E173: Special Episode | Power & Benefit on the Plate: A History of Food in Durham, NC

Wednesday, June 29, 2022
Related to: Community & Economic Development | Diet & Nutrition | Equity, Race & Food Justice | Food Insecurity | History & Food | North Carolina |

So why is the food history of a community so important? And can Durham’s food history be applied to other places? Who owns land, who can grow food and make a living doing so, and who has access to food, any food, least of all healthy food? The answers are deeply influenced by historical policies and practices. These in retrospect, clearly exacerbated, supported, and even created food related calamities, the dual burden communities face of both food insecurity and diet related chronic diseases, such as diabetes and obesity. Understanding these practices is important in creating change. And in understanding that conditions imposed on neighborhoods rather than personal failings of residents explain what we see today.


Adapted from the work of Melissa Norton

Narrated by Kelly Brownell

This is a story about Durham, North Carolina. These days, Durham is famous as one of the South’s foodiest towns and known for its award-winning chefs, thriving restaurant scene, and reverence for even the most humble foods served with down-home charm. But Durham, just like the rest of North Carolina, like other states and other countries, has discouraging any high rates of food insecurity. This is juxtaposed to high rates as well of obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related chronic diseases. It is helpful of course, to know how things are now, but a more complex and highly important question is how we got here. Enter history. What can be learned from a detailed historical analysis, in this case of Durham, and how relevant is this information to other places?

The Duke World Food Policy Center worked with historian, Melissa Norton to write a report titled, “Power and Benefit On The Plate The History of Food in Durham, North Carolina”. This recording is an abridged version of that report and features documented historical quotes from the relevant periods in history as read by contemporary voices.


Let’s go back to the beginning. Durham, North Carolina is the ancestral home of the Occaneechi, the Eno, the Adshusheer and the Shocco indigenous peoples. Before European colonizers came, land was not something that people owned. Instead land and its natural resources were shared so that everyone could benefit.

“To our people land was everything, identity, our connection to our ancestors, our pharmacy, the source of all that sustained us. Our lands, were where our responsibility to the world was enacted, sacred ground. It belonged to itself. It was a gift, not a commodity. It could never be bought or sold.”  Robin Kimmerer, Potawatomi Nation.

Durham’s tribes and clans supported themselves through hunting, foraging and communal farming. They managed the habitat for fish, fowl and other wild animal populations. They used controlled fires to clear land, had complex farming irrigation systems and created a network of roads for trade and exchange. When European settler colonists came into North Carolina life for indigenous people changed dramatically. At first, they taught colonists how to forage and clear land, what to plant and how to care for crops. The colonists came to North Carolina believed that they had the spiritual, political and legal blessing of Pope Alexander the sixth through the doctrine of discovery. This decree labeled indigenous peoples as subhuman because they were not Christian and treated their land as available for the taking.

“The Indians are really better to us than we are to them. They always give us rituals at their quarters and take care we are armed against hunger and thirst. We do not do so by them, generally speaking, but let them walk by our doors hungry and do not often relieve them. We look upon them with scorn and disdain and think them little better than beasts in humane shape. Though if we’re examined, we shall find that for all our religion and education, we possess more moralities and evil than these savages do not.” John Lawson, English settler colonist in North Carolina, 1709.

Settlers forced native people off ancestral homelands and took possession of the stolen land and its resources. As a result, many indigenous people left to join other tribes, some hid in order to remain in the area. And some were forced into assimilation programs or enslaved and shipped to the Caribbean.

Going back to the early colonial settlers, most were small scale farmers who grew corn, fruits and vegetables and commodities such as tobacco, wheat, and cotton for their own use or to barter. As farms grew from the 1500s through the 1800s, colonists brought West African people by force to use as free farm labor. West Africans brought seeds from their homelands and foods such as hibiscus, yams and sweet potatoes, watermelon and bananas and millet, okra and sorghum became a permanent part of the Southern food culture. Food was an essential connection to home, to community and resiliency. Indigenous and enslaved African people interacted and exchanged practical and cultural traditions.

