politics. That is a profoundly radical and sometimes difficult cultural shift, but it isn’t impossible. To fight for better, more equitable food systems and to imagine abundance where others may only see death, deficit and destruction are things worth fighting for.
My friends Ashley and Ade have a 15-month-old daughter named Ella. She is at the age where she knows that her parents mean safety and strangers deserve a side-eye — albeit a curious one. When I visit them, I see her trying to figure out my place in this safety that her parents have created for her.
On my last visit, she played with a toy tea set, offering imaginary sips to her dad and taking some for herself. When it came time to offer some to me, she paused to consider, and then she handed me the cup. At her age, Ella is learning how and what it means to share what she has — even with a relative stranger.
What I hope for Memphis, what I hope for us all, is that we have the curiosity and ethics of care of children like Ella. Not everyone has a safe bubble like hers where her body and imagination are regularly nourished. But some of us do, and it is up to us to expand our bubbles more and more, bringing others into the fold, sharing abundance equitably.
I am not at all confused about how difficult this can be. Capitalists are hell-bent on keeping control of how, when, where and how much we eat. And we have been continuously taught the myth that anything we have, we’ve earned by merit and hard work. But transformation doesn’t start with capitalists, and it definitely does not spring forth from an imagined meritocracy built on anti-Blackness.
It starts with everyday people like Brown and revolutionaries-in-training like baby Ella who take risks to imagine sharing what they have. And from there, so much more is possible.
Ashanté M. Reese is an assistant professor of African and African Diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin.