Second- and third-generation immigrant North Carolinians are now food entrepreneurs, journalists, policy makers, scholars, and strong stakeholders in their communities. They are consumers and investors. Even before the coronavirus pandemic upended the state’s food economy—affecting the lives of meat and poultry processing plant workers and forcing chefs to shutter restaurants—immigrant North Carolinians struggled for economic equity, access, and opportunity. Progressive activist and chef Vimala Rajendran found fruits and vegetables not unlike those of her native Mumbai in the peanuts, sweet potatoes, okra, eggplant, tomatoes, and cauliflower of the Piedmont. “Coming to Carrboro,” says Rajendran, “it just felt more like home.”3 Rajendran’s ardent stance that food is an essential human right lies at the core of her Chapel Hill restaurant, where all are served regardless of their ability to pay.
Carrboro and Chapel Hill mirror the polarization of America’s food economy: the big ag supply chain that controls most food bought by institutional purchasers such as corporate grocery chains, discount warehouses, hospitals, governments, universities, and schools and the curated food relationship among small farmers, food entrepreneurs, and well-to-do white consumers in high-end markets. Chef Andrea Reusing in Chapel Hill points to fault lines in these food systems: “The components of this inequality—racism, lack of access to capital, exploitation, land loss, nutritional and health disparities in communities of color—are tightly connected. Our nearly twenty-year obsession with food and chefs has neither expanded access to high-quality food nor improved nutrition in low-resource neighborhoods.”4 Food insecurity is growing in suburban Durham, Charlotte, and Raleigh. Yet, during these same twenty years, a corps of North Carolina food activists—farmers, extension agents, restaurateurs, chefs, scholars, public health experts, fisheries professionals, food bank managers, food hub coordinators, food aggregators, and food council leaders—have built a strong local food network. Alex Hitt observes how the customer base of local farmers’ markets is shifting, too: “In Carrboro, it flipped from fifty and older to fifty and younger. It’s families with kids now, and it happened over the last ten years.”5