“My name is Alex Woods. I was born in 1858. In slavery time I belonged to Jim Woods. My Missus name was Patty Woods. They treated us tolerable fair. Our food was well cooked. We were fed from the kitchen of the great house during the week. We cooked and ate at our home Saturday nights and Sundays. They allowed my father to hunt with a gun. He was a good hunter and brought a lot of game to the plantation. They cooked it at the great house and divided it up. My father killed deer and turkey. All had plenty of rabbits, possum, coons and squirrels.” Alex Woods

In 1854, the development of the North Carolina railroad transformed agricultural markets. The farming economy shifted from fruits, vegetables, and grains toward large scale cash crops, such as tobacco. The railroad stop in Durham became the center of the city. By the time the civil war began in 1861, nearly one out of three people in Durham county were enslaved. A quarter of the area’s white farmers legally owned enslaved people. Cameron Plantation was the largest plantation in the state with 30,000 acres and 900 enslaved people.

To be self sufficient, create security and build wealth. People needed to own land. The federal government passed the homestead act of 1862 to create new land ownership opportunities. As a result in the west 246 million acres of native people’s land were deeded to 1.5 million white families.

That same year, the federal government also passed the moral act. This established North Carolina State University in Raleigh as a land grant university to teach white students practical agricultural science, military science and engineering. 29 years later in 1891, North Carolina Agriculture and Technology University in Greensboro was established to serve black students, but the institutions were never funded equally.

In 1865, the civil war ended at Bennett Place in Durham with the largest surrender of Confederate troops. Reconstruction occurred in the subsequent years from 1865 to 1877. During this time, Durham struggled with its own political, social and economic challenges. One of which were the circumstances faced by formerly enslaved people who were freed with no land, no jobs, no money and no citizenship rights. Historians estimate that more than a million freed black people in the country became sick for malnutrition, disease and near starvation. And tens of thousands of people died.

Listen to the words of Martha Allen, a young black woman at the time: “I was never hungry till we was free and the Yankees fed us. We didn’t have nothing to eat, except heart attack and Midland meat. I never seen such meat. It was thin and tough with a thick skin. You could boil it all day and all night and it couldn’t cook. I wouldn’t eat it. I thought it was mule meat. Mules that done been shot on the battlefield then dried. I still believe it was mule meat. Them was bad days. I was hungry most of the time and had to keep fighting off them Yankee mans.” Martha Allen

In the years after the war, a few people had cash, but landowners still needed farm labor, poor farmers and families of all races struggled. Landowners began hiring farm labor through share cropping and tenant farm contracts.

“The Negros have as their compensation, a share of the crops that shall be raised one third part of the wheat, corn, cotton, tobacco, syrup, peas, sweet potatoes and pork. But the seed wheat is to be first passed back to the said Cameron, the hogs to be killed or pork shall be fattened out of the corn crop before division. The said Cameron is to have the other two thirds of said crops.” Cameron share cropping contract 1866.

Sharecroppers work plots of farmland, and then received a fraction of the crop yield for themselves as payment. For newly freed black people. Many of whom worked the same land, lived in the same housing and worked under the close supervision of the same overseers sharecropping felt like slavery under another name.

In 1868 and 1877 North Carolina passed the landlord tenant acts, which legalized the power imbalance between landowners and sharecropping farmers. For poor farmers there was simply no way to get ahead. And so-called black codes, laws enacted throughout the south in the 1860s and beyond denied black people the right to vote, to serve on juries or to testify in court against white people. With tenant farming, workers paid rent to landowners and kept all the proceeds from the crops.

“We lived all over the area because we were tenant farmers, very poor living on the land of the owner who was of course, white. We used his mules and he paid for the seed and the tobacco and the stuff that we planted. Of course, as I look back now, I know how they cheated us because we never had anything.” Theresa Cameron Lyons, 1868, on growing up in a black tenant farming family in Durham County.

North Carolina politics during this time was dominated by white supremacist ideology and by efforts to keep blacks from voting and from holding political office. In 1896, the US Supreme Court ruled that separate but equal treatment of blacks was legally permissible. This created the legal basis of racial apartheid known as Jim Crow. From 1896 to 1964 Jim Crow laws imposed racial segregation on nearly all aspects of life, including schools, transportation, and public facilities. These laws institutionalized economic, educational and social disadvantages for black and indigenous people, such court sanction exclusion combined with violence and intimidation from white people created severely hostile living conditions for North Carolina’s black people. As a result, registered black voters in North Carolina plummeted from 126,000 in 1896 to only 6,100 in 1902.

As the year 1900 dawned, more than half of the US population were farmers or lived in rural communities. Durham County was still largely farmland, but there was incredible urban growth in the early decades of the 1900s. This too had an impact on Durham’s food and the community.

Demand for tobacco and textile factory workers was growing in Durham. Although only white workers could work in the textile factories. Both black and white migrants found work in Durham’s Liggett Myers and American tobacco factories. Black workers had the lowest pay, most backbreaking jobs in the factories and were paid less than the white workers.

