'Black Girls in Trader Joe's' Is Shedding Light on Food's Inequality Problem

Amid the chaos of a global pandemic and civil unrest, the viral Instagram page provides a space for Black women to find solace in food.
KC
Queens, United States
DJ
illustrated by Dessie Jackson
July 16, 2020, 7:56pm
traderjoestwo
Photos Courtesy of Mercedes Davis

In the last four months, grocery shopping transformed from a routine task to being just about the only thing you could do during COVID-19's nationwide business closures. Some of us bought in excess, and some dressed up to hit the aisles. Others like Mercedes Davis and Lauren Hight, the creators of the new Instagram page Black Girls in Trader Joe's, documented their purchases from the grocer zeroing in on a demographic they rarely saw represented: Black women. (Since reporting this piece, Hight has parted ways with the page for undisclosed reasons, but she is still a part of the Black Girls in Trader Joe's origin story.)

In just two months, Black Girls in Trader Joe's has cultivated a community of over 80,000 followers. But it's more than a viral Instagram page dedicated to sharing recipes and otherwise secret buys; it's a space where Black people, particularly Black women, are finding solace amid the chaos of a global pandemic and civil unrest.

Without realizing it, Davis' and Hight's careers and Ohio upbringings colored their respective relationships with food, and, ultimately, with the specialty grocery chain. Black Girls in Trader Joe's is the brainchild of two friends who met on social media, but more importantly, it's the culmination of Davis and Hight's paths that inadvertently led them to each other: Hight works in Human Resources, and Davis previously worked in the corporate sector's Diversity and Inclusion division. Growing up, there weren't any Trader Joe's in Hight's Youngstown neighborhood, and she saw shopping at Trader Joe's as a treat for special occasions, like visiting her aunt in Michigan. Davis, on the other hand, grew up in a family of Caribbean immigrants who valued local markets and food cooperatives, and her brother's food allergies forced her family to be more intentional about how they shopped.

"Mercedes and I follow other Trader Joe's fan pages and I noticed I wasn't seeing any brown hands," Hight said, recalling what inspired the pair to start their own platform. "I'd tag the page but realized I wasn't getting any shine, even though I felt like I really did something." Despite crafting well-curated recipes and masterful photo spreads, neither Hight nor Davis found much luck cutting through the noise of popular Trader Joe's affinity groups.

"You know your food looked good and the photo was of quality," Davis said. "It checked all the boxes that you'd want in a post." Still, they asked themselves why Black voices, whether consciously or not, were being excluded from the narrative.

Black Girls in Trader Joe's is as enchanted, yet as disillusioning, as The Chronicles of Narnia; Many of us are the only ones in the stores we frequent, but the Instagram page reveals how large the community of Black shoppers at Trader Joe's actually is. By centering their page around Black consumers, the two are debunking the myth that quality food is reserved for predominantly white communities.

Davis and Hight, affectionately known to their followers as Dee and Lo, credit the success of the page to word of mouth from Black women. Food-centered Instagram accounts typically find people channeling their inner "food influencer," but the demand for the community the duo has cultivated feels especially prescient now. Since March, no arrests have been made against the Louisville police officers who murdered Breonna Taylor, prompting public outcries to protect Black womanhood. During quarantine, when many of us are turning to food as comfort, a space by and for Black women feels like the remedy we need.

As newly visible Black women championing Trader Joe's at a time of civil unrest, Davis and Hight have opened themselves up to criticism. With the uprising's emphasis on supporting Black-owned businesses, some people have questioned their affinity to the grocer.

The politics of food, and who has access to it, are predicated by more than what is on your plate. The types of grocery chains found in any given neighborhood are a direct reflection of that area's demographics. Lower-income communities are more susceptible to food deserts, which make options inaccessible, expensive, or both. When stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's pop up in soon-to-be or currently gentrified neighborhoods, it signifies that local property values are increasing and investors are catering to wealthier consumers.

"Food is political," Davis said. "It reflects where you live and your socioeconomic status. When I think of grocery stores, I think of access. When you look at education, do we have access to the same quality of education? Depending on your tax bracket, you're going to have a better school system. The same thing goes with food. Not having access to certain grocery stores is what deters people."

"The Whole Foods Effect" increases a neighborhood's market value, and the same is true of Trader Joe's despite its lower price tags. According to a 2017 Zillow study, the market value of homes located near a Whole Foods and/or a Trader Joe's grew 148 percent from 1997 to 2014. "Whole Foods and Trader Joe's are not simply piggybacking off already hot neighborhoods," wrote Svenja Gudell. "Rather it appears both chains are either incredibly smart about finding neighborhoods on the verge of gentrifying, or the opening of either location positively impacts home values." In 2017, Whole Foods opened a new location at 125th and Lenox Avenue, the heart of Harlem's historically Black but rapidly gentrifying community, signifying an incoming erasure of its communities that would inevitably start with this new hub of high-quality but expensive food. As Angela Helm wrote for The Root following its opening, "We also deserve quick access to five types of rice milk of our lactose intolerance, wild-caught fish and organic cereal for our kids… But—and this is a big but—at what cost?"

In 2014, residents had similar concerns when Trader Joe's wanted to open a location in Rip City, one of Portland's predominantly Black neighborhoods. The Portland African American Leadership Forum ruled against building a Trader Joe's in their neighborhood out of fear that it would displace even more Black residents, who only make up 6.3 percent of the city's population. Their concerns about their already dwindling presence in what is considered America's "whitest city" were valid; in response, Trader Joe's withdrew from their planning. "If a neighborhood does not want a Trader Joe's, we understand, and we won't open the store in question," the store said in a statement.

Following the call to dismantle white supremacy and address racial injustice, Trader Joe's wrote a brief open letter to its shoppers in early June. "At Trader Joe's we uphold the human rights and civil rights of all of our Crew Members and customers and communities. We have no tolerance for racism, discrimination, harassment, or intimadation[…] We remain committed to listening, caring, acting, and continuously improving."

What has Trader Joe's said about the overwhelming response to Davis and Hight's page? Nothing. "We have not heard from Trader Joe's," Davis said. "I will say that they see [Black customers]. Show me another grocery store that's privately owned that has even issued a letter. Without a community like Black Girls in Trader Joe's, I don't think we would see a statement," Davis continued. "They're hiring a Diversity and Inclusion manager, they're committing to education funds. […] If we boycott or stop shopping there, there's not going to be a change."

Trader Joe's hasn't responded for comment on the page at the time of this writing. But Black Girls in Trader Joe's essentially operates as free market research, and should open up questions to the brand about their true investment in the Black community and willingness to acknowledge and cater to that fanbase.

"We're focusing more on the 'Black Girls' part rather than 'Trader Joe's,'" Hight said. " [We] as Black women [are] what keeps the page flowing."

Kristin Corry is a staff writer for VICE.