#FoodGentrification and Culinary Rebranding of Traditional Foods

an image shows the whole foods collard greens ad with text "foodgentrification"

Since the beginning of January, Whole Foods has been screaming it from their Facebook pages, corporate blog, news affiliates, and tastefully designed signage: “Collards are the new kale!” While at first glance this just seems like a flash-in-the-pan and downright lazy line of ad copy, its casual, trend-focused language raised red flags among some people. When Mikki Kendall, a Black feminist and writer who tweets as Karnythia, began riffing on the laughable idea of Whole Foods and their customers “discovering” a vegetable that had been a staple of working class Black and White Southern Americans’ meals for centuries,  the hashtag #foodgentrification was born.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty of the idea of food gentrification, it’s important to take a close look at Whole Foods’ “Collards are the new kale” initiative to see why it struck such a chord with Kendall and other Twitter users.

As a symbol of a humble leafy green that’s become wildly popular, kale has no peer. A September 2013 Entrepreneur article on the vegetable’s trend power purports that 2013 was the “year of kale.” That is to say, everyone was buying it, blending it, wearing it, and Instagramming it. Thus, when Whole Foods, purportedly one of the main engines behind kale’s rocket to superstar status, declares that “_____ is the new kale,” there’s some serious financial and cultural weight to that statement.

Starting this month, Whole Foods stores across the United States will be aggressively pushing collard greens by hosting free promotional classes and demonstrations centered on introducing the vegetable to customers. Their official blog post on the subject includes special Whole Foods-approved recipes like Collard Greens Gratin, Collard Cobb Salad, and Lentil, Butternut Squash, and Collards Pie. The writer, Alana Sugar, also suggests using steamed collard leaves to “[r]oll up your favorite sandwich fillings such as hummus, turkey, avocado, bean spreads, chicken, tuna or egg salad” or wrap sushi. Since this push began at the beginning of the month, the idea has already been echoed in online foodie outlets like Organic Authority and smaller blogs like Food, Fitness, & Fresh Air, Homesick Texan, and Lettuce and Libraries.

an ad from whole foods says collard greens are the new "it" food

Collards: So hip right now! At least according to the Whole Foods website.  

What all of this adds up to is a massive PR campaign aimed at rebranding collard greens, divorcing the vegetable from its working class and indigenous affiliations to place it squarely within the culinary crosshairs of the same massive gourmet health food apparatus that turned acai berries, quinoa, tofu, and chia seeds into “superfoods.” Though the health benefits of such foods are well-documented, their trendiness within majority populations tends to result in a generally unhealthy outcomes for their cultures of origin. The tendency takes the form of a curious kind of reacharound logic wherein economic and racial minorities are castigated for eating “primitively” and “unhealthily” while their traditional foods are cherry picked for use by the upper class as “exotic” delicacies. As a result, the price of that food item inflates to meet the surge in mainstream demand for it. Kendall speaks to that pattern in her guest column for Goldie Taylor’s #BreakingBlack:

As coconut, quinoa, mangoes, and other subtropical goods come into vogue in the West, how are the communities where those foods are staples faring? The impact of quinoa’s popularity is already well documented, and results are definitely mixed. … As each gentrified food moves out of the financial range of those at the lowest income level, the question of what will be left for the poor to eat becomes more pressing.

This problem is compounded by a sentiment expressed by Whole Foods CEO, industry trendsetter, and “King of Kale” John Mackey to defend his store’s high price point in an interview with the New York Times: “[P]eople are not historically well informed about food prices. We’re only spending about 7 percent of our disposable personal income on food. Fifty years ago, it was nearly 16 percent.” So what if, as a consequence of trendiness, collard greens end up costing more across the board and the people who historically have been able to eat it simply can’t afford to anymore?

The central and sustaining drive behind the #foodgentrification conversation is an overwhelming sense of fear: fear of being unable to feed one’s family, of losing access to traditional foods, of being priced out of toxin-free produce, of one’s food being alternately shamed and fetishized depending on commercial whims, of having one’s history repackaged and sold. It comes down to a waiting game; many of the participants in this conversation voiced resignation over the possibility that their food would be next.

“Gentrification” is an apt term here, since it immediately brings to mind one of the major turf wars occurring in our urban centers today, one which working class people are unfortunately losing overall. The idea of gentrification is also one that is racialized, classed, and gendered, making it a very appropriate tagalong for the critiques being leveled within the hashtag.

So when Whole Foods reaches into our cultures and our souls and plucks out something they deem fit to sell, what course of action could we possibly take? The apparatus has already been put into full swing: customers are already pre-registering for collard cooking classes, cashiers are already wearing “Collards are the New Kale!” buttons on their aprons, derivative blog posts are already queued up for publication, and trend analysts are surely already mapping out the apex of the greens’ cultural trajectory.

If anything, the crucial importance of #foodgentrification lies in the way it enables participants to expose a particular piece of economic inequality that operates with a glossy, do-gooder façade. It’s difficult to avoid feeling like you’re not complicit in systems of food insecurity after reading through the hashtag, and the questions that it raises are ones that we should have been asking ourselves a long time ago, well before it got to tofu, then acai, then kale, then collards.

Soleil Ho is a freelance writer, teacher, and MFA student living in New Orleans. Her last Bitch article about food and identity was "Craving the Other." 


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Comments

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Great piece

Great piece -- I had never thought of food being gentrified, but of course, it can be, and as you point out, the results are not always cute.

Also enjoyed your essay in the food issue of Bitch. You seem to be pretty into cutting down foodie pretentiousness -- which, despite loving food and cooking, I am too.

Rebranding? WHAT EXATLY DO

Rebranding? WHAT EXATLY DO YOU MEAN BY THAT ?

