Fighting Food Apartheid with Louisville's Black Market Grocery Store | Civil Eats

Fighting Food Apartheid with Louisville’s Black Market Grocery Store

Shauntrice Martin's Black Market would become an experiment to test the limits and possibilities of community-led initiatives to address food access and respond to food apartheid.

On May 31, 2020, Louisville, Kentucky was under a curfew in response to the ongoing protests following the murder of George Floyd and the killing of Breonna Taylor. As was customary for a Sunday afternoon, residents gathered outside YaYa’s BBQ Shack in the city’s West End to mingle, listen to music, and eat barbeque. Just after midnight, law enforcement officers showed up and cracked down on the crowd, shooting and killing Yaya’s owner, David McAtee, in the process.

One person in the crowd holding vigil for McAtee was food activist and political lobbyist Shauntrice Martin. She could see across the street into the Kroger parking lot as people began to file off city buses and out of their cars to do their grocery shopping.

“We had elders who had trouble walking across the parking lot from the bus stop, and they were met with closed doors,” she recalls. “When we saw that happening, we approached as many people as possible to say, ‘Hey, it’s closed, but we can help you either get a lift home or get you some food.’” Martin collected the names of people who needed help and later that night went home and put out a call both for donations and support.

“I thought I would be delivering food with my son in my little hatchback [to] maybe 20 or 30 people,” she said. But by the next day, they had raised $10,000 and had hundreds of requests for food.

Kroger’s closure on that June day was just one piece in a much larger story about how hard it can be to access healthful, nutritious food in the West End of Louisville, a primarily Black community and home to some of the poorest ZIP codes in the country. With almost a decade of food activist work behind her, Martin was well-equipped to create a multi-pronged approach to combatting food apartheid in the best way she knew how: at a local level.

Overnight, she started a movement that grew and shifted as she learned the needs of her community. Within six months, she would create a grocery delivery program that provided food to more than 50,000 residents and organize a movement to hold the city of Louisville accountable for the lack of fresh and nutritious food available in the city’s low-income neighborhoods.

Half a year later, Martin expanded the effort to include a full-service grocery store, Black Market KY, with the explicit goal of bringing fresh produce and locally sourced food from Black food producers to the West End. Black Market would become an experiment to test the limits and possibilities of community-led initiatives to address food access and respond to food apartheid.

A Food Movement in Louisville

Coined by farmer and food activist Karen Washington, the term “food apartheid” considers the entire food system—including race, geography, and economics—in looking at a lack of high quality, affordable, and fresh food. In the West End, the lack of public transportation and economic capital are also intertwined with the problem.

The median household income for a Black family in the West End is about $40,000 less than the wealthier and whiter east side of the city, and life expectancy on the West End is as much as 13 years lower. Many, including Martin, view the lack of adequate fresh produce and full-service grocery stores in the area as a direct product of these disparities. With around 20 percent of Louisville considered food insecure, the West End has on average one full-service grocery store per 13,300 people; by contrast, on the east side, there is one store per 8,000 people.

Martin grew up in the area and knows first-hand what her community is up against. She also studied and combatted food apartheid in places ranging from Oakland, California, to Trinidad and Tobago before bringing her experience home to Louisville in 2019. Her experience taught her that addressing food apartheid doesn’t simply mean providing groceries to people in need; it means addressing the systemic and multilayered causes, and it requires building a whole new system.

When Martin attended the vigil for McAtee, she was volunteering with the Louisville organization Change Today Change Tomorrow (CTCT), a Black-women led nonprofit in the West End that works to eradicate barriers to public health, food access, and education for Louisville’s Black residents.

After the Kroger closure, Martin reached out to the director of CTCT, Taylor Ryan, and together they started Feed the West, which set out to address food access for the many neighborhood residents who lack proper transportation.

Over the next several months, Feed the West brought food directly to more than 50,000 residents, relying on a network of volunteers to collect donations from both individuals and grocery stores. Today, it is CTCT’s most successful program, delivering food and toiletries to more than 1,000 people twice a week.

