For every one grocery store in Bed-Stuy, there are 57 bodegas. It’s the greatest convenience-to-grocery store disparity in all of New York City and a symptom of ongoing food apartheid. Although Brooklyn is a growing food hub for farmers’ markets, farm-to-table restaurants and artisanal food and beverage producers, its residents experience higher levels of food insecurity than any other borough, according to a 2017 Food Bank for NYC report.
“I was working in these really nice food stores but I couldn’t afford what was on the shelves or the food that I was serving to people,” says Raina Kennedy, a 29-year-old food justice organizer at the Central Brooklyn Food Co-op (CBFC), Brooklyn’s only Black-led, member owned and operated food co-op that centers low-to-moderate income communities in Central Brooklyn.
Growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Kennedy assumed that local produce was “a bougie thing,” she recalls, because it was only upper-class suburban families who could afford it. There were no sliding-scale CSA programs for middle-class families like hers. When she moved to Brooklyn seven years ago, having recently come out as queer, Kennedy connected with folks involved in food justice work who pointed her to an income-based CSA where she could get locally grown vegetables for $12 each week, which was “life changing,” she says.
It was through that weekly box of vegetables that Kennedy caught a glimpse of what an alternative food system could look like and how transformative it could be for people like her. After spending years juggling entry-level food service jobs, she started graduate school at NYU, where she co-founded the Food and Racial Equity (FARE) Collective and began working with cooperatives like Greenhill Food Co-op and Brooklyn Packers. A random internet search for Black food co-ops led her to CBFC, and after one cold email and an informational meeting, they offered her a job. “Sometimes it feels like I have 700 jobs, but they’re all related,” she laughs. “But I don’t have to froth milk. I don’t have to price cheese or explain to someone why we’re not selling tomatoes in February.”
For the last six years, CBFC organizers have been steadily growing co-op membership. Last month, they launched a Kickstarter campaign to secure a storefront location. Their goal was met within the first week with more than 700 backers, and they’re continuing to fundraise to ensure they can open their doors next year. The co-op offers sliding scale membership, flexible work shifts and prioritizes direct sourcing from local Black and brown farmers and food producers. “We don’t really have a model to go on so we have to create our own,” explains Kennedy. “We have to be able to imagine alternatives to the norm and have language to talk about it. You can’t imagine something you can’t articulate.”
Cooperatives are a significant workforce in the U.S., allowing people to own the companies whose services they rely on, but there are few food co-ops that are entirely worker owned and operated. Even fewer are Black-led. CBFC’s space won’t just offer affordable groceries but will facilitate on-site community advocacy and education workshops around subjects like the history of Black cooperative economics.
There’s a long history of Black people pooling money together to create their own economic systems outside of the mainstream. Jessica Gordon Nembhard’s book Collective Courage (2014) charts the cooperative movement from slavery to civil rights which has been a grounding resource for CBFC. African Americans bought each others’ freedom from slavery, formed the first mutual aid societies in the late 1700s that collectively funded funerals, covered health-care costs, provided support for widows and orphans, and organized the first integrative trade unions. The names of the movement are familiar—W.E.B. Du Bois, Fannie Lou Hamer, the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers—but the liberatory practices have remained largely underground because of the threat they pose to white supremacist capitalist society. Still today, the word “co-op” conjures images of white hippies more than Black radicals, which is why historical knowledge coupled with modern representation is crucial to shifting the paradigm.
“The co-op model is an alternative to the extractive capitalist system that has existed for as long as people have existed,” says Ashleigh Eubanks, a 29-year-old Bed-Stuy resident from Hartford who is an organizing member of CBFC. Her trajectory into food justice work began as a kid in Connecticut eager to eat well. “I was always telling my family, we need to eat this and we need to eat that,” she grins. But the closest grocery store was 20 minutes away on foot and her parents didn’t always have a car. What produce was available was often poor quality.
Food apartheid describes the limitations that Eubanks’ family navigated—the way systemic racism coupled with economic inequality manufactures environments where high quality fresh food is sparse or over-priced, and living wage jobs are in short supply, forcing locals to travel outside of their communities to work and shop. It’s doubly burdensome for people to invest their time, energy and expertise into someone else’s neighborhood while theirs continues to atrophy.
Opening more grocery stores isn’t the solution, either. Big box chains and boutique stores alike operate along fairly opaque global food supply chains and often aren’t affordable for low-income families to shop at. The jobs they provide pay low-wages and profits are concentrated at the top rather than shared with the workers. In New York City, grocery store cashiers, much like other food service and fast food workers, earn an annual income of less than $30,000, according to the NY State Occupational Employment Statistics.
CBFC’s cooperative model aims to make food affordable as well as conveniently located for Central Brooklyn residents. But the vision is bigger than a single food co-op. The end goal, Eubanks tells me, is to create a thriving food hub where the food co-op buys from worker co-ops like farms and producers, investing the money back into Central Brooklyn and putting profits back into the hands of worker-owners.
“We see this model as a tool to fight gentrification because the face of gentrification is often food,” says Eubanks. “It’s the café opening up that you can’t afford. It’s your bodega that used to be affordable but now has really expensive chips. Sure, maybe the food is better quality than what you had before but it’s inaccessible to you and that contributes to your displacement. Because even if you have housing that is secure for the moment, if you can’t shop where you used to shop, then that contributes to you leaving. So, we really want to make sure that food stays affordable for low to moderate-income Black folks.”
Queer organizing and food justice have always gone hand in hand in Eubanks’ life: at the same time she began volunteering with the Audre Lorde Project, she was accepted into Soul Fire Farm’s BIPOC farmers immersion program. “It was like, these are my people. They’re people who care about food and also organizing and want to make it accessible to people like my family growing up,” she continues. “I didn’t identify as queer until it felt like a political identity. And so much of what I learned about collectivism and cooperativism I learned from being in space with queer folks sharing housing and cooking for each other in an intentional way that was building home.”
As much as the cooperatives are about meeting physical needs for marginalized groups, they hinge upon ideological transformation in realizing how economic liberation is a crucial component of LGBTQ+ and BIPOC liberation.
“It was an important mindset shift for me to get directly involved in my community instead of just getting on the train, going to work, then coming home,” Kennedy tells me. “But if you think about it, of course we should all be sharing resources, living together and working together. Of course people shouldn’t have to travel a million miles away to get food. Of course more people should be able to live and work in the same place. We’re focused on creating more of that. It’s what this whole project is about.”