Outside the factories black women had more job opportunities than black men, but as cooks and domestic servants. And they also held some administrative positions. As people traded farm life for the city, they had to adjust to a new way of life. This meant living off wages in the new cash economy and the crowded close quarters of urban living.

Textile mill owners in the East Durham Edgemont and West Durham areas built subsidized mill villages to provide housing for white workers close to the factories. Each mill village had its own churches, schools, recreation centers, and stores.

“Yeah, it was a complete store. They’d have very few wise work in the mills. They would have a man that went out in the morning, they’d call it taking orders. He’d go to all the houses and the woman of the house and tell him what she wanted. He’d bring it back in time to be cooked and served up for what they called dinner, which is of course lunch. And he’d go do the same thing in the afternoon. Have it back in time for a good supper.”  Zeb Stone, 1915, a white business owner from West Durham, North Carolina.

Many textile workers had grown up on farms and knew how to garden and raise chickens, pigs, or even cows in their yards. Families preserved extra garden produce and meals for the winter. Home canning became popular and increased during World War I and later in World War II, as food shortages meant rations for canned food. The federal government urged people to rely on produce grown in their own gardens called victory gardens and to share resources with neighbors.

Six predominantly black neighborhoods developed in Durham, along with black churches, schools and businesses, people form close relationships with each other. And even though the yards were often small, many black people also maintained gardens, kept chickens until the local government banned livestock in the city limits in the 1940s. Buying from black businesses meant investing in the whole black community. Community leaders preached how each dollar spent would flow in a wheel of progress throughout black Durham. Neighborhood grocers were owned by and for people who lived in black neighborhoods, here’s what longtime Durham state representative Henry Mickey Michelle has to say about growing up in the Hayti area of Durham.

“We didn’t have to go across the tracks to get anything done. We had our own savings and loans bank, our own insurance company, our own furniture store, our own tailors, barber shops, grocery stores, the whole nine yards.” Durham state representative Henry Mickey Michelle

Black and white farmers came to Durham’s urban areas to sell fresh produce on street corners and created popup farm stands throughout the city. Many came to Hayti, Durham’s largest black neighborhood and to the center of black commerce that was dubbed Black Wall Street. Durham established the first official farmer’s market then called a curb market in 1911 to connect county farmers with urban consumers.

The federal government helped farmers stay informed of developments in agriculture, home economics, public policy, and the economy. The Smith Lever Act of 1914 launched cooperative extension services out of the land grant universities. In 1914 extension services for Durham County’s white people began and services for black communities started in 1917, hoping to draw young people into farming.

Segregated schools in Durham offered agriculture training. Programs for the future farmers of America served white students and new farmers of America programs served black students.

By 1920 farmers comprised 50% of the population in Durham County outside the city core. Nearly half of these were tenant farmers. Arthur Brody, a black man who made his home in Durham had this to say about his family’s experience.

“My granddaddy had 50 acres of land. They said he was working for this white family and the man took a liking to him. And back then land was cheap. And that man told him, Robert, what you ought to do is buy an acre of land every month. He gave him $12 a month. So he bought an acre of land a month, a dollar a month for a year. And he bought that farm with 52 acres of land in it. And he built his house out of logs. I remember that log house just as good I can.” Arthur Brody

Black families were beginning to acquire farmland. Although black owned farms were generally smaller and on less productive land than white owned farms. At its peak in 1920, 26% of farms nationally were owned by black farmers.

The shift to industrialized agriculture concentrated on just a few crops, created new pressures for farmers, especially small scale farmers who were already struggling with the depressed economy, depleted soil, outdated farming tools and the constant demand for cash crops, black and white farmers alike struggled with a lack of fair credit and chronic indebtedness. Here is what the Negro Credit Unions of North Carolina had to say about the farm credit system in 1920.

“Perhaps the greatest drawback to the average poor farmer, struggling for a foothold on the soil and trying to make a home for himself and family in the community is the lack of capital. If he buys fertilizer on time, borrows money or contracts to be carried over the cropping season, it is usually at such a ruinous rate of interest that few ever get out from under its painful influence. The man who owns a small farm as well as he who rents one has long been victimized by the credit system.” Negro Credit Unions of North Carolina brochure

In Durham, life still followed the seasonal cycles of farming. There were special times for communal rituals, such as berry picking, corn shucking and peach canning. Mary Mebane described growing up in a black farming community in Northern Durham County in this way.

