Author Archives: A. Reese

About A. Reese

UMBC Assistant Professor. Black Feminist. Food justice advocate and researcher. Lover of color, ruffles, stripes, and pockets. Your kids' flyest professor.

Black Women’s Food Work is from the Future

Ashanté M. Reese, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Spelman College

 When I think about being a Black girl from the future, my mind goes to the contradiction that many Black girls and women encounter which is that we are often simultaneously hyper visible and invisible at the same time – Renina Jarmon

Black women are not seen as authorities in the kitchen or elsewhere in matters of food—culturally, politically, and socially—and when she dares to be, she may be described in reviews as “angry” or “not angry enough.” She is rendered absent, and made invisible by the continued salience of intersecting vectors of disempowerment: race/gender/class/sexuality. Or in the absolute worst cases she is confronted—face-to-face and in social media outlets—with a “how dare she” attitude because she does not, will not, cannot conform to a prescribed role of Black women who work with, as banal as it sounds, food (Nettles-Barcélon et al. 2015:35)

If there is to be a future where the food system is safe, equitable, and healthy how will we get there?

On March 30th, the newly launched Food Studies Program at Spelman College hosted a symposium on Food Justice featuring three Black women activists and scholars who work to improve the food system and health of communities in various parts of the country.  The symposium was clear in its purpose: to not only interrogate the successes and limits of food justice but to also highlight the work of Black women that is often invisible, ignored, or co-opted.


Monica White, PhD in the field in Mississippi

I left the symposium feeling energized and challenged by the panelists and the audience. I also left with questions. How do we contend with the hypervisibility of Black women’s association with obesity on the one hand and the lack of visibility concerning Black women’s activist, artistic, and academic expertise in food production, preparation and writing on the other?  Nettles-Barcélon et al. provide a framework—Black women’s food work as critical space—for understanding how the future of the food system is deeply intertwined with the food work produced by Black women and the barriers that attempt to curtail that work. They argue that because Black women are positioned as both speakers for “the other” while also being Othered, their food work is not simply necessary but critical in the dismantling of an oppressive food system that consistently denies equal access to Othered bodies from which corporations profit.

From the scholarly world to on-the-ground organizing, Black women ask difficult questions, put their reputations and bodies on the line, and demonstrate a Black feminist food future attuned to a far-off world in which we are all free.  This future is currently being written in the scholarly works about Fannie Lou Hamer and the Freedom Farms Cooperative (White 2017), increasing visibility of Black women vegans outside the normative gaze (Harper 2010), and analyses of Black women’s agency, power and entrepreneurship in the context of stereotypes-turned-metaphors (Williams-Forson 2006). It is engaged with dismantling an unjust and unequal industrialized food system at the nexus of racial justice under the Movement for Black Lives. It is on the front lines on the Fight for $15. It is being built everyday on urban farms, in community gardens, in nonprofit organizations, and in classrooms where Black women’s labor contribute to everyday resistances.  It is present in intergenerational storytelling and cross-institutional relationship building. This work is generated from a simultaneous engagement with the past, the present, and a future where the dialectical hypervisibility and invisibility that Black women experience no longer exists.


Community Member Supporting Urban Ag in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Ashanté Reese)

In the sixth episode of season two of the WGN series Underground, Harriet Tubman—played by Aisha Hinds—delivers a passionate, hour-long speech to abolitionists who are at odds about how to move forward on the question of eradicating slavery. After detailing parts of her own journey to freedom and commitment to others’ freedom, she declared:

There ain’t no negotiations on freedom. I spent all my time knowing things instead of believing them. And that’s the first step to being free. When you can see past all the things that you know and believe something better.

Black women’s food work is often informed by an embodied knowing that it is difficult—if not impossible—to negotiate from the duality of hypervisibility and invisibility. Instead, this food work is rooted in a belief in something beyond. It is not simply a substance of things hoped for or the evidence of things not seen (see Hebrews 11:1 for biblical reference). No. Black women’s food work is the critical space from which the world we want to see is being built.  Black women’s food work is, indeed, from the future.


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Blackness, Food, and State-Sanctioned Violence

Ashanté M. Reese, PhD

I began research on food access in Washington, D.C., knowing that I wanted to learn about a) what people were eating b) where they were shopping, and c) how (if at all) they engaged urban agriculture movements.

