This blog investigates food gentrification- “the ability to afford food hindered due to inflation in basic food costs and the economic impact of a food becoming ‘cool”- and how it is a threat to food security.
What is food gentrification?
Mikki Kendall, a black feminist writer, is the driving force behind the eye-opening food gentrification hashtag. Kendall believes that the process of marketing traditional, staple foods as new, trendy and ‘super’ places them out of reach from its original consumers because of the associated rise in price. At the same time as a steady increase in the cost of a weekly shop, plateauing of incomes, and rising poverty, many would argue that the gentrification of food is a threat to food security. This blog will discuss how food gentrification has manifested and support these claims, and how some people contest these arguments.
Super-kale fragalistic expialidocious?
When food gets labelled as having ‘super’ health benefits, it is accompanied by an inflated price. Though the term superfood was banned by the European Union in 2007, food products are still marketed in a fashion which makes it clear that such items have desirable qualities, such as cancer-fighting ability and usually inaccessible nutrients.
One incredibly popular food which has exploded onto the scene is kale, a versatile, cabbage like green from the same family as broccoli and Brussel sprouts. Between 2011 and 2014, google searches for the calcium, iron and antioxidant rich vegetable quadrupled. What drives this sudden emergence? Some argue that corporations engineer these products into the superfood category to be used as an incredibly effective marketing tool; “61% of people in the UK have purchased a food because it had been labelled a superfood.”
Others argue that social media’s rise has aided food gentrification, with Instagram and food blogging having a surge in popularity, “cosmopolitan 20 and 30-somethings with lots of Instagram followers like to paste aesthetically-pleasing shots of their hip meals,” providing certain items of food with a platform and exposure.
Is the increased awareness of healthy foods a benefit to us all? Many argue not, and that it actually excludes the poorest in society. Soleil Ho suggests that kale prices in the USA, which have increased by 25% between 2011 and 2014, hurt low-income families the most because food price increases are not mirrored by household incomes, which have stagnated.
Quinoa is further evidence of how food is gentrified and the following negative consequences. Quinoa is a traditional grain from the Andes, where it has been produced for centuries because of its nutritious values and crop versatility. However, more recently it has become a “five-star health food for the middle classes in Europe, the US and increasingly China and Japan.” Because of this new global demand, prices have tripled since 2006. Because of its high export value, it is more worthwhile to sell abroad rather than selling locally. Therefore this local, staple food is no longer affordable for the vast majority of the indigenous population, with imported junk food filling the gap.
Colombus syndrome: attack of the yuppies?
When an INSIDER Food reporter ‘discovered’ the ‘chopped cheese’ in Harlem, she highlighted how the majority of New Yorkers didn’t know that this sandwich existed, and that at only $4, it was a “steal.” Almonte, a Harlem YouTuber has since gone viral with his response and articulate dissection of food gentrification through the Columbus Syndrome effect.
Organic Produce: “the gold standard of food gentrification”?
Organic food has been framed as the moral, ethical and healthy choice for the consumer, and with “political reflexivity added as an extra ingredient of desire.”1 However, some argue it has become ‘yuppie chow’, the evolution of organic food into a heavily marketed, good karma product for the affluent. Because of this yuppie chow trend, prices have been inevitably pushed up and making them inaccessible for low-income families, ring-fencing healthy and morally superior food for the wealthy.
Is food gentrification a myth?
Is food gentrification actually a real threat to our food security? Whilst Best agrees that there is a problem regarding rising food prices at the same time as stagnating incomes, he points out there is no conclusive evidence that this results in lower-income families being unable to afford certain items. Best points out that prices vary greatly from place to place, depending on whom they cater; is this taken into account when calculating figures? For example, Ozmen Market on London Road, Sheffield sells fresh produce at a considerably cheaper rate than Waitrose just down the road.
Furthermore, have hiked kale prices really made an impact in the overall picture of food security? DePillis points out that in the USA, the amount of kale consumed is miniscule compared to romaine, another leafy green. This suggests that kale is far from a staple food and even if it has become ‘gentrified’, it shouldn’t be the cause of poverty.
Others argue that rather than being sinister gentrification of food, it’s just uncomplicated economic principles of supply and demand functioning in a capitalist setting. Where there is demand for yuppie chow, opportunities for job creation and economic prosperity are available. This is relevant in the case of the Andes and its quinoa market; the farmers have benefited from a tripling of the market price since 2006, the quinoa boom has “given hope to people living in Bolivia’s most destitute and forgotten region” and has brought economic stability. Furthermore, Saunders argues that quinoa had actually died out as a staple local diet, and that it was a purely economic decision to start growing it again in the 1980s. Cooper goes further and denies that food gentrification even exists, and general rises in food prices are down to “drought, crop failures, increased worldwide demand, and deregulation” and nothing to do with single food items.
Another query can be placed against the Columbus Syndrome effect and “socially conscious outrage over cultural appropriation”. Best argues that “you cannot write the history of food and civilization without encountering one culinary appropriation after another” and suggests that Italy didn’t have tomatoes until they were imported from the Americas!
Kendall stresses that “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.” It is a concern that healthy, ethical and nutritious foods are the food types experiencing price rises, but because of the global and varied food market available, food gentrification is not the main driver of food insecurity. However, food gentrification is not to be discounted as a myth, and further investigation into how food gentrification can exacerbate existing social divisions is needed.
1GUTHMAN, Julie (author). (2013). Fast food/organic food: Reflexive tastes and the making of ‘yuppie chow’ in COUNIHAN, Caroline., VAN ESTERIK, Penny (editors). (2013). Food and Culture: a reader. 3rd edition, Abingdon, Routledge.