“Berry picking was a ritual, a part of the rhythm of summer life. I went to bed excited. We didn’t know whose berries they were. Nobody had heard about the idea of private property. Besides the berries wild, free for everybody. The grown people picked up high and the children picked low. We children ate them on the spot, putting purple stained fingers into our mouths, creating purple stained tongues while the grown people wiped sweat and dodged bumblebees.” Mary Mebane

Many black Durhamites joined in the great migration of black people to cities in the North and Western parts of the country. More than 6 million black people left the South between 1917 and 1970. Those who stayed found themselves caught between traditional farming culture and an increasingly modernized urban world and black farmers had the further burden of discrimination in federal farm lending programs, which hampered their ability to sustain, adapt and expand their farming.

In the 1930s, the country was grappling with a great depression and the dust bowl. The textile industry was hit hard by the reception and white textile factory workers struggled. Families survived on cheap fat back, flower beans and their own homegrown produce. Through bouts of unemployment or underemployment. Hunger was never far off. Durham’s black working class occupied the bottom rung of the economic ladder even before the great depression. Poverty and food insecurity increased to such an extent that black Durhamites were six times more likely to develop pellagra than whites in 1930. Pellagra is a disease caused by niacin deficiency. It was the leading cause of death in the city after tuberculosis. Nurses counseled Durham’s black residents to eat green vegetables and fresh milk, but they were told that economics not lack of knowledge led to poor eating habits.

As one black patient remarked: “We would like to do everything you say, but we just haven’t got the money.”

During the great depression, the food situation became so desperate that the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and the Works Progress Administration and charities such as the Red Cross began distributing food relief. The supplies staved off hunger to some extent, but black and white residents were both complaining the food wasn’t what they would normally eat. Here an unemployed white textile worker in East Durham described his family’s struggle with the emergency relief rations during the great depression.

“I go around to the place that the WPA distributes commodities and the last time they gave me four packs of powdered skim milk, five pounds of country butter, three pounds of navy beans, 24 pounds of flour. That was grand flour to mix awful bread. I’ve tried every way I could think of to cook it. And it ain’t been able to do anything with it yet. That stuff just ain’t fitting for a dog to eat, but I have to use everything I get. One of the boys gets up early every morning and goes out and picks berries for breakfast. They with butter do make the flour eat a lot better. He wants to pick some for preserves, but we can highly get sugar for our needs right now. But there is something about us that keeps us hoping that in some way, the future will take care of itself.” Unemployed white textile worker in Durham during the Depression

Over time federal, state and local Durham aid efforts shifted toward training and getting people new jobs, but black men and women did not get the same opportunities as Durham’s white residents. In 1933, the federal government passed the agriculture adjustment act later known as the farm bill. This legislation raised market prices and paid farmers to rest soils depleted from intensive farming. But this created new problems for small farmers already struggling to survive. Davis Harris reflects on the changes these policies caused in the black farming community of Northern Durham County.

“The federal government started paying farmers to put their soil in what they called the soil bank. At the time the US was producing more grain than they needed. So they asked farmers in order to preserve the land and soil, if they could just let the soil rest. And if you did that for 10 years, the people like me growing up who got public jobs, it was difficult to go back to the farm because you get accustomed to getting paid every month. And to go back to once a year was difficult, almost impossible. And then the farmer’s equipment gets obsolete and the facilities get obsolete and there is no help. So I see that as a turning point because you’ve lost all your resources, your equipment, your facilities, and your workforce, and the farmers are 10 to 12 years older. So a lot of the farmers had to get public jobs so they can get enough credit to draw social security.” Davis Harris

Black land owners also contended with private property laws that put them at a very real disadvantage. Black families had little reason to trust institutions and were far less likely to have a will than white families. So when a property owner died without a legal will, their property passed to all their direct heirs as partial shares. A form of ownership transfer called heirs property. Over several generations property ownership became increasingly unclear as dozens or even hundreds of heirs could own a small share. Heirs were then more vulnerable to land speculators and developers through a legal process called partition action. Speculators would buy off the interest of a single heir. And just one heir, no matter how small their share, and this would force the sale of entire plot of land through the courts. Black farm ownership peaked between 1910 and 1920, and then dropped dramatically due to the changing farm economy, discrimination and coercive means. From 1910 to the 1930s, the total number of farms in Durham declined dramatically. But black farmers lost their land at more than twice the rate of white farmers.

