Ashanté M. Reese
. . .
There has been a proliferation of interdisciplinary critical food studies scholarship. From unequal access to supermarkets (Eisenhauer 2001; Kwate et al. 2009; Russell and Heidkamp 2011; Zhang and Ghosh 2016), to investigating the extent to which poor and Black residents pay more for groceries, some of which are inferior in quality (Alwitt and Donley 1997; Chung and Myers 1999; Alkon et al. 2013), to whiteness permeating mainstream alternative food movements (Slocum 2007; Alkon and McCullen 2011; Guthman 2011), and to unequal access to the means required to build food and farming infrastructure (Grim 1993), scholars have continuously demonstrated the extent to which the food system follows a racial order fundamentally built on willful and systematic anti-Black racism. In this way, anti-Blackness is, as Christina Sharpe (2016, 106) suggests, as pervasive as climate, in part shaping people’s relationships with the environment, resources, and each other.
However, the constraints produced by anti-Blackness are only part of the story about how Black people access and create food-related infrastructure. Elsewhere, I have argued that Black food geographies are as shaped by memory, visions for self-reliance, and understandings of Black history as they are by supermarkets and restaurants (Reese 2019). Others have also pointed to the everyday but sometimes obscured ways Black people meet their food needs through a variety of strategies and lenses that are about both food and other important factors such as faith, self-determination, land justice, and rights to public space (McCutcheon 2015; White 2018; Jones 2019). This is not to say that unequal access to food and its attending infrastructures is moot. On the contrary, it is both a burden to residents and a social problem that threatens the well-being of whole communities. However, theoretically and methodologically, food studies inquiries focused on Black lives or Black spaces are often disconnected from the everyday lived experiences of those who are the subjects of the study. This is particularly salient for Black and low-income communities, as social scientists have often rendered those who bear the heaviest weight of inequities as agentless, which is evident in deficit models that fail to interrogate or meaningfully consider the various assets or ingenious ways Black people navigate systematic inequalities (Cox 2015; Hunter and Robinson 2016; Hunter and Robinson 2018). This lack of agency ascribed to Black people precludes or neglects opportunities to see individual and community-based assets that could be leveraged to create a more racially, economically, and food just world.
In Washington, D.C., where most of my ethnographic research has taken place, there is little doubt that racial inequities impact the lives of residents spatially, communally, and individually. The city itself is racially and economically segregated, with the majority of the city’s poor and working-class Black residents living in wards 7 and 8. Among the 150,000 residents in wards 7 and 8, the average household incomes of $39,165 and $30,910 fall far below the city’s median income of $70,848.1
While 23.6 percent of families in ward 7 and 35.3 percent of families in ward 8 lived below the poverty line, the D.C. average was 14.3 percent. Detailed analyses of the roots of these inequities are beyond the scope of this chapter, but documented housing redlining, the removal of Black communities in Georgetown, and white and middle-class flight in the mid-twentieth century undergird continued segregation that is deeply entrenched in the city’s geography (Prince 2016). This is reflected in the city’s food infrastructure. At the time of writing, wards 7 and 8 have three supermarkets total (two in ward 7 and one in ward 8) for their 150,000 residents, down from seven (four in ward 7 and three in ward 8) in 2010.2 In addition, east of the Anacostia River also lacks sit-down restaurants, and mobile food delivery services are limited. During my fieldwork, I became very familiar with Denny’s, because despite documented abuses against Black customers, it was the only sit-down restaurant in ward 7 at the time.3
Yet, even within these constraints, Black organizations and residents have figured out ways to meet their needs or, to borrow from Black southern vernacular, to make a way outta no way. As the late Clyde Woods (2017, 257) noted, one of the consequences of overly deterministic hegemonic narratives about urban revitalization and deviance is the possibility of missing traditions of “resistance, affirmation, and development,” particularly in Black working-class spaces. In the context of food, some of these strategies go unnoticed, despite the attention given to food access, in favor of replicating models in which Black people are almost solely seen as the recipients of education and aid (Jones 2019). Theorizing from a framework that positions the food system as a function of anti-Black racism, this chapter contends with the question, What possibilities emerge when we turn to the everyday ways people make a way outta no way and theorize Black ways of distributing food under structural constraints? In this chapter, I focus on Black entrepreneurs who operate mobile food services. While Black restaurants, grocery stores, and other service-based businesses have been the subject of much academic inquiry (see Manning 1998 and Mullins 2008 for more detailed discussions of entrepreneurship and economics in Black neighborhoods and Cooley 2015 and Opie 2017 for histories of restaurants), there has been less of a focus on mobile services. Access to capital has, historically, been a significant barrier to entrepreneurship for Black people, resulting in varied approaches to developing and running businesses: sometimes out of individual homes, sometimes in shared spaces, and—as is the focus of this chapter—sometimes opting into providing mobile services. During and immediately after enslavement, Black people who entered the commercial economy as producers often did so in ways that capitalized on their ability to move, however constrained, to sell their goods, especially food (Westmacott 1992; Williams-Forson 2006, 17).