Completely asinine

I'm personally not one for the idea that market capitalism will give us the best outcomes but this is a situation where in fact market capitalism will give us the best outcome. So what happens if a bunch of rich yuppies (probably the kind that read bitch magazine btw) decide they like collards all the sudden? WORST CASE SCENARIO: The price jumps temporarily, until farms realize "Oh shit we should probably produce more of this" or you have new entrants to the market (which I think is more likely here, you'll see more small farmers growing it to turn around and sell to the yuppies reading this piece at their local farmers market) and then the price goes back to roughly where it was.

Maybe some data?

There's something frankly offensive about the term 'food gentrification'. For one, it suggests devastating displacement and unaffordability, for which the author seems unable to provide data (likely because none exists). Moreover, common sense would suggest that if demand for kale and collard greens increases and causes prices to rise, farmers will meet that demand by change their planting mix within a growing cycle or two. (Another commenter made this point.) I doubt that people are increasing their total food consumption to eat kale or collard greens. That's not how food works - we don't add extra meals when we want to eat different kinds of foods. Instead, we substitute out other vegetables (maybe buy less spinach, for example). The lower demand for spinach causes prices to fall, which incents farmers to plant less spinach, and equilibrium is reestablished.

With actual gentrification, a limited and highly inelastic housing supply cannot accommodate all of the residents seeking to live there, driving up prices until an equilibrium is reached. That's a problem, because longstanding residents are forced to move, tearing apart social and cultural institutions along the way. But we know that the collard and kale supply is highly elastic. And in any case, the concept of food gentrification is a total straw man argument. Who is being forced away from kale or collard greens? Why would such a thing happen? What would the mechanism be?

Finally, this is an odd subject to gratuitously racialize, because Whole Foods' motivations are so basic: the company is trying to market a healthy and unsexy vegetable to a population not familiar with it. As we know from being toddlers, "eat your vegetables" is not a compelling sales pitch, so more creative approaches are necessary. Hence, this campaign. Not complicated.

Spaniards (and the rest of

Spaniards (and the rest of the West) adopting rice, oranges, almonds, etc. from the Arabs = #FoodGentrification?
Original people groups in the Americas adopting bananas, coffee, chickens, pigs from the Eastern Hemisphere = #FoodGentrification?
European cuisines adopting tomatoes, potatoes, chocolate from the Americas = #FoodGentrification?

I think if we were talking about Whole Foods fabricating a fad out of the actual working-class dish of greens seasoned with pork fat, etc. (and served with beans & cornbread...mmm) them we would definitely have some cultural appropriation going on here. But cultures, subcultures, and people groups do not "own" raw ingredients or plant species. See the historical examples of exchange above. Besides, greens have been eaten worldwide for thousands of years...and they're healthy, too!

We all appropriate the foods

We all appropriate the foods of other cultures. The potato, corn, and tomatoes came from ancient Mesoamerica and today are staples all over the world. Noodles were invented in both early China and ancient Israel.

Kale probably originates in Europe and was a part of traditional dishes from Scotland. Meditarranean countries may have appropriated it from northern Europe, but it also appears that varieties of the plant are indigenous throughout the world.

If it "stole" kale, the Mediterranean reciprocated by giving the Anglo-Saxons collards. Our modern name for them comes from the Anglo-Saxon "colewyrts" which means cabbage plants.

Humans have always benefitted from the free exchange of foods and culture. Racial and economic justice are best served by continuing this freedom.

I wouldn't worry too much

My personal experience with the collard push at Whole Foods leaves me inclined to think that if collards go vegetable viral, it won't be because of the samples or recipes that Whole Foods is offering. I had some of their collards on the hot buffet earlier this week. They were part of a selection of offerings which claimed to be Ethiopian. It was more like the cooks saw a picture of Ethiopian food once and considered their education complete. Besides being bitter and bland, the cumulative effect of the meal was to give me horrific gas. It was as though a skunk ate some bad cabbage and tried to cure its indigestion by rubbing itself with weasel glands and crawling up my backside. Even my cats were giving me dirty looks.

whoa. awesome.

whoa. awesome.

When my parents were growing

When my parents were growing up in the depression, dried beef was very common. Creamed, Chipped Beef(S.O.S.) was a staple comfort food, at home, as well as in the armed forces. Have you priced dried beef lately?

Why are we blaming Whole

Why are we blaming Whole Foods and the people who shop there for food gentrification? They are simply following incentives - in the first case, the profit incentive, and in the second case, the incentive to respond to those desires created in subjects by successful advertising campaigns. The cause of the ills of food gentrification is capitalism, and by directing outrage only towards people involved in the system rather than the system itself, it could be argued that this article remains complicit in the problem.

collards

The taste of collards will be self defense enough to prevent their over consumption. And as for kale, grass clippings taste better, even when spiced up with weed and feed-

collards kick kale's butt

I was introduced to collards by my Southern sweetie. From my experience in growing him the vegetables he misses from his youth, they're far more productive than kale, fare better in a range of weather extremes, and are more resistant to insects like aphids. Plus they freeze better than kale, or spinach.

There is something gentrifying about Whole Foods marketing campaign, but then again that's a core tenant of their whole "bringing you the exotic" thing. At least with collards, they have the potential to increase demand on American farmers, and they'll take less fuel to get to Whole Foods than Himalayan goji berries or bananas.

collards.

This is why I have a garden. If you don't like the price, grow your own. If you don't have garden space, get out in the community and join your neighbors in community gardening or establish a wall garden. There is a great TED talk about NYC inner city kids gardening project. Now these kids make money to go to college.

I'm thrilled to report that I

I'm thrilled to report that I never fell for the whole acai thing. I also despise kale. Quinoa is tasty, though.