During my first interview, a participant made it clear that a) she did not want to talk about any of those things right away, b) she would get to them when she was ready, and c) there were other more pressing things I needed to know so that I could understand her food choices. That first interview sent me back to the drawing board to reconsider how I conceptualized the study of food.  After conducting 40+ interviews with D.C. residents (and another 40 interviews with Baltimore residents for a separate project), I now realize that most of my participants talked about, theorized, and understood their lives at the intersections of multiple forms of state-sanctioned violence. I came to them wanting to discuss food access. They came to me with stories about their lives, the histories of their neighborhoods, gentrification, policing, and other black people they didn’t know but to whom they felt a connectedness. Food, the subject that brought us to the table, provided a framework for discussing some of the precarious elements of navigating spaces in black bodies.


Photo taken at a protest/rally in Ferguson, MO. April 2015

In the most terrifying, in your face moments, we watch Black Death on repeat as video after video captures unarmed black people being shot down in the streets by officers of the state. It is heartbreaking and sometimes terrifying to watch. Yet, as I learned from my research participants, these murders occur within a larger frame of the everydayness of violence they witnessed or experienced. State-sanctioned violence not only shows up in public murders and the collective trauma in their aftermaths but also in the ways in which people experience (and navigate) inequalities on a daily basis that provides context for the food research we conduct. We need only examine the systematic ways Black farmers were denied access to federal funding that could have made a difference in their abilities to compete in the transitions toward agribusiness. Or the ways federal and state governments co-opted the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast for Children program while at the same time blacklisting, criminalizing, and surveilling the Panthers themselves.

State-sanctioned violence normalizes death and inequalities through the slow but steady unraveling of individuals’ character in the moments immediately following their public executions, the decline of publically available resources, and through the now colloquial understanding of “food deserts” that points to outcomes (lack of food access, individual choice, etc.) but often obscures processes (systematic racism, increased suburbanization, etc.).  Though it is easy to compartmentalize, these different forms of violence  stem from shared roots that attempt to curtail black mobility in and access to public space.  Some are very public, instantaneous deaths at the hands of police like those of Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, and as of today, Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott. These are the spectacular, shocking deaths (although, they are happening often enough to question if they are as shocking as they were). Others are slow, walking, everyday deaths: the lack of access to healthy, affordable foods; the continuous expansion of multinational food corporations that not only control access but also wages of folks who produce food; the cutting (and erasure) of social services.


Photo taken at a protest/rally in Ferguson, MO. April 2015

I see the critical examination of these intersections as part of the work Sidney Mintz envisioned when he challenged food anthropologists to engage with–not run away from–the power structures that shape access, tastes, and perceptions. The worlds in which we live–the worlds in which my predominantly Black research participants, friends, and I live–are circumscribed by power dynamics that shape not only food access but also experiences with other forms of state-sanctioned violence that are sometimes literally a matter of life or death.



Filed under anthropology, food, food activism, food deserts, food politics

Food Insecurity in a Globalized World: The Politics and Culture of Food Systems

This conference, taking place at Middlebury College on March 10-12, will be live streamed and recorded. The conference schedule is posted below. More information can be found here:


Thursday, March 10, 2016

4:30–6:15 p.m.
The Role of the State and International Institutions

Moderator: Nadia Horning, Political Science

  • GMO Trade Negotiations as Proxy for Cultural Differences
    Patricia Stapleton, Director, Society, Technology, and Policy Program, Worcester Polytechnic Institute
  • “Erst Kommt Das Fressen”: Food insecurity and food sovereignty in Greece
    Harry Konstantinidis, Economics, University of Massachusetts, Boston
  • Scientification and Social Control: Radiation Contamination in Food and Farms in Japan
    Tomiko Yamaguchi, International Christian University, Japan

7:00–8:30 p.m.
Cultural Adaptation to Scarcity

Moderator: Mez Baker Medard, Environmental Studies

  • The Politics of Adequacy: Food provisioning, entitlements, and everyday life in post-Soviet Cuba
    Hanna GarthAnthropology, University of California, Irvine
  • No Roi (already full): Dealing with food insecurity in contemporary Vietnamese rituals
    Nir Avieli, Sociology and Anthropology, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Israel

Friday, March 11, 2016

12:30–2:00 p.m.
Socially Constructed Vulnerability and Food Insecurity

Moderator: Julia Berazneva, Economics

  • Hunger and Land in Neoliberal Nicaragua: The collision of past and present
    Birgit Schmook, Senior Researcher, Department of Conservation and Biodiversity, El Colegio de la Frontera Sur, Chetumal, Mexico, with Lindsey Carte and Claudia Radel
  • The Causes and Consequences of Njaa (hunger) in the Household: Food insecurity and intimate partner violence within a Kenyan informal settlement
    Adam Gilbertson, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Embodied Inequalities: Race, class, and food access in Washington, DC
    Ashanté M. Reese, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Spelman College