While significant in terms of providing a much-needed resource for Black communities, these entrepreneurs’ role extends beyond commodity exchange. Sociologists offer Black placemaking as a way to understand how public space is transformed by its inhabitants, reflecting cultural priorities through creating “sites of endurance, belonging and resistance” in spite of social stratification (Hunter et al. 2016, 32). These sites have cultural meanings and geographic resonance, as they often emerge in spaces that outsiders may not understand as life giving—if they see them at all beyond their potential for capitalist gains. Alesia Montgomery (2016) argues that Black placemaking in gentrifying cities is sometimes exploited and used as a tool to attract white people back to the neoliberal city. In response, Black residents in gentrifying cities enact spatial agency, “the ability to be in, act on or exert control over a desired part of the built-and-natural environment––for example, the ability to use, make or regulate a public space,” to claim spaces as their own (Montgomery 2016, 777). The ability to control parts of the environment emerges within specific sociohistorical contexts—in this case, deepening race–class divisions and conflicts in a city that is growing less and less hospitable to poor and working-class Black families and native Washingtonians while also using “diversity” as a strategy for gentrifying the city (Summers 2015). This, combined with Black geographical thought that contends that place is always political and the specific contexts in which Black lives unfold are important for understanding the restraints and resistances that emerge (McKittrick and Woods 2007; Hawthorne and Meché 2016; Bledsoe et al. 2018), form the basis on which this chapter proceeds.
Drawing from ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Washington, D.C., this chapter grapples with how Black residents (re)see, (re)inhabit, and (re)imagine food through mobile food entrepreneurship and ingenuity (Sharpe 2016), treating these entrepreneurs as not only food distributors but also place makers who stake claim to a changing city. This is not to position Black entrepreneurship as a definitive solution to food inequities. On the contrary, it could also, intentionally or otherwise, contribute to maintaining a status quo. However, through the examples provided in this chapter, I expand on the notion of Black food geographies by examining agency through the lens of Black entrepreneurship.
Black Entrepreneurship and Food in Historical Context: Hucksters
At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, many U.S. cities were growing quickly, and they faced the challenges that come with rapid growth: failing infrastructures, concerns about public health and safety, and unclear paths forward in terms of expectations for and regulations of public space. Food retail, vending on city streets in particular, was a particularly important point of contention, as street vendors (mostly immigrants and people of color) were often considered nuisances, unsafe, unclean, and unhealthy (Wessel 2017). In Savannah, Georgia, ordinances in 1917 established daily public markets, set required fees for vendors, and established times for which produce could be sold outside market hours. In San Francisco, a 1914 ordinance banned the sale of food from carts and wagons. It also made it illegal to produce and sell food from one’s home.4 In Washington, D.C., huckster regulations appeared as early as 1853. According to the census, “huckster” was an official occupation and referred to a person who grew food and sold it at markets from stalls or on the street from wagons.5 The regulations that governed their movement through the city included requiring a license (for which there was a fee) and the use of scales and measures at one’s stall or in their wagon. Notably, the ordinance also specifically named free Black people, giving them permission to sell but also binding them to the consequences that would incur if they did not have a permit.
