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  • Writer's pictureAshley Lee

Food & Gentrification

Examining Gentrification and Food in Boston

Food is at the center of gentrification in Boston. What kind of food is sold and where is it sold reveals a lot about the relationship between food and community, regarding ethnicity, class, and economic status. There have been increasing movements toward local, whole, natural, organic, and healthy food. Many of those movements overlook people of color and the lower class and primarily address food issues of Whites and those of higher economic status. The removal of supermarkets and lower income grocery stores and the integration of markets such as Whole Foods reveal a lot about the foodscapes and foodways in communities in Boston and bring up issues regarding food justice, food access, and food privilege. My main site of analysis for Boston will be the Jamaica Plain neighborhood and the removal of Hi-lo Foods Supermarket in favor of Whole Foods. In my paper I will address how food shapes gentrification in Boston and what it reveals about food access, food justice, and privilege.Specifically in my paper I address the following questions:

  1. What does gentrification reveal about food access and privilege?

  2. How does gentrification redefine foodscapes and foodways for members in a community?

  3. How are we fixing the issue, alternative food movements?

What does gentrification reveal about food access and privilege?


Gentrification is created through change in an environment, usually negative, that displaces one group in favor for another group through methods such as “greening” or improving the environment, incorporation of high-end living spaces and removal of low-income housing. Traditionally gentrification occurs in urban settings where “ working class residential neighborhoods become inhabited and transformed by middle-class and wealthy home buyers and renters who target that market” (Quastel 2009: 698). In my analysis I primarily look at ecological gentrification and how it is related to food. This process of combined greening and displacement of former residents is called ecological gentrification, that is ‘‘the implementation of an environmental planning agenda related to public green spaces that leads to the displacement or exclusion of the most economically vulnerable human population while espousing an environmental ethic’’ (Anguelovski 185: 2014). Studies show that gentrification primarily affects marginalized groups such as minorities, particularly African-Americans and Latinos and low-income families (Guthman 2008a and 2008b; Anguelovski 2014a, 2014b; and Raja et al. 2008). The result of gentrification includes but is not limited to: increasing racial disparity, increasing food insecurity in marginalized populations, and the creation of food desserts.Noah Quastel in Political Ecologies of Gentrification (2009) reviews extant literature and provides methods for developing political ecologies for gentrification primarily in Vancouver, which he applies to gentrification as whole in North America. Quastel’s review could be used to examine how the distribution and dynamics of power and critical theory create and uphold whiteness and “produce environments that embody and reflect positions of social power” (2009: 700). Quastel particularly brings to attention that environmental discourse involving food, gentrification and racial disparity focus on nature and the environment, and neglect the human relationship between food inequality and social dimension. Quastel’s political ecology can help address how food shapes gentrification in Boston and what it reveals about food access, food justice, and privilege.Jamaica Plain, Boston is a significant environment to examine regarding food and gentrification. On January 14, 2011, Knapp Foods Inc., the owner of Hi-Lo announced the business would be closing and that the grocery store would be converted into a Whole Foods Market (Anguelovski 2014). “The months that ensued saw a virulent conflict breaking out between supporters of the new store and activists who protested the opening of a Whole Foods Market” (Anguelovski 2014b: 1). Hi-Lo Foods was a community imitative meant to meet the food needs of primarily Latino and lower-income residents. Hi-Lo Foods was also the main source of affordable and healthy food options that meet cultural needs for Latino residents in Jamaica Plain. In my paper I map out how gentrification is caused in communities like Jamaica Plain, who are affected by gentrification, the consequences on the affected populations, and what gentrification reveals about food access, food justice, and privilege.

How does gentrification redefine foodscapes and foodways for members in a community?Disappearance of Cultural Foods