2:30–3:45 p.m.
Migration and Changing Foodscapes

Moderator: Joseph Holler, Geography

  • Seeds Sent from Home: Migrant farm worker gardens and food security in Vermont
    Jessie Mazar, University of Vermont, with Teresa Mares
  • Insecure Urban Foodscapes
    Colleen Hammelman, Geography and Urban Studies, Temple University

4:15–5:30 p.m.
War and Memory of Hunger

Moderator: Sandra Carletti, Italian

  • “Groveling for Lentils”: Hunger and Memory in Occupied France
    Paula Schwartz, French, Middlebury College
  • Bitter Greens and Sweet Potatoes: Food as embodied memory in rural China
    Ellen Oxfeld, Sociology and Anthropology, Middlebury College

Saturday, March 12, 2016

9:00–10:15 a.m.
Agroecology Access to Land and Seeds

Moderator: William Amidon, Geology

  • The Maya Land Rights Struggle: A Framework for Operationalizing “Foodways with Identity”
    Mark Chatarpal, Anthropology Department and Food Studies Institute, Indiana University, Bloomington
  • Food Security, Agro-biodiversity, and the State: The struggle to defend native corn systems in southern Mexico 
    Laurel Bellante, Geography and Development, University of Arizona
  • Agroecology and Food Sovereignty
    Margarita Fernandez, Vermont Caribbean Institute

10:30–12:00 p.m.
The Politics of Food Security

Moderator: Diego Thompson Bello, Sociology/Anthropology

  • What’s on Your Plate? Is global diet change the key to food and climate justice?
    David Cleveland, Environmental Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara
  • Governance and Power in Food (in)Security
    Molly Anderson, Food Studies, Middlebury College

12:30–2:00 p.m.

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CFP: Food Insecurity in West Africa

Multidisciplinary approaches to food security, public health and governance: Emerging research for sustainable development in West Africa

The University of Ibadan, Nigeria

September 5 & 6, 2016

The West African Research Association (WARA) and the University of Ibadan Office of International Programs announce a two-day symposium at the University of Ibadan. The symposium will showcase innovative research in food security, public health and governance taking place in the region. It will be an opportunity for scholars, especially WARA grantees, to share research strategies, findings and projects with colleagues at University of Ibadan and other institutions in West Africa.

The WARA Travel Grant program promotes individual and collaborative research across national and linguistic boundaries. Since 2000, WARA has awarded more than 100 travel grants to West African scholars working in a wide range of disciplines.

We welcome proposals for paper, panel, and poster presentations on themes of food security, public health, and governance. We especially encourage former WARA/WARC Travel Grantees to participate. The deadline for receipt of abstracts is March 31, 2016. Late submissions will not be considered. All proposals must contain a 500 word proposal and a CV and should be submitted here by March 31, 2016.

Abstracts will be reviewed by a panel of scholars from WARA and UI. Successful applicants will be notified by May 15, 2016. Up to 24 papers will be selected.



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Hospital Food

Guest Contributor: David Shane Lowry, Assistant Professor, Chicago Medical School and College of Health Professions

I worked as a technician for five years (between 2007 and 2012) in the Department of Pharmacy in a hospital in western North Carolina.  The local interstate brought a fairly steady number of car accident victims. Some large carrying van crashed and cause a lot of damage, one has to wonder if they had good van insurance. Some of them were drunk drivers who, after being rushed into the intensive care unit of the hospital, were provided Jack Daniels whisky mixed by pharmacy employees into intravenous (IV) bags. This type of treatment didn’t happen all the time, but when it did I felt as if we were returning to a Civil War era where drug treatments were much more organic and rustic.

The hospital’s pharmacy maintained a fairly large stock of alcohol. Pharmacy technicians went on “beer runs” to our local alcoholic beverage control (ABC) store to pick up cases of liquor, beer, and wine. Physicians ordered “cocktails” for patients who demanded that the hospital provide them with spirits before bedtime. They prescribed alcohol in exact doses according to conversations they had with their patients and other physicians, and they used the alcohol to help make patients’ transitions into healthcare smoother. Physicians and nurses would ask patients for beer preferences. Some patients wanted alcohol-free O’Doul’s. These particular patients weren’t seeking the inebriation of alcohol. They simply wanted the taste.