Sec.5. And be it enacted, That the Mayor be and he is hereby authorized to issue licenses to free negroes and mulattoes, whether resident or non-resident, under the provisions of this act, any law of this Corporation to the contrary notwithstanding; and all the provisions, requirements, fines, penalties, and forfeitures prescribed by this act shall apply to and govern such free negroes or mulattoes in the same manner as they apply to and govern all others engaged in the business of huckstering.6
I offer this brief history of city ordinances related to street vending because it is the context in which Black hucksters in Washington, D.C., operated. In predominantly Black neighborhoods, the fight for equal resources has been a constant struggle. So, too, has the impetus to create Black spatial practices that respond to structural inequities and affirm Black people’s senses of place and community. In Chocolate Cities, Marcus Anthony Hunter and Zandria Robinson argue that chocolate cities not only are spaces in which Black people live, or scrape by to live, but are also primary sites of freedom struggles—both well-known, nationally organized ones and the daily, everyday ways that Black folks found to resist white supremacy, racial segregation, persisting economic inequalities, and, generally, the assault on Black life. They write:
Chocolate cities are a perceptual, political, and geographic tool and shorthand to analyze, understand, and convey insights born from predominantly Black neighborhoods, communities, zones, towns, cities, districts, and wards; they capture the sites and sounds Black people make when they occupy place and form communities. Chocolate cities are also a metaphor for the relationships among history, politics, culture, inequality, knowledge, and Blackness. (Hunter and Robinson 2018, xiii)
Bearing the nickname “Chocolate City,” Washington, D.C., is an ideal place to understand how Black food geographies unfold. The businesses that develop and the entrepreneurial spirit that moves through D.C.’s Black neighborhoods reflect opportunities to explore nuances in agency and power and entrepreneurs’ role in community making. While entrepreneurship reflects a central tenet of the “American Dream,” for Black businesses in segregated neighborhoods, these pursuits are often seen as means for individual and familial economic security, opportunities for self-definition (Williams-Forson 2006), and communal stability (Boyd 2008).
Bobby Wilson (2012, 962–63) dates the “black economy” as far back as enslavement, when freedmen sold goods and labor in segregated parts of northern and southern cities, creating opportunities to distinguish themselves as a separate class. Postenslavement, sharecropping created conditions under which Black people were exploited and cheated out of their land and labor while also actively encouraged to engage in the consumer side of the market, even if they were not able to sell their goods or services for a competitive price. For those living in the South, this was, in part, a reason for increasing moves to urban centers primarily in midwestern and northern cities during the Great Migration. The concentration of Black people in urban centers meant developing their own “social, cultural, and economic space from the very space that was designed to thwart them” (Wilson 2012, 966).
Food was essential to this development, and contemporary food entrepreneurship in Washington, D.C., is connected to a history of the entrepreneurial efforts within these segregated spaces. An oral history study conducted by Washington, D.C.–based historian Ruth Ann Overbeck in the 1980s revealed that both brick-and-mortar grocery stores and mobile entrepreneurs like hucksters were a significant component of the food landscape in northeast Washington, D.C. in the first half of the twentieth century. These Black men and women sold produce from carts or wagons that would drive through segregated Black neighborhoods, supplementing what residents purchased from grocery stores or grew themselves. Part of the local economy of northeast Washington, D.C., hucksters were largely supported by community buy-in as well as by the interpersonal relationships that developed between buyer and seller (Westmacott 1992, 192). These hucksters—who were most often men or young boys accompanying older men—sometimes came from other nearby cities to sell their produce, fish, and other wares.
In ethnographic interviews I conducted with elder residents who had grown up in D.C. prior to the 1960s, it was not uncommon for them to remember hucksters as part of their everyday lives. In one such instance, a resident recalled:
They would come through on the wagons. They would bring fish here. They brought vegetables, watermelon . . . I mean, especially before the Safeway and of course, when the Safeway came through that sort of cut into their [business] . . . But yeah, I had forgot about the hucksters . . . the vendors who would come through with their horses. . . . Yeah, I know all about the hucksters. Yeah, the vendors that would come through with their horses and eventually, I think, there probably were trucks that came through.