Willie Roberts, a black Durham County mechanic and farmer was interviewed in the 1930s and had this to say about the tensions of the time: “We got some mean neighbors around here. They hate us ’cause we own, and we won’t sell. They want to buy it for nothing. They don’t like for colored people to own land. They got a white lady, Ms. Jones on the next farm to say that I attacked her. I hope to be struck down by Jesus if I said or did anything she could kick on, it’s all prejudiced against a colored family that’s trying to catch up with the whites. They hated my father because he owned land and my mother because she taught school and now they’re trying to run us off, but we’re going to stay on.”

In 1942, many young men were serving in world war II and black agricultural laborers were leaving farms as part of the great migration to Northern and Western states. So the federal government enacted the Bracero Program to address severe farm labor shortages. This allowed contract laborers from Mexico into the country to fill the labor gap. Where you live, determines where you buy food and what food is available. And Durham’s black urban residents were grappling with Jim Crow laws and with segregation.

“In all licensed restaurants, public eating places and weenie shops where persons of the white and colored races are permitted to be served with and eat food and are allowed to congregate. There shall be provided separate rooms for the separate accommodation of each race. The partition between such rooms shall be constructed of wood, plaster or brick or like material, and shall reach from the floor to the ceiling…” The code of the city of Durham, North Carolina, 1947, C13 section 42.

Segregation and racial discrimination meant that opportunities for home ownership, loans, and neighborhood improvements favored white people, discriminatory policies and practices also impacted access to nutritious foods and to restaurants and resentment was building.

A black woman recalls her childhood experiences during this time: “When I was a child, the Durham Dairy was a weekly stop on Sunday evenings as part of our family drive, we would park, go into the counter and then return to the car with our ice cream. After my father finished his, we would drive around Durham while the rest of us finished our ice cream. I had no idea as a young child that the reason we took that ice cream to the car was because the Durham Dairy was segregated and being an African American family we were not allowed to eat our ice cream on the premises. I was shocked to learn as an adult how my parents had been so artful in sparing this ugly truth from me and my younger siblings.”

As early as the 1920s, Durham’s white homeowners had to agree to racial covenants on their suburban home and land deeds, such covenants explicitly prevented black ownership and restricted black residents in homes, except for domestic servants. This practice was legal until 1948. The National Association of Real Estate Boards code of ethics at that time directed real estate agents to maintain segregation in the name of safeguarding, neighborhood stability and property values. The industry practice known as steering remained in effect until 1950.

“A realtor should never be instrumental in introducing in a neighborhood members of any race or nationality whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values in the neighborhood…” National Association of Real Estate Boards code of ethics

The great depression stimulated the country’s new deal, social safety net legislation, including the social security act of 1935, which offered benefits and unemployment insurance. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 set a national minimum wage and the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 created the right for workers to organize. However, agricultural and domestic workers positions held predominantly by black people during the 1930s were specifically excluded from these programs, losing out on both fair pay and labor protections.

Historian Ira Katznelson wrote extensively about the impact of these policy decisions on the country’s African Americans: “Southern legislators understood that their region’s agrarian interests and racial arrangements were inextricably entwined. By excluding these persons from new deal legislation it remained possible to maintain racial inequality in Southern labor markets by dictating the terms and conditions of African American labor.”

The federal government also recognized home ownership as one of the best ways to stabilize the economy and expand the middle class. The homeowner’s loan corporation, a government sponsored corporation created as part of the new deal developed city maps and color coded neighborhoods according to lending risks, these maps became the model for public and private lending from the 1930s on. In Durham and elsewhere, red lines were drawn around black, mixed race and the poorest white neighborhoods, the effects of redlining now close to a century old had profound effects that are still felt to this day. Over time these maps discourage investment in home ownership and also business development in these areas ringed in red and encouraged and supported these things in white neighborhoods.

By defining some areas as too risky for investment lending practices followed, poverty was exacerbated and concentrated and housing deserts, credit deserts and food deserts became a predictable consequence. Redlining maps also shaped lending practices for the GI Bill Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944. The GI Bill made mortgages available to World War II veterans with little or no down payment. And with very low interest rates. The aim was to create financial stability and the accumulation of generational wealth for those who would serve the country through home ownership. However, most homes were in suburban neighborhoods, primarily financed by the federal government. Between redlining lending practices and real estate covenants restricting black buyers, home ownership simply wasn’t possible for the vast majority of the 1 million plus black World War II veterans. Between 1935 and 1968, less than 2% of federal home loans were for black people. The GI Bill also did not issue home loans on Indian reservations, which excluded many Native American veterans.