Around 2010, the rules changed for the clinical use of alcohol in this hospital. For example, the hospital’s administration encouraged physicians to use standard “detox” protocol for drunken patients, which included use of pharmaceutical drugs instead of alcohol. The administration also decided to make the hospital’s Department of Nutrition responsible for keeping and distributing any alcohol that was used in clinical care.

The shift of alcohol between the Department of Pharmacy and the Department of Nutrition – between a place of “drugs” and a place of “food” – wasn’t a hospital-specific conversation. It had a deep American history. Alcohol actually began a transformation from “food” to “drug” during the Prohibition period of the 1920s. Prohibition was the period when alcohol was made illegal for use in American homes and businesses. In a matter of hours (literally!) alcohol went from a beverage served with dinner to a substance regulated by the Federal Government. During Prohibition, alcohol was only legal when it was obtained via prescriptions written by physicians.  Drug stores like Walgreens made their names (and large profits) by serving their customers “doses” of alcohol.

After Prohibition was over in 1933, alcohol came from under the watchful eyes of pharmacists, and retail pharmacy executives had to find new ways to create profit. They obtained help from Uncle Sam. Between 1935 and 1955, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) became the federal overseer of drugs, cigarettes, food, and cosmetics. They worked with drug retailers – who were profiting from sales of drugs, cigarettes, cheap snacks, and cosmetics – to create and maintain pipelines for all kinds of consumable materials at the intersection of “food” and “drug”.

In the last few decades, pharmacies and hospitals have become increasingly dependent on these materials. Corporations like Abbott Laboratories produce “shakes”, “formula”, and “nutritional bars” for humans across the age spectrum. Brands like Gatorade advertise in ways that give their products the duality of “food” and “drug”. In the 1990s, you wanted to drink Gatorade to “be like” super-athlete Michael Jordan.

Whosoever has the power to sell has the power to feed and drug. What I am concerned with is the notion that when “food” becomes “drug” – beer used to treat a patient, for example – it is of little value. But when “drug” becomes “food” – e.g. when a pharmaceutical corporation has large stakes in feeding the most vulnerable humans among us – it is of great value. Such an inversion may seem non-critical within the current global food crisis, but it is quite critical if we are concerned with the fact that what heals us includes our taste buds, our hunger, and the communities we eat within.



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“D.C. is Mambo Sauce”

Early in my fieldwork, I met Kameron (pseudonym) at Denny’s, the only sit down restaurant in Ward 7 at the time. Our conversation spanned several topics, but when we turned to gentrification, she made a distinction between “Washington” and “D.C.”:

“Washington is government. It’s politics. It’s the capital. D.C. is east of the (Anacostia) river. D.C. is carryouts. D.C. is mambo sauce. That’s the real D.C.”

This distinction between “Washington” and “DC” is not an uncommon for the city’s natives, particularly African-American natives, to make. They have long experienced the tensions between Washington, DC as the center of national and even international politics and as the site of persistent inequalities. However, this conversation was the first time someone used mambo sauce to symbolize the difference between the city’s two halves.

Though its origins are murky, Mambo sauce is a recognizable staple for many in D.C. and


Sept. 2015: I wore this shirt honoring D.C. staples to my dissertation defense. It reads, “Mambo Sauce, Go-Go, & Half Smokes.” 

in some ways is used as a barometer for authenticity. Mambo sauce’s origins are as illusive as its ingredients. The mysterious mix of ketchup, hot sauce, and BBQ sauce is sometimes credited to a restaurant owner in Chicago, though DCers claim it as their own.

The real D.C., as Kameron put it, is marked by the recognition of a staple like Mambo sauce that had become associated with predominantly black and low-income communities.

The same year, The Washington Post published an article title, “Mumbo* Sauce Gets Gentrified.” The popular “D.C.” condiment made its way on upscale menus in “Washington,” blurring that distinction that my research participant pointed out.

This condiment is a lens through which to understand the many ways food becomes a clear indicator of social and cultural shifts—whether those shifts occur through diffusion or systematic shifts in the power to claim or name important cultural objects. What are the implications of mambo sauce’s inclusion on “upscale” menus in Washington? How does this shift the meaning and experience of it? The Washington Post’s use of “gentrified” alludes to this shift as something more than simple diffusion; instead, it implies unequal power dynamics. The systematic, oftentimes violent shifts in demographics, access, and power in Washington, D.C. have race and class implications. Mambo sauce, mostly found in Carryouts located in predominantly black neighborhoods, became a powerful symbol and metaphor for those changes. From the carryouts in the ‘hood to the upscale Hamilton’s menu. Where does “Washington” end and “D.C.” begin?


*Mumbo is an alternative spelling of Mambo


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