In a literal sense, the food provided by these mobile vendors provided sustenance. Beyond the body, the social relationships and community built through and around the food geographies hucksters created were integral to the maintenance of neighborhoods. As place makers, these mobile food entrepreneurs played triple roles. They produced and provided food. They were neighbors and community members. They were also the backs on which the state’s failures to provide equal and adequate resources for Black communities rested.
Yet, as this participant’s narrative indicates, the scope and longevity of these entrepreneurial practices were limited. Growth of corporate supermarkets, changing (and growing) U.S. American consumer appetites, and, as Wilson noted, white businesses marketing to Black consumers challenged the viability of hucksters. In nearby Baltimore, for example, the tradition of Black men selling from horse-drawn wagons endured longer and was still a visible neighborhood fixture as late as 2017. In 2018 the Baltimore Sun reported that the mobile vendors faced threats due to new city ordinances and safety concerns (Rodricks 2018). In 2015 the stable where several vendors kept their horses was closed down by health officials, and the vendors were charged with animal cruelty, an offense for which they were found not guilty. They lost their horses and wages as a result of this ordeal (Rodricks 2018). I note Baltimore as an example here to highlight the ways contemporary city ordinances and laws echo similar problems as those at the turn of the twentieth century. Over the past decade, restrictions on mobile vending have increased, in part because of complaints from brick-and-mortar businesses about competition and issues framed as public health concerns (Wessel 2017). These regulations and the criminalization of street vending have a longer history than what can be shared here.7 What is clear, however, is what Kathleen Dunn (2017, 53) argues: that the regulation of street vending is one way to control public space and intersects with the ways state actors attempt to regulate people of color, immigrants, and poor people. In the context of anti-Black racism, city ordinances and concerns for public health and safety become one way in which public place-making strategies are criminalized. Persisting residential segregation and economic inequalities, however, continue to create conditions under which Black entrepreneurs are interested in filling both food and economic gaps in Black neighborhoods. In the following two sections, I explore two mobile entrepreneurial pursuits that made up part of the food geographies in northeast D.C. as examples of how entrepreneurs attempted to fill food gaps and in the process exerted spatial agency in a city in which Blackness is marketable even as Black people are displaced (Summers 2015).
Black Entrepreneurship in Contemporary Context: Danny’s Ice Cream–Turned–Food Truck
Almost everything about it signaled ice cream truck: its location in front of the recreation center where peewee football was happening, its boxy shape, the window opening through which a man served each person standing in line. However, each ice cream photo on the outside of the truck was marked out with a giant black X. I stepped up to talk to a second man, who sat in the driver seat. We exchanged names and I gave the customary spiel, “I’m a researcher studying food and community in the neighborhood.” Danny pulled blue gloves from a box, commenting that he always uses a fresh pair before serving someone. I had to wonder if the performance of drawing the fresh pair of gloves, if the decision to serve me through the truck’s front door rather than let me wait in line with the others, had anything to do with my researcher identity. So, while others stood in line, waiting to be served by the man at the window, Danny gave me VIP service, fixing up two half-smokes with chili and cheese for less than seven dollars. Sometimes described as a cross between a hot dog and a sausage, a half-smoke is a staple in Black neighborhoods in D.C. Like mambo sauce, an elusive condiment made of ketchup, barbeque sauce, hot sauce, and other ingredients, half-smokes serve as a barometer of authenticity. Recognizing them signals that you know something about the “real” D.C.
I had heard about this truck prior to my first visit. A research participant described Danny as the local “ice cream man” who sold chips, ice cream, hot foods, and noodles. Speaking to Danny’s flexibility, he continued to say that he also provided food for parties and church events and made deliveries. In the fall, he parked at the recreation center to sell snacks and nachos during the flag football games. The only thing he did not sell, the participant lamented, was chicken wings and fries—the perfect accompaniment for mambo sauce.