Food movements today are characterized by the local, natural, and whole and leave out the cultural component of food. Food is not only an act of meeting basic intrinsic needs, but also a means of socialization. Food links people together. Some would contend that the study of eating food is important for its own sake since food is utterly essential to human biological existence. Apart from this, food is also tied to a range of cultural beliefs and practices. Food can be central to identity, in that it is representative of culture, class, and ethnicity. Recognizing people’s experiences and perspectives on food options available in their neighborhoods should have been priority in Jamaica Plain upon deciding to remove Hi-Lo Foods in place of a Whole Foods Market. Consumption patterns reveal a lot about a community. What was perceived as undesirable consumption patterns and unsuitable grocery environment in Hi-Lo led to the creation of Whole Foods and the destruction of the Hi-Lo grocery store in Jamaica Plain. In his research, Anguelovski found that proponents of Whole Foods were primarily White and/or higher status residents of Jamaica Plain that viewed Hi-Lo as “sad”, “rundown”, “smelly”, “dirty”, and “dark” “and, its Latino customers as “ “third world”; while Whole Foods was viewed as “sterile”, “safe”, “sanitary”, and “cleaner” (2014a). The motivation behind converting Hi-Lo into a Whole Foods reveal the underlying sentiments in the alternative food movement and their desire for local, healthy, food over a cultural food center in Jamaica Plain.Disappearance of cultural foods is a common theme in food desert areas where the population is primarily Black or Latino. Raja et al. in (2008) in Beyond Food Deserts: Measuring and Mapping Racial Disparities in Neighborhood Food Environments study examine different types of foods available in food retail destinations in both White and non-White neighborhoods in order to access food environments and the relationship between food insecurity and food deserts.Raja et al. found an absence of supermarkets in neighborhoods of color when compared to white neighborhoods (2008: Abstract). In Jamaica Plain, Hi-Low Foods was a center for cultural foods for that community. The removal of supermarkets, even in place of others such as Whole Foods, can create food deserts and make less privileged people food insecure. This displacement of one business for another is gentrification. Another term to describe this kind of gentrification, is “supermarket redlining”, and it “excludes low-income and minority residents from access to fruit and vegetables and other healthier food options” (Anguelovski 2014b, 3). Gentrification causes food deserts in this way and increases racial disparity within neighborhoods. The food environment and foodscapes reflect racial disparity and issues of food access and privilege in areas. In these urban environments the common theme is that Whites s and higher status residents in a community have the final vote on what food retailers are available in “their” neighborhoods. Jamaica Plain is a victim of “urban renewal.”, in neighborhoods experiencing gentrification, developers, investors, and individuals from privileged backgrounds buy the devalued property of less well-off families and turn them around for new wealthier residents and White gentrifiers (Anguelovski 2014a, 185). With the disappearance of cultural foods, one key element is being left out, whiteness. The disappearance of cultural foods is seeing the increasing appearance of “white foods”. The usage of “white foods” is not to be generalized. Here, “white foods” refer to foods that White-Americans view as healthy, nutritious, and adhere to mainstream eating patterns and preferences. Whole Foods could be viewed as an embodiment of “white foods”. Whole Food Markets are placed predominantly in White neighborhoods and is known to not carry many ethnic or cultural foods. Whole Foods lack of cultural foods and high priced food serves as counter cultural coding. Whole foods like the natural, whole, and local movements supporting it are based in moral good. At the center of the alternative food movement is the attitude of “bring this good food to others” (Guthman 2008a, 391). Guthman suggests when you act of good morals you move beyond color and deny white privilege (Guthman 2008a), but the same system of morality also can be a part of the problem. Guthman and Anguelovski both note that the alternative food movements claim to be colorblind and ignore the foundation of their movements in whitened cultural histories. Guthman in If They Only Knew: Color Blindness and Universalism in California Alternative Food Institutions examine the relationship between whiteness, color blindness, and coded spaces in alternative food institutions (2014a). Guthman defines color blindness as the “absence of racial identifiers in language are seen as non racist” (390). The employment of color blindness as a strategy by alternative institutions in their relationship and communications with people of color ultimately ignores the social, historical, and cultural struggles to food and land that people of color have. Usage of “getting hands dirty in soil” and “looking farmers in the eye” bring up imagery of slavery and forced labor and attempts to romanticize it (394). The result of colorblind attitudes and cultural insensitivity push people of color away from alternative food institutions. Language and attitudes of alternative food institutions promote a coded white environment in which race and space interact the effect is exclusionary (Guthman 2014a). Alternative food institutions have created spaces that make people of color feel excluded and codes these spaces as white (388).Alternative organizations are founded upon “self-styled utopian projects that have origins in the 1960s counterculture and back to the land movements, the latter of which particularly white, formed in part to escape both the strife and privileges of the city” (Guthman 2008,a 435). How can people of color eat healthy and nutritious food when alternative systems aimed at helping them have no cultural or historical ties to them? For many people of color getting into the soil and back to land have negative connotations and bring up imagery of slavery, unfair sharecropping practices, and having land stolen from them historically. The Latino and lower-income residents who used Hi-Lo as their primary grocery store found that the Whole Foods Market removed a culture center and safe haven they had with Hi-Lo, an inexpensive food store, and source of cultural and diverse foods (Anguelovski 2014a). Sadly, the proponents of Whole Foods Market knew that cultural foods were removed in their favor and said that Latinos could go their bodegas or travel to other parts of Boston to get their food. Why? Privilege. Despite protest by numerous residents and social justice organizations, Hi-Lo was closed and no other food retailer was built to meet the food needs for that group of people. Now, Latino and low-income residents have to travel to areas such as Roxbury and several other small stores to meet their need for affordable, healthy, and cultural foods. The result is the destruction of one foodway in favor of a new white foodscape in an ever-gentrifying Jamaica Plain.


