Michelle Obama, whose obsession with other people’s weight borders on the pathological, has said that “food deserts” are partly to blame for the high rates of obesity in the United States, particularly in low-income neighborhoods. According to this theory, the people who live in these neighborhoods have no access to nutritious foods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables, and so they are forced to consume fattening, non-nutritious, health-destroying junk food instead.
Many people who have actually investigated Mrs. Obama’s claims have pronounced them bogus; they say that fresh fruits and vegetables are available in low-income neighborhoods, but many of the locals just don’t buy them — apparently preferring to spend their grocery money on cases of canned soda pop, bags of potato chips, boxes of Twinkies, and other food-like substances that are devoid of any nutrients other than calories.
I’m not going to take sides in the argument over whether or not food deserts exist. What interests me is what happens when someone attempts to do something that would actually provide low-income people with more healthful options. What would happen if, say, a grocery chain that sells high-quality, nutritious food at affordable prices tried to establish a presence in exactly the type of neighborhood that has the First Lady so concerned?
Well, you don’t have to wonder, because I’ll tell you. Trader Joe’s, a California-based retailer, decided to build a new store in Portland, Oregon, in a historically black neighborhood. Jon Gabriel at ricochet.com explains what happened next:
The company selected two acres along Martin Luther King Blvd. that had been vacant for decades. It seemed like the perfect place to create jobs, improve customer options, and beautify the neighborhood. City officials, the business community, and residents all seemed thrilled with the plan. Then some community organizers caught wind of it.
The fact that most members of the Portland African-American Leadership Forum didn’t live in the neighborhood was beside the point. “This is a people’s movement for African-Americans and other communities, for self-determination,” member Avel Gordly said in a press conference. Even the NAACP piled on, railing against the project as a “case study in gentrification.” (The area is about 25 percent African-American.)
After a few months of racially tinged accusations and angry demands, Trader Joe’s decided it wasn’t worth the hassle. “We run neighborhood stores and our approach is simple,” a corporate statement said. “If a neighborhood does not want a Trader Joe’s, we understand, and we won’t open the store in question.”
Hours after Trader Joe’s pulled out, PAALF leaders arrived at a previously scheduled press conference trying to process what just happened. The group re-issued demands that the now-cancelled development include affordable housing, mandated jobs based on race, and a small-business slush fund. Instead, the only demand being met is two fallow acres and a lot of anger from the people who actually live nearby.
“All of my neighbors were excited to have Trader Joe’s come here and replace a lot that has always been empty,” said Nghi Tran. “It’s good quality for poor men.” Like many residents, Tran pins the blame on PAALF. “They don’t come to the neighborhood cleanups,” he said. “They don’t live here anymore.”
“There are no winners today,” said Adam Milne, owner of an area restaurant. “Only missed tax revenue, lost jobs, less foot traffic, an empty lot and a boulevard still struggling to support its local small businesses.” The store was to be built by a local African American-owned construction company.
PAALF objected to Trader Joe’s on the grounds that its presence would “increase the desirability of the neighborhood” for “non-oppressed populations,” adding that “PAALF is and will remain opposed to any development in N/NE Portland that does not primarily benefit the Black community.”
In other words, they didn’t want a business in the neighborhood that would provide good jobs to local residents and good food at low prices because of the risk that it might attract persons of pallor to the area. Can you imagine the reaction from the so-called civil rights establishment if someone had tried to locate a new business in a predominantly white area, and some white racists threw a hissy fit because they feared that the business in question might attract dark-skinned people to the neighborhood?
It’s fitting that the vacant lot Trader Joe’s had chosen as the location for its new store was on a street named for Martin Luther King Jr., a man who worked tirelessly and ultimately sacrificed everything to end segregation and bring about his dream of a color-blind society. The professional race baiters, as well as the community organizer in the White House and his busybody wife, could learn a lot from Dr. King. Unfortunately, they probably never will.