Though my research at the time was narrowly focused on supermarkets and urban agriculture, I made note of Danny’s truck and casually asked about it while hanging out with participants, conducting interviews, and volunteering at the neighborhood recreation center. I thought of Danny’s truck as a novelty in the neighborhood, but the more I talked to others, the more it became clear that many residents saw his service as a necessary intervention in a neighborhood that had very few food options. Danny parked his truck outside the recreation center, a central gathering point in the neighborhood, two to three times a week, especially during the fall, to offer food during football games and rec center events. His prices were reasonable, he himself was a familiar figure in the neighborhood, and, since his business was mobile, his location was convenient. Danny’s truck filled a void for those who frequented the recreation center and beyond because of the inequities outlined in the opening of this chapter. During my fieldwork, the recreation center hosted activities on a daily basis. With no food outlets immediately surrounding the center, Danny’s truck provided food for patrons. When not at the recreation center, Danny’s truck could be seen driving the streets of Deanwood, stopping to sell food to students after school, or parked in front of another location.
Food systems researchers and activists have paid little attention to entrepreneurs like Danny and the role they play in neighborhood food systems or Black food geographies more broadly (Short, Guthman, and Raskin 2007). Instead, the focus is largely on the presence or absence of large retail grocers or alternative means for food production like community gardens and farmers markets (Short, Guthman, and Raskin 2007; Markowitz 2008; Widener, Metcalf, and Bar-Yam 2012; Alkon et al. 2013). One of the reasons may be the emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables because of their association with healthiness (Pearson et al. 2005; Befort et al. 2006; Morland and Filomena 2007; Bodor et al. 2008; McGee et al. 2008). A second reason may be that Danny’s truck could be considered another form of fast food. A third reason may be an issue of (in)visibility. Geographic information system (GIS) mapping of food availability, community food surveys, or phone directory searches may not adequately account for mobile food outlets like Danny’s, unless they are located in cities that require GIS tracking as part of the permitting process (assuming, of course, that they have obtained permits).
Yet food trucks like Danny’s are integral to both food distribution and the continued cultural identities of neighborhoods, performing cultural place-making work that grocery stores, urban farms, and farmers markets do not do. Positioning food trucks as distinctly postmodern, Julian Agyeman, Caitlin Matthews, and Hannah Sobel (2017) argue that they not only provide food but demonstrate the extent to which food truck operators claim a right to the city by developing spatial practices that support everyday life. Further, in her work with Black-owned food trucks around the country, Ariel Smith (2019) has shown that the operators often have larger visions of their purpose beyond making money and have interests in investing in communities. As a spatial practice, Danny’s food truck—especially its challenge to the visual aesthetics of the increasing number of gourmet trucks in the United States that bear fancy signage and often bright colors—stakes a claim to a neighborhood that is simultaneously disenfranchised in terms of food access and undergoing gentrification after a combination of public and private partnerships have sought to address more than four decades of disinvestment. Lenore Lauri Newman and Katherine Alexandra Newman (2017, 257) argue that the reemergence of food trucks in Vancouver reinforces the branding of it being a “livable city,” is used to “tame” urban spaces, and promotes diversity, contributing to gentrification. Though the violent displacement of people and the destruction of places are the necessary predecessor to the emergence of these new, marketable amenities (Summers 2015), the excitement and anticipation surrounding the cultural demands produced through food trucks (Lemon 2017) obscure these processes. Thus, through his truck, Danny claims his neighborhood, claims his right to be there; and in these claims, he supports and reinforces cultural practices around food and sociality in his neighborhood.
Operating in his neighborhood was no small feat. If he had obtained a permit, then Danny had made significant yearly financial investments to operate. According to a study funded by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, to start and maintain the requirements for a food truck in the United States, operators, on average, were required to complete forty-five different mandated procedures and spent approximately $28,276 on permits and licenses. The report also included indexes that ranked twenty cities based on the ease of completing the process to acquire a permit, complying with restrictions, and having the funds to operate a food truck. On all three indexes, Washington, D.C., landed in the bottom five, making it one of the most difficult cities in which to operate a food truck.8 If he was operating without a permit, then Danny’s choice to operate his truck was even riskier because of the expensive fines incurred if caught without one. In either case, his choice of Deanwood meant he could serve his community. It also meant that, perhaps, Danny was able to operate more freely in ward 7 than in other parts of town where food trucks may have been more heavily surveilled and policed (like around the national mall, for example). In turn, what may be considered constrained movement was an opportunity. Danny’s truck intersected with the daily routines of ward 7 residents as a part of the social landscape.