Anguelovski in Conflicts around alternative urban food provision: Contesting food privilege, food injustice, and colorblindness in Jamaica Plain, Boston (2014) examines Jamaica Plain, Boston and the conversion of a local Latino grocery store, Hi-Lo foods in to Whole Foods and the implications that had for that community. Anguelovski found the implications were towards gentrifying Jamaican plain and showcasing the disappearance of cultural foods that has been occurring over time in Boston. Anguelovski focuses primarily on urban justice and discourse regarding alternative food activism. A foodway or foodscape is defined as “the cultural and social practices that affect food consumption, including how and what communities eat, where and how they shop and what motivates their food preference” (Anguelovski 2014b: 2). In order for food movements, particularly alternative food movements with minority groups is to not only focus on environment (natural, local, and fresh), but also the social and cultural practices that undermine food decisions. Food Privilege, Food Access, and Food SovereigntyFood JusticeScholars in food justice argue that participants of movements focused on slow food, local, vegan/vegetarian, natural, and organic food look over the societal and cultural footprints they leave behind; what these movements lack is discourse on food privilege, food access, and food sovereignty (Anguelovski 2014a, 2014b; Guthman 2008a, 2008b; and Morales 2014). Food justice organizations active in Boston, but not limited to include farmer’s markets, CSA’S, and The Food Project.On the local scale, CSA’s were found primarily to serve members with higher incomes and service mainly white clientele” (Guthman 2014a, 389). In addition those managing CSA’s felt that people of color do not eat adhere to healthy lifestyle choices such as consuming healthy, local, and sustainable foods. (393). The lack of presence of people of color in food alternative institutions as Guthman and Anguelovski found have more to do with feeling excluding from those spaces and not having cultural foods accessible in those spaces. The Food Project operates out of Boston and is a youth based training program focused on creating sustainable food systems, fostering a sense of awareness, and offering tools for community empowerment (Anguelovski 2014b). In Jamaica Plain, Anguelovski found that food coops, community gardens, and local farms are today mostly-middle class white spaces (2014a, 190).Food access is defined as “one’s ability to produce and consume healthy food and obtain equal access to the environmental benefits of healthy food, while food sovereignty is the community’s right to define their own food and agriculture system (Anguelovski 2014b, 4). The conversion of Hi-Lo into a Whole Foods Market made cultural foods almost inaccessible and foods in general unaffordable; the owner of restaurant El Oriental de Cuba who interviewed with Anguelovski stated “ Whole Foods is whole paycheck. One pepper is $1.50. At Hi-Lo, people used to fill a shopping cart for $45, now you have a small shopping bag for $100. If I wanted to go out and spend $100, I’d go eat at Legal Sea Foods.” (2014a, 190).The purpose of having a Whole Foods was to provide more fresh, local, and nutritious food available; those sentiments regarding food was felt primarily by advocators of the Whole Foods Market and higher status residents of Jamaica Plan. However, Anguelovski found that there sustainable and healthy food practices occurring with Hi-Lo Latino customers who bought chicken, vegetables, herbs, and practiced healthy cooking styles such as not frying food often (2014a: 191). Advocators of Whole Foods fall aid in the growth of the organic corporate market, which threatens food democracy. Anguelovski specifically challenges the natural, local, and organic commitment that Whole Foods truly has. Anguelovski states “Whole Foods itself as a brand was criticized for manipulating the image of organic food. Far from everything that Whole Foods sells is organic, locally produced, and minimally processed, but the brand portrays itself as a supermarket selling natural foods and sustainable products. As a result, many Latino activists do not recognize themselves at all in wide-reaching calls asking people to “eat organics”.(2014, 11)Food buying and preference is an individual choice and possible hypocriticalness of supporters of Whole Foods and alternative movements and the negative consequences of replacing Hi-Lo with Whole Foods in Jamaica Plain. Moving Whole Foods into Jamaica Plain was a blatant display of food privilege and is a visual representation of White claim to space, territory, and food.