“We are going to keep doing Feed the West until we work ourselves out of a job,” says Ali Gautier, CTCT’s public relations and events coordinator. “That is the idea, right? We don’t want to have to keep doing this. We want the issue to be solved.”

But while Feed the West provides immediate response to food insecurity, Martin knew that the program was only addressing one piece of a larger systemic issue of food access, which was becoming clearer the more she connected to people and organizations in her community.

Taking on Kroger, and Launching an Alternative

As Feed the West grew, Martin heard repeatedly from residents about the poor quality of the produce in the West End Kroger. In response, she organized an effort to document the problem.

“We had volunteers go and take pictures at different corporate [Kroger] locations at the same time of day, on the same day of the week,” Martin described. “Every single time we did that, the Kroger locations in the West End had empty sections, [or would] have spoiled, rotten, or wilted food, whole sections missing, or a lack of organic options.”

Martin published the photographs and data online to try and hold Kroger accountable. Then she went on a personal hunger strike for two weeks and put out a call to action on social media detailing demands for Kroger executives, including a request for $5 million in unrestricted funds for Feed the West, support of local Black farmers, and raising wages for all employees in the West End. This summer, the store finally agreed to provide more organic produce in the West End.

Martin and her supporters quickly recognized they were going to make very little headway with the supermarket chain. “We realized that there needs to be a push for our own stuff, like our own grocery store, so that we can determine the quality,” she added.

If Kroger wouldn’t source from Black farmers, Black Market would aim to source only from them. If Kroger didn’t respond to the community’s demands, Black Market would put the residents front and center.

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Martin purchased a former pizza parlor as a home for the market in the fall of 2020, using $100,000 of her savings and donations from organizations including Black Lives Matter Louisville. It was essential for her that no matter who ran the store, they would never have a mortgage, as this would set them back in an area where economic insecurity was already high.

Supporters helped renovate the space, and it opened to the public in January 2021. The shelves were stocked with fresh produce, eggs, and honey provided from almost exclusively Black farmers in the area.

Martin used the money she had raised through grants and donations to offset the prices of items that would typically be unaffordable in an area with a median income of $19,000, and she provided grocery delivery to those who couldn’t reach their location. The little market was hitting at every aspect of food apartheid that Martin saw by addressing issues of sourcing, transportation, and cost.

Building Relationships

Following the murder of Breonna Taylor in March 2020, there was an influx of support for anti-racism initiatives and organizations working in Louisville’s Black neighborhoods. Financial donations poured in from around the country, and people who were either unemployed due to the pandemic or had more time to give while working from home showed up to volunteer.

“I just keep thinking about last summer when it all started, when the wheels started turning for Feed the West and for Black Market,” says Gautier of CTCT. “All that bolstered a lot of incredibly smart Black women who have been here all along and [gave them] the opportunity and the support they deserved.”

In Martin’s case, partnerships proved essential. “Places where there’s food apartheid also have housing insecurity and negative health indicators,” Martin explains. She began by “looking at the different intersections, and saying, ‘Who else is working on these things?’ I don’t want to create something; I just want to help other people with what they’re working on.”

“The relationships, for me, have been a lot about doing the work and then people kind of gravitating towards it,” she says. This was the case with Humana: The healthcare giant approached her after hearing about Feed the West and donated $60,000.

Building relationships with other activists and local food businesses has also been central to her work. Whitney Powers, a local food producer, was one such partner. During the pandemic, Powers started a garden, and when it produced more food than her family could eat, she established a company called Garden Girl Foods, which now sells locally grown and preserved foods in her own store and as well as in local grocery stores including Black Market.

Around the time that Martin purchased the building for Black Market, Powers got on board and helped lead the renovation. She also connected the market with local farmers and food producers—a network she had already tapped for her own business.

“We have a nationwide food problem, and sourcing is hard,” says Powers. “But when you’re already disadvantaged because of [lack of] capital and because of your physical location, that’s a lot of strikes. That’s a lot to work against.”