Black Entrepreneurship in Contemporary Context: Derek’s Mobile Food Delivery
Before there was Uber Eats, there was Derek’s mobile food delivery. Derek, a lifetime resident of the neighborhood, was a forty-something-year-old director of a nonprofit. By his own account, he was civically minded, taking cues from his parents, who had served the neighborhood association and helped create a community economic development plan for the neighborhood. When I met him, Derek was serving as the president of the neighborhood civic association. This informed the mobile food delivery service he had cocreated with a friend and neighbor three years prior to our meeting. The food delivery service, intended to fill a gap in the neighborhood’s food system, particularly concerning access to diverse and healthier restaurant options, was not well received by funders. After coauthoring an economic development plan with other ward 7 residents, Derek and his partner pitched the idea for a food delivery service that would pick up food from select restaurants in other parts of the city and deliver it to people in the community. If businesses were not going to come to ward 7, they were determined to bring the business to their neighbors. In an interview with me, Derek was clear that he was interested in using the food business as a way to provide opportunities for others and to provide a service to the community.
We were doing food delivery for the community. We used a social enterprise model for our young people. If anybody drove for us, we paid for the deliveries, but they also got paid for commissions for any business that they created. They could actually become their own business owner. The reason why we started the business was because we couldn’t get food over here. We created relationships with about one hundred restaurants that we could deliver for, at a modest profit for our business. More importantly, it provided a service to the community, and it provided income for a community that needed jobs. We needed money. We put the business on hold, but it’s still there.
Derek relayed several important aspects of what it meant for him to run a business in his neighborhood. On the one hand, he valued providing this service for the community. On the other hand, he distinguishes this service from other businesses by referring to it as a social enterprise, which Janelle Kerlin defines as “market-based approaches to address social issues” (2006, 247). For Derek, providing this service was about more than delivering food. It also provided an opportunity to employ neighborhood youth and supply entrepreneurial training. This, coupled with Derek’s community-based advocacy through the neighborhood association, reflected his interest in and commitment to racial uplift ideologies and practices that emphasize the strengths and responsibility of Black residents as a mechanism to maintain Black space and sustain Black life. This, too, reflected Derek’s class-based approach to fixing a social problem. Not unlike men and women who were early residents of his neighborhood (Nannie Helen Burroughs was one), Derek emphasized pursuing education and engaging in social endeavors that concerned themselves with addressing the problems of (mostly lower-class) Black people. Thus, when he talked about his neighbors who lived in nearby public housing, he framed them less as neighbors and more as examples of the effects of not only structural changes but also familial and interpersonal ones.
Derek’s model was different from that of large, mainstream delivery services. As late as 2018, the Washington Post reported that while Uber Eats had expanded food possibilities in D.C., that expansion stopped at the Anacostia River (Carmen 2018). Just as residents were plagued with grocery store and restaurant inequities, so too did the neighborhood experience mobile delivery disparities as no delivery company provided adequate service to the predominantly Black part of D.C. Prompted by a petition started by Latoya Watson of ward 7, Postmates and Caviar announced that they were expanding their services to include wards 7 and 8 (Nania 2018). Derek’s approach to developing mobile food delivery reflected what Simon Teasdale (2010, 4) refers to as a “social business,” one that has a clear social goal but is still striving to be economically viable. The two goals were not easily integrated with each other, as balancing the social and economic goals presents significant challenges for social entrepreneurs, particularly those who are operating within neighborhoods that have continuously been neglected by both public and private sectors (Teasdale 2010). Derek describes this tension, particularly concerning financial constraints and community support:
It’s amazing. Somebody else came in, a Virginia firm, and saw the vision immediately and invested in it; put in about $40,000 and invested in it. They replicated our model exactly, with better branding, because they had money. They’re doing it now, in the northwest, which was critical really for our expansion. We just [pause] we’ll overtake them. It’s only going to happen, if our people support it. Let me tell you a story, about business . . . [our neighbors] don’t want to do it. If you understood the greater good, you would. It takes time to build a business. I run a nonprofit. . . . A couple years ago, my house was robbed in a home robbery. When I finally got the organization fully funded . . . [pause] I just haven’t been able to recover from it financially. I’ve got these two businesses, the food and Washington tours and transportation. They’re all designed to teach history and preserve the culture of our community, and make money doing it. Food is the biggest aspect of the business. I was interested in that.
