n her new book, Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access in Washington, D.C., Dr. Ashanté Reese exemplifies the power of writing as a form of activism. Rather than focusing on and reproducing discussions of suffering and dispossession, Reese challenges dominant, disproportionately white food justice narratives by centering agency and humanity within discussions of structural inequities and anti-Black racism. Black Food Geographies explores the experiences of residents living in the historically Black Deanwood neighborhood of Ward 7 in Washington, D.C. Recognizing that lives are lived within what are too often perceived to be neighborhoods of nothing, Reese intentionally expands the book’s foci beyond the negative impacts of disinvestment and structural racism in Deanwood by giving voice to neighborhood residents and the strategies that they employ to live within such oppression. Through geographies of self-reliance, Reese demonstrates the agency of residents as they create “ways out of no way” to not only navigate their current foodscapes, but envision and strive for just food futures (9).

Black Food Geographies is a platform through which Reese reframes dominant food system conversations. Perhaps most importantly, she demonstrates that the food system is not race neutral, nor have food injustices occurred accidentally. Anti-Black racism pervades food access through deliberate acts. Reese refers to this structure on unequal access as “food apartheid,” a direct challenge to the misleading and passive term “food desert”. Anti-Black racism in the food system is not a recent phenomenon. As Miller (2000) writes, “place is a historically contingent process” (68). Therefore, while Black Food Geographies primarily delves into experiences of navigating food injustice in Deanwood today, Reese recognizes the importance of history to the community’s present. Noting that the stories explored in this book could be told of just about any predominantly Black space, Reese traces Deanwood’s history from enslavement through present day to demonstrate that the neighborhood has been subjected to persistent institutional disinvestment since its inception.

Drawing attention to the strategies that supermarkets used to take over Deanwood’s local food economy and subsequently relocate to wealthier, white suburbs Reese states, “as food retailers continued to consolidate and monopolize the market, stores located in low-income and Black neighborhoods were steadily eliminated” (38). By (re)characterizing food injustice in such a way, she forces the reader to grasp the intentionality behind the discriminatory practices of supermarkets within the industrialized food system. The purposeful injustices that characterize Black communities’ foodscapes, Reese argues, cannot be redressed without addressing systemic racism: “Food justice is fundamentally about racial justice,” she says (11).

However, the purpose of Black Food Geographies is to move beyond a focus on the structural inequities of anti-Black racism and to draw attention to neighborhood narratives. As Goodling (2019) argues, gathering accounts of traditionally marginalized groups provides an opportunity to re-write history and begin shaping a new, and more just, future. Reese achieves this feat by using her research and writing to capture community stories. While her focus is on food injustices and anti-Black racism in the food system, Reese gathers much of her information through semi-structured interviews. Hence, Deanwood’s residents are provided the freedom to describe their lived experiences as they wish. This approach often led Reese to places that she did not intend to go and it deepened her understanding of the people and place with whom she interacted. She writes that this approach led to a book “that is deeply engaged with food inequities produced by anti-Black racism but also concerned with how and where Black people create food geographies within and in spite of it” (3). Through residents’ memories and stories, Reese learned about the changes that residents would like to see in their community, the grief felt for the choices that they see are no longer available to them and the ways in which residents critique the new constraints within which they operate today. One resident discussed how Deanwood used to have numerous neighborhood amenities, including several grocery stores, a bank, and a pharmacy. Residents didn’t have to leave the neighborhood in order to get what they needed: “It was a community, okay,” said this resident. However, he lamented that today local businesses have “turned into these places that sell mostly beer, wine and junk, occupying those same buildings” and the strength of the previous sense of community has dissipated (72). Echoing Goodling’s (2019) call to highlight marginalized, and too often unheard histories, Reese undertakes the capturing of stories to shift influence away from the current dominant (white) narratives of food access and lift up those stories of Deanwood’s residents.

