#FoodGentrification and Culinary Rebranding of Traditional Foods
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.
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.
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