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A production of the Southern Foodways Alliance, GRAVY tells new and complicated stories about the changing American South.

Dec 7, 2022

“Buying and Selling Food in the Black South” is the fourth installment in reporter Kayla Stewart’s 2022 Gravy podcast season, where she explores Black foodways in the South and beyond. For this episode, she speaks to Black business owners who are trying to improve food access in Black communities. Stewart explores the history of Black-owned grocery stores and shops, and why these institutions matter in Black communities. 

For centuries, Black Americans have been finding their own ways to feed themselves and their communities. From farms, to grocery stores, to corner store establishments, Black folks in the south have created their own ways to gain access to fresh food, demonstrating that one size doesn’t fit all.

Christopher Williams is the chef and owner of Lucille’s in Houston, and founder of the nonprofit Lucille’s 1913, which aims to combat food insecurity in underserved communities. In the summer of 2022, he opened Bates Allen Farm in the primarily African American community of Kendleton, Texas. The farm’s mission is twofold: making fresh food more accessible, and resurrecting a farming tradition that had previously sustained the community. 

Chris is part of a growing number of Black American culinary leaders looking for ways to provide fruits and vegetables to Black people located in food deserts—low-income areas where a large number of residents lacks easy access to high-quality, fresh food. In Philadelphia, PA, Farmerjawn Community Greenhouses is known for its produce offerings, and at Black Market Kentucky grocers sell healthy food to combat food apartheid.

In April 2022, Christa Williams opened Uncle Willie’s Grocery Store in Columbia, South Carolina. She wanted to bring quality food access to her Black community in the historic Elmwood-Cottontown area, a community that’s been historically underserved. Christa’s vision for the store was rooted in community, like the neighborhood groceries that used to be common in Black communities. While Black Americans make up about 40 percent of Columbia's population, there aren’t many Black-owned businesses. Christa says that for that reason, her store has been a source of pride for the Black people in the city.

Here, Stewart interviews Chris Williams and Christa Williams about their respective projects, exploring different approaches to the question of food access. She also speaks with Dr. Psyche Williams-Forson, Professor and Chair of the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland College Park. Williams-Forson has written extensively about Black food and identity, most recently Eating While Black: Food Shaming and Race in America, which examines the history of food shaming in Black communities. She delves into the history of Black grocery stores, emphasizing the importance of respect for people’s personal choices. Leaning into lessons from the past and having hope for a better future that makes a range of food options more accessible to Black communities across the South is the most promising way forward.