Reese is careful to document the agency that Deanwood residents exhibit as they navigate systemic food injustices and to name food injustice as a manifestation of anti-Black racism. Not lifting up the strategies that residents employ to “make ways out of no way” or failing to denounce racism in the food system, she argues, serves as an act of compliance that risks perpetuating systems of oppression (4,12). Giving a voice to this agency while condemning racism challenges many of the assumptions and structures that have contributed to food injustices. It also serves as a form of advocacy. Reese positions Black Food Geographies as an activist contribution by using “geographies of self-reliance” as a theoretical framework to draw attention to and understand agency and anti-Black racism in Deanwood’s foodscape. The geographies of self-reliance theoretical framework emphasizes that residents actively determine how best to meet their needs while acknowledging and critiquing the ways that they are forced to navigate the disparities they face. In doing so, it becomes clear that while the neighborhood’s history has destabilized residents’ ability to be self-reliant today, residents retain agency through their food procurement and consumption decisions. An analysis through the lens of geographies of self-reliance illuminates the flourishing of the locally owned businesses and the informal food economy of Deanwood’s past, as well as the dismantling of this local foodscape by the industrialized food system’s takeover and its eventual disinvestment from Deanwood. Black entrepreneurship in the food system was prevalent before supermarkets consolidated control over the local foodscape because it “… provided an opportunity for African American business owners to both serve their neighborhoods and resist racist structures that constrained physical, economic, and social mobility” (28).

Specifically, Reese highlights the ways in which Deanwood residents’ creativity generated strategies for living within and despite “nothingness.” Loh and Agyeman (2018) write that there is power in making visible that which seems nonexistent. Black Food Geographies embraces this mission by emphasizing the multitude of ways that residents provide for themselves and maintain community. Informal food economy strategies, such as hucksters selling food from carts through the first half of the twentieth century and today’s community gardens, have served not only to help fill the gaps left by the closing of small grocery stores and supermarkets or discriminatory local and federal policies, but also as a tool to connect and unite residents. Today, the community garden provides both a common place where residents can develop agricultural and entrepreneurial skills, as well as a gathering space that promotes communal practices. While dominant narratives tend to focus on the ways in which anti-Black racism has continually led to the destabilization of the neighborhood’s foodscape, Reese illuminates what may otherwise go unseen: the ways in which Deanwood’s residents endure by finding pathways for self-reliance.

By delving into the topics noted above, Reese has incorporated care and intentionality into her writing style. Black Food Geographies is more than a scholarly contribution; it is “a love letter to and an affirmation of what is possible when we listen to Black people’s food stories beyond an all-encompassing narrative of lack” (12). Reese writes in such a way as to remind the reader of the humanity of those featured in the book (as well as those in similarly situated communities). Deanwood’s residents are presented not as research participants, but as people who continue daily to navigate the structural constraints of anti-Black racism. Reese further uses her writing to advocate for the right of Deanwood’s residents, and of Black communities in general, to have the freedom of choice and the right to eat and live as desired. She vehemently explains that this book does not seek to prescribe how Black people should change dietary or lifestyle behaviors; doing so perpetuates the reduction of Black people to bodies that are to be regulated and changed. Nor does Reese seek to answer the question, “so what are the solutions?” (137). Instead, she suggests that we might start to find answers in self-reliance, where “self” is “articulated as being enmeshed in community” (139). This “love letter” is an offering written in deep gratitude to those in Deanwood with whom Reese spent countless hours; to those living within similar systemic oppressions; and to the reader as a reminder to listen and advocate for justice and freedom of choice. Through instances of activism such as the ones presented in this review, Black Food Geographies urges us to recall that food injustice and anti-Black racism are not just issues being studied, they are lived experiences continuously being navigated.


Goodling, E. (2019). Urban Political Ecology from Below: Producing a “Peoples’ History” of the Portland Harbor. Antipode, 0(0). doi:doi:10.1111/anti.12493
Loh, P., & Agyeman, J. (2018). Urban food sharing and the emerging Boston food solidarity economy. Geoforum, 99, 213-222.
Miller, B. A. (2000). Geography and social movements: Comparing antinuclear activism in the Boston area (Vol. 12): U of Minnesota Press.
Reese, A. M. (2019). Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access in Washington: UNC Press Books.