Martin has worked directly with the organization Black Soil KY, a husband-and-wife team that supports Black farmers in Kentucky through distribution, as well as advocacy and education. Martin says most of the 15 or so farms that regularly supply produce to Black Market came through Black Soil.

In Martin’s eyes, her professional background traveling around the world gave her the skills and insight she needed to create Black Market from the ground up. But it also afforded her a significant amount of privilege that has disconnected her from the lived experiences of the people she’s supporting.

Soon after the doors of Black Market opened, she knew she would need to pass the business on to someone more embedded in the community. And so, in August 2020, just nine months after its doors opened, she donated Black Market to two employees of the store who live in the neighborhood.

Passing the Baton

Jasmine Harris and Mitzy (Missy) Wilson began working with Martin during the early days of Feed the West, and both were happy to take paid positions when the store opened. Neither had owned their own business before, but Martin had seen their dedication to the store and to feeding their community and trusted that this qualified them to take over.

Harris, 28, had been balancing multiple jobs, working for Black Market as well as a local childcare center. Wilson, 49, had previously been cooking for her community, handing out free meals. When Martin offered to hand the over the store to the pair, Harris says she was completely overwhelmed. Owning her own business, let alone one that was addressing so many issues she herself dealt with, felt unbelievable to her.

“I was just crying,” she recalls. “I was thanking God, and it was just beautiful.”

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Martin’s decision to purchase the space for the market rather than take out a loan proved to be a wise way to prevent burdening the new owners. “There are not that many wealth-generating options in the West End, especially for folks who are low-income,” says Martin. “This is an opportunity to donate it, and give someone a chance to build wealth for their family.”

Prioritizing healthy, fresh food was written into the agreement Harris and Wilson signed with Martin, but otherwise, it is now up to them how the market grows and adapts. In August, Martin began teaching the two women courses in everything from accounting to grant writing, as well as walking them through how to connect to suppliers and farmers. She has opened the classes to others in the community as well, hoping to enable more Black-owned businesses, keep money inside the community, and lessen the reliance on large corporations like Kroger.

Martin’s choice to pass the store on to her employees was widely viewed as a risk. “It’s definitely a crazy idea,” says Powers. “It’s gonna work, but everything needs a leader.”

Some of the initiatives Martin ran were slowed or stopped during the transition, such as grocery delivery, but Wilson and Harris have already begun to bring their touch to the market.

Putting community front and center has been their main effort. Their first idea was a suggestion box. It was immediately filled with requests for more vegan products. Wilson prepares a hot meal for sale every day called the Missy Special. The new owners are also working toward the goal of carrying only products made by Black-owned businesses.

Looking to the Future

Certain challenges remain for the new owners, and it’s not clear whether Martin’s support network would continue to show up now that she has stepped down. Balancing cost and quality won’t be easy either. “Bringing [fresh, affordable food] to the hood is half the struggle,” says Powers.

As the enterprise gains its footing, Martin remains on the scene. In addition to teaching Harris and Wilson everything she knows about running a business, she is paying their taxes and raising more funds until the beginning of 2022. She’s also finding new ways to help the most vulnerable, as was the case after a recent power outage left several senior homes without generators; she quickly kicked into gear to organize the delivery of over 1,000 meals.

She’s aware that addressing food apartheid requires working from every angle, a task that can be daunting even to the most seasoned activist.

“It’s incredibly courageous to start a business. And [then] to offer residents of that community ownership in it,” says Reverend Stachelle Bussey, who runs a free food delivery program in the West End in a converted school bus.

“I think what [Martin’s] doing is incredible, because that’s what we need,” Bussey said. “We don’t just need businesses. We need ones that are Black-owned, Black-led, and also do a service that the community needs.”

Photos by Dietrich Graves.

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  1. Sharon
    I volunteered with feed the west and boy did I get a crash course in injustice! The difference between the Kroger near me (I live in st. Matthews) and the one in the west end (Broadway) was SHOCKING. Let’s hope those of us with the means will continue to support the work being done.

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