In the late 1950s, Durham received federal money for a local urban renewal program to clear slums and blighted areas through the Housing Act of 1949. The city chose to demolish a large section of the Hayti area, the city’s largest and most prominent black neighborhood and home to most black owned businesses. This changed everything. City officials cited the poor physical conditions of Hayti as the reason for demolition. The land was then used to build North Carolina highway 147, a freeway connector.

Louis Austin editor of the Carolina Times wrote in 1965: “The so-called urban renewal program in Durham is not only the biggest farce ever concocted in the mind of moral man, but it is just another scheme to relieve Negroes of property.”

Hayti’s destruction included a significant part of the neighborhood’s food infrastructure, such as grocery stores and restaurants. What was once a thriving and resilient food economy where wealth remained in the community became a food desert.

Nathaniel White, formerly a Hayti business owner in Durham had this to say about the destruction of the Hayti neighborhood: “Well, I think we got something like $32,000 for our business. As I look back on it now, if you’re going to drive a freeway right through my building, the only fair thing to do is to replace that building. In other words, I ought to be able to move my equipment and everything into a building. If they do it like that, you will be able to stand the damage. Now, the highway department has a replacement clause in their building, but the urban renewal had what they call fair market value, and that won’t replace it. And that’s where the handicap comes. Just say, you give them $32,000 that probably would’ve bought the land or whatever, but it wouldn’t put the building back and everything like that.”

In the 1950s, Durham built federally funded housing projects for low income families. But by the late 1960s, public housing in the city was almost exclusively for black people and clustered in existing black neighborhoods. This further reinforced patterns of residential segregation, Durham’s lunch counters and restaurants became rallying points during the civil rights movements. North Carolina’s first protest was at Durham’s Royal ice cream restaurant in 1957.

Virginia Williams, a young black woman at the time was a member of the Royal Ice Cream Nine who staged the protest: “None of it made any sense, but that had been the way of life. And that’s the way the older folk had accepted it. And so I guess I was one of them who thought, if not us, who, if not now, when. So the police officers came and they asked us to leave. I remember one of them asking me to leave and I asked for ice cream. And he said, if you were my daughter, I would spank you and make you leave. And then I said, if I was your daughter, I wouldn’t be here sitting here being asked to leave.”

In 1962, more than 4,000 people protested at Howard Johnson’s Ice Cream Grill in Durham. The struggle to desegregate eateries intensified in 1963, when protesters organized sit-ins at six downtown restaurants on the eve of municipal elections, hundreds of people were arrested and protestors surrounded the jail in solidarity. And in the weeks that followed more than 700 black and white Durhamites ran a full page ad in the Durham Herald newspaper. They pledged to support restaurants and other businesses that adopted equal treatment to all, without regard to race. The mounting public pressure resulted in mass desegregation of Durham Eateries by the end of 1962, ahead of the 1964 federal civil rights act that legally ended segregation.

Although civil rights wins brought about new political, economic and social opportunities for black people, desegregation didn’t help black businesses. They suffered economically because black people began to explore new opportunities to shop outside their neighborhoods, but white people didn’t patronize black owned businesses in turn.

In 1964, the federal government passed the Food Stamp Act as a means to safeguard people’s health and wellbeing and provide a stable foundation for US agriculture. It was also intended to raise levels of nutrition among low income households. The food stamp program was implemented in Durham County in 1966. A decade later the program was in every county in the country.

From 1970 through the 1990s, urban renewal continued to disrupt and reshape Durham central city. As both white and middle class black residents left central Durham for suburban homes, banks and grocery stores disappeared. Textile and tobacco factory jobs were also leaving Durham for good. Thousands of workers became unemployed and the domino effect on home ownership, businesses and workplaces disrupted much of Durham’s infrastructure and its community life.

From 1970 through the 1980s, the availability of home refrigerators and microwaves also changed how families stored and cooked their food. Durham already had higher numbers of working women than the national average. As a result, convenience foods, foods from restaurants, prepared meals at grocery stores and microwavable foods from the freezer were in demand.

Like many Americans, Durham residents had become increasingly disconnected from farming and food production, both physically and culturally. Food corporations now used marketing in the media to shape ideas about what to eat and why. The food system became dominated by increasing corporate consolidation and control. And by large scale industrial agriculture emphasizing monoculture. Corporations were fast gaining political and economic power and used their influence to affect trade regulations, tax rates, and wealth distribution.