By folding in history and storytelling, Derek’s business model was one that was invested in profit while also preserving the neighborhood culture. However, in his attempts to build an entrepreneurial pursuit that would meet a need in the community, Derek inevitably had to contend with forms of precarity that are not uncommon for Black businesses owners, regardless of their interests in social justice. In Derek’s case, the social and economic goals he put forth for his business were in tension, which he expresses through his assertions that building a business is hard and takes the support of the community. Though frustrated with the lack of community support, Derek firmly believed in community-grown businesses and the potential success of them, later adding, “If we decide we are going to collectively do it, we can make it work.”
In this chapter, I have offered Black food entrepreneurship as a vital aspect of understanding contemporary Black food geographies in segregated Black neighborhoods, particularly in urban areas. As Danny’s ice cream–turned–food truck and Derek’s food delivery service demonstrate, some services provided by Black residents to their neighbors may be overlooked in neighborhood studies of food, particularly those that focus on supermarkets and urban agriculture. Though great strides have been taken to understand that the food system does not operate separately or apart from other manifestations of racism such as redlining, economic disparities, and a so-called color-blind free market system, the legacy of social science research that focuses on what’s wrong instead of what is happening (Chin 2001), positioning Black people as risk objects (Boholm 2003; Jones 2019) that are acted upon rather than having an agency themselves, persists.
Challenging this notion, Danny’s and Derek’s services contribute to sustaining Black life in the midst of inequities and demonstrate the complexities of Black food geographies. When placed in this context—one that recognizes Black agency and the limits of the state—Danny’s truck and Derek’s food delivery are examples of the creative, everyday maneuvering that occurs in Black spaces. Rather than wait for systematic change, they created opportunities that impacted the neighborhood foodscape. The everydayness of their businesses met food needs. As place makers, Danny and Derek exhibit the types of spatial agency that happens in urban areas, even when taking into account the varied ways anti-Blackness and inequalities influence access.
There are countless other examples, large and small, of Black place makers who use food as a mechanism in their communities: Renaissance Community Cooperative in Greensboro, North Carolina; Gangers to Growers in Atlanta, which employs formerly incarcerated youth and provides urban agriculture training; and informal exchanges and economies (cookshares, rideshares, etc.) in Black spaces all over the country. This work is about food but also speaks to intersecting needs and experiences that expand beyond it. It is not without its challenges. As Derek hinted, the success of his business (and others like it) depended on community support. That was just one concern. With stringent city ordinances, increasing competition from the rapidly growing number of food trucks, some of which were parked weekly at a government building less than a mile from the recreation center, and an ever-expanding technological world that now includes food delivery services like Uber Eats, it is unclear how businesses like Danny’s and Derek’s can or will be able to thrive. Perhaps ironically, the segregated nature of D.C. functioned as a protective mechanism for these entrepreneurial pursuits. However, as D.C. race and class demographics and food landscapes change, the future of businesses like those discussed in this chapter is tenuous, particularly since city ordinances had a negative impact on Black-owned businesses in other, gentrifying parts of town (Hyra and Prince 2015; Hyra 2017; Summers 2019). They may, as their huckstering forefathers and mothers, be near the end of their lifelines. And, as has been demonstrated through this lineage, perhaps there are other forms of entrepreneurship waiting to emerge. What is clear is that despite how pervasive anti-Blackness is and continues to be, Black entrepreneurs play an important role in both resisting anti-Blackness and contributing to the distinct cultural fabrics of the communities they serve.
This chapter has offered just one way of examining how Black people have developed systems to address structural food violence in their neighborhood. It also offers, however, a broader challenge to food justice advocates and researchers. Through examinations of food entrepreneurs in and around Black communities, food scholars can begin to contend with the dearth of scholarship that foregrounds Black agency in the context of food justice. Though definitions of food justice vary, with access to healthy, affordable food being central to most, who produces or provides this food is critical to the conversation of food justice. This is not only a question of access; it is also a question of methods and epistemology: Who do we not see when we do not include these locally grown entrepreneurial pursuits? What narratives are ignored or erased? By widening our frame to understand various and sometimes obscured ways individuals and communities meet their needs, this not only highlights the “making a way out of no way”; it also offers a more nuanced understanding of how deeply entrenched food inequities are and opens opportunities for thinking about more just ways of improving the food system that include everyday efforts on the ground.