Food Justice Movements

At the center of debate around gentrification and food is the role of alternative food movements. The approach of the alternative food movement to gentrification has been highly criticized (Anguelovski 2014a, 2014b; Guthman 2008a, 2008b; and Morales 2014). The alternative food activism is built around the political economy of food--- conceived local food systems as an alternative to the abuses and excesses of the global agri-business market made of multinational grain traders, giant seed, chemical and fertilizer corporations, and global supermarket chains, with its alienating and unsustainable characteristics (Anguelovski 2014b, 2). Critics of the alternative movement find it’s discourse leaves out marginalized groups such as minorities and low-income people and ignore the struggles both groups face due to income, historical, and socio-cultural relationships to food. Alternative food movements reflect and embody in the rich and liberal habitus of whites (Anguelovski 2014b). A solution has been the creation of people of color alternative food places such as Mo Beta Foods and the People’s Grocery in Oakland, From the Hood in Los Angeles, Growing Power in Milwaukee, and Just Foods in New York which also offer cultural local, fresh, whole, and organic foods (Guthman, 2014). Food justice movements are a start but they have include all groups such as lower-income people and people of color and realize that history, culture, and society are always linked to food and tackle the ideologies, principals, and social structures that food institutions, food organizations, and food movements neglect.


Overall food movements, particularly the alternative food movements leave out lower-income and people of color in their discourse. Despite alternative food movements leading a ”color blind” approach the movements still displays whitened and exclusive practices (Anguelovski 2014a). The neglect by food organizations and their movements of these communities has led to environmental and food gentrification in urban communities such as the Boston area. Jamaica Plain and the integration of Whole Foods Market removed access to affordable food and did not enhance access to healthy food. It resulted in an increase of racial disparity, gentrification, and food desert for low-income and Latino residents. Since 2011 and the loss of Hi-Lo foods there has been a disappearance of Latino gardens and gardeners in JP and by the presence of more expensive food coops (Anguelovski 2014b: 13). Class and race underlie many issues regarding food privilege, food access, and food sovereignty and need to be addressed. Cultural and social practices regarding food preferences and consumption are key to understanding the food needs of people who are food insecure, lack food privilege, and accessibility to healthy and affordable foods. Food is a fundamental right. Researchers offer many good solutions to issues regarding food access, food privilege, and food sovereignty such as: teaching white privilege, recruiting more people of color on food organizations, building more corner stores/markets that offer appropriate in people of color neighborhoods, and deeper research and activism into the cultural politics regarding food (Guthman 2008; Morales 2011; and Anguelovski 2014). Good food should be available to everyone, however it is not that simple. Gentrification has to be tackled at is core and the structures which it is built upon, such as privilege and systematic racism have to be dismantled.

Works Cited

Anguelovski, I. (2014). Alternative food provision conflicts in cities: Contesting food privilege, injustice, and whiteness in Jamaica Plain, Boston. Geoforum,58, 184-194. Anguelovski, I. (2014). Conflicts around alternative urban food provision: contesting food privilege, food injustice, and color blindness in Jamaica Plain, Boston. Food Sovereignty: A Critical Dialogue, January24.Guthman, J. (2008). Bringing good food to others: Investigating the subjects of alternative food practice. Cultural geographies15(4), 431-447.Guthman, J. (2008). “If they only knew”: color blindness and universalism in California alternative food institutions. The professional geographer60(3), 387-397.Morales, A. (2011). Growing food and justice: dismantling racism through sustainable food systems. Cultivating food justice: race, class, and sustainability, 149-176.Raja, S., Ma, C., & Yadav, P. (2008). Beyond food deserts measuring and mapping racial disparities in neighborhood food environments. Journal of Planning Education and Research27(4), 469-482.Quastel, N. (2009). Political ecologies of gentrification. Urban Geography,30(7), 694-725.

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