In the 1980s, the federal government passed legislation that boosted free market capitalism, reduced social safety net spending and promoted volunteerism and charity as a way to reduce poverty and government welfare. These policies negatively impacted Durham’s already historically disadvantaged populations. Nonprofit organizations began to emerge to deal with the growing issues of hunger and food insecurity and nonprofit food charity became an industry unto itself. More than 80% of pantries and soup kitchens in the US came into existence between 1980 and 2001.

The H-2A Guest Worker Program of 1986 allowed agricultural workers to hire seasonal foreign workers on special visas who were contracted to a particular farm, but workers did not have the same labor protections as US citizens.

That same year, the US launched the war on drugs to reduce drug abuse and crime. Low income communities were disproportionately targeted when Durham’s housing authority paid off duty police officers to patrol high crime areas, particularly public housing developments. Hyper policing, drug criminalization, and logger sentencing for drug related offenses caused incarceration rates to rise steadily. Durham’s jail and prison incarceration rates from 1978 to 2015 rose higher than anywhere else in North Carolina.

Here is an excerpt from an interview with Chuck Omega Manning, an activist and director of the city of Durham’s welcome program. “Being totally honest, high incarceration rates for people of color is very detrimental to our health. Even in the Durham County Jail, you have a canteen that’s run through a private company who only sell certain things like oodles of noodles that are not healthy. And then in prisons, you don’t get to eat vegetables unless it’s part of your dinner. And even then it’s oftentimes still not healthy because of how it’s cooked. But if you don’t work in the kitchen, you don’t get to decide, you just get it how it comes and you pray over it and eat it. But then over time, people get institutionalized in the system. And when they return home, they continue to eat the same way because they’re used to it. And the financial piece only enhances that because you have individuals coming home, looking for employment, trying to do something different. And there are just so many barriers even with food stamps. So it almost feels like you’re being punished twice. And it’s very depressing.”

In the 1990s, Durham wanted more investment in the downtown area. Instead of the factory jobs of the past, the downtown area shifted to offer low paying service jobs and high paying jobs in research and technology. Wealthy newcomers were called urban pioneers and trailblazers and purchase properties in historically disinvested city areas.

Low wage workers today cannot afford new housing prices in Durham, in most cases, or to pay the increasing property taxes. Many people are losing their homes through when increases, evictions and foreclosures. Gentrification has also changed which food retailers exist in the local food environment. Sometimes this creates food mirages where high quality food is priced out of reach of longtime residents.

The North American Free Trade Agreement NAFTA of 1994 also changed Durham and North Carolina. Farmers from Mexico and Central America driven out of business by the trade agreement immigrated to places like North Carolina, looking for agricultural and construction jobs. Durham’s Latino population grew from just over 2000 in people to 1990, to nearly 40,000 in 2014, one out of three Durham public school students was Latino in 2014. Today, 94% of migrant farm workers in North Carolina are native Spanish speakers.

In 1996, the federal government made changes to the nation’s food assistance security net. It dramatically cut SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps and limited eligibility to receive benefits and the length of benefits. In Durham, SNAP benefit participation rate decreased by 14% between 1997 and 2001 despite a 2% increase in the poverty rate.

Durham’s Latino Credit Union opened in 2000 at a time when three quarters of Latinos did not bank at all. Over the next 20 years, Latinos developed and operated restaurants, grocery stores and services across Durham. This provided the Latino population with culturally resident food, community gathering spaces and jobs.

Processed foods had become a central part of the American diet by the early two thousands. And the vast majority of food advertising promoted convenience foods, candies, and snacks, alcoholic beverages, soft drinks and desserts. In addition, companies did and still do target black and Hispanic consumers with marketing for the least nutritious products contributing to diet related health disparities, affecting communities of color.

During the great recession of 2007 to 2009, job losses, wage reductions and foreclosure crisis increased the number of people struggling to afford and access enough nutritious food. As a result, SNAP participation rose dramatically in Durham.

In 2008, the farm bill included language about food deserts for the first time. A food desert was defined as a census track with a substantial share of residents who live in low income areas and have low levels of access to a grocery store or to healthy affordable foods in a retail outlet. Today some scholars describe such places as areas of food apartheid. This recognizes the outcomes of past policy decisions that disinvested in disadvantaged populations and locations, the cumulative effects of living under food apartheid have profound impacts on the health, wellbeing, and life expectancy of people of color and the poor.

Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Latonya Gilchrist, a Durham county community health worker: “I’ve suffered a lot in this body for a lot of people it’s genetic, but I feel like, and this is my personal feeling based on what I’ve experienced and my whole family. It’s the role of food deserts and the cost of food, not being able to have a community grocery store and what I’ll say for Northeast Central Durham or the East Durham area where I grew up, we always had corner stores that sold everything we didn’t need. And very little of what we did need. Back when I was a child growing up, potato chips cost 16 cents a bag, and you could get potato chips all day long and all night long, and people could get beer and wine in the neighborhood, but you couldn’t find fruits and vegetables until my daddy started selling them on a truck. So diseases come about genetically, but it’s increased or enhanced through living in poor poverty stricken neighborhoods.”

Durham foreclosure spiked during the great recession of 2008 and were disproportionately located in historically black neighborhoods. Owners in high poverty neighborhoods have been targeted for high cost subprime loans by lenders through a practice known as reverse redlining. As neighborhoods gentrify and longtime residents get displaced, there is an increasing spatial disconnect between services and amenities and those who utilize them and need them the most. Food, housing and retail gentrification are closely intertwined.

Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Eliazar Posada, community engagement advocacy manager of El Centro in Durham: “Gentrification is affecting a lot of our community members and not just affecting the youth, but also the families, unless we can find ways to subsidize housing or find a way to make gentrification not so dramatic for some of our community members. The youth are not going to be staying in Durham if their parents can’t stay.”

Durham’s people of color and low income people overall have disproportionately high incidents of diabetes. In a 2016 survey in the Piedmont region, 16% of respondents with household incomes, less than $15,000 reported having diabetes compared to only 6% of residents with household incomes of more than $75,000. By 2017 black patients were 80% more likely than white patients to have diabetes in Durham.

In Durham County in 2019, the average hourly wage for food preparation and serving jobs was $10.83 cents an hour or $22,516 annually before taxes. Such wages are all been impossible to live on without government assistance. The fair market rent for a two bedroom housing unit in Durham in 2018 was $900 a month or about $10,800 a year.

Food inequality is a lack of consistent access to enough food for a healthy, active life is caused by poverty, the cost of housing and healthcare and unemployment and underemployment. It is also impacted by the interrelated forces of home and land ownership, political power, economic resources, structural racism, gender oppression, and labor rights. Durham’s communities continue to build community solidarity and mutual aid as people lend money, time and other resources trying to make sure everyone can access adequate and healthy food.

In a remarkable feat of resilience the Occaneechi band of the Saponi Nation was awarded official recognition by North Carolina in 2002, following 20 years of organizing and sustained advocacy. They purchased a 250 acre plot of land just outside of Durham County and planted an orchard of fruit bearing trees for collective tribal use. This is the first land that the tribe has owned collectively in more than 250 years.

Durham’s black farmer’s market emerging from 2015 to 2019 is also a testament to community building through food. The market supports local black farmers and makes healthy eating attainable for individuals living in some of Durham’s food apartheid areas. Market organizers are challenging social norms, classism and racism, and believe that healthy living should be possible for everyone.

So why is the food history of a community so important? And can Durham’s food history be applied to other places? Who owns land, who can grow food and make a living doing so, and who has access to food, any food, least of all healthy food? The answers are deeply influenced by historical policies and practices. These in retrospect, clearly exacerbated, supported, and even created food related calamities, the dual burden communities face of both food insecurity and diet related chronic diseases, such as diabetes and obesity. Understanding these practices is important in creating change. And in understanding that conditions imposed on neighborhoods rather than personal failings of residents explain what we see today.

A few pieces of this history are specific to Durham, the role of tobacco and textiles, for instance, but most of the fundamental influences on the economic and food conditions are broad social attitudes and practices around race and poverty. And from federal, economic, agriculture and housing policies that have affected urban rural areas in every corner of the country, there is hope from local ingenuity to change food systems and from people in local, state and federal policy positions who are working to reverse inequality and to re-envision the role of food in supporting the physical and economic wellbeing of all people, learning from the past is really important in these efforts.

Melissa ‘Mel’ Norton is a Durhamite at the Carolina Federation, and she has a background in public policy, public history, and grassroots organizing related to affordable housing, living wages, and electoral politics. She believes that local relationships are the building blocks of political power, and that multi-racial cross-class solidarity is needed to win transformational change. Mel loves word games, going down southern history rabbit holes, and spending as much time near North Carolina’s rivers as possible.


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