2. For comparison, ward 2 and ward 3—the wealthiest and whitest wards in the district—had seven and nine grocery stores, respectively, in 2016. For a full breakdown of grocery stores by ward, income, and race, see D.C. Hunger Solutions, “Closing the Grocery Store Gap in the Nation’s Capital,” spring 2016, http://www.dchunger.org.
3. A sample of headlines covering Denny’s and its treatment of Black people across the United States includes “Blacks, Not Whites, Told to Pay before Dining. Now Federal Way’s Denny’s Workers Are Jobless” (News Tribune [Tacoma, Wash.], October 1, 2017); “Secret Service Agents Allege Racial Bias at Denny’s” (Washington Post, 1993). In 1994 Denny’s paid $54 million in race bias lawsuits.
4. I originally learned of this ordinance through communication with Erica J. Peters on July 17, 2019. She used it in a public presentation and gave me permission to use it in this chapter. The ordinance reads in part:
ORDINANCE NO. 2917 (New Series).
Approved September 22, 1914.
Regulating the Manufacture, Handling, Care and Sale of Foodstuffs Within the City and County of San Francisco.
Be it Ordained by the People of the City and County of San Francisco as follows:
Section 1. On and after the passage of this Ordinance it shall be unlawful for any person, firm or corporation to engage in the handling, manufacture or sale of foodstuffs intended for human consumption, or after six (6) months from the date of passage of this Ordinance to continue in said business, or businesses, except in compliance with the conditions hereinafter specified.
Section 2. It shall be unlawful for any person, firm, corporation or their servants or employees to maintain or operate within any building, room, apartment, dwelling basement, or cellar, a bakery, confectionery, cannery, packing house, candy factory, ice cream factory, restaurant, hotel, coffee and chop house, grocery, meat market, sausage factory, delicatessen store, or other place in which food is prepared for sale, produced, manufactured, packed, stored, or otherwise disposed of, or to vend or peddle from any wagon or other vehicle, or from any basket, hand steamer, street stand, any food product whether simple or compound, or a mixture, which is sold, or otherwise disposed of for human consumption within the City and County of San Francisco, without having first obtained a certificate, issued by the Board of Health and signed by the Health Officer, of said City and County, that first, the premises are in a sanitary condition, and that all proper arrangements for carrying on the business without injury to the public health have been complied with, and second, that the provisions of all Ordinances, or regulations made in accordance with Ordinances, for the conduct of such establishments have been complied with. Said certificate when issued shall be kept displayed in a prominent place on the premises of the establishment, stand, vehicle, wagon or peddler for which or whom it is issued and is not transferable without the consent of the Board of Health. . . .
Section 5. The certificate provided for in Section 2, of this Ordinance, shall be valid for one (1) year from date of issue.
5. In some more contemporary contexts, “huckster” is used as synonymously with “peddler” or “swindler” in a pejorative way, especially in politics. That is not how it is being used in this chapter. As early as 1850, “huckster” was listed as an occupation that required a license to legally sell on the city’s streets. These licenses were issued to both white and free Black people, though early newspapers like the Georgetown Courier alluded to the idea that most hucksters were Black. Residents in northeast D.C. who I interviewed did not use “huckster” as a pejorative term. In fact, when they were brought up, residents referred to them as a more desirable form of business than the local supermarket that failed to meet their needs.
6. For the complete regulations of hucksters in D.C., see Sheahan 1853.
7. See Agyeman, Matthews, and Sobel 2017 for a collection of essays, many of which explore histories of city ordinances. See also Morales 2000; Wasserman 2009.
8. To read the full report, see U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, “Food Truck Nation,” March 2018, https://www.foodtrucknation.us/wp-content/themes/food-truck-nation/Food-Truck-Nation-Full-Report.pdf.
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