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The Problem With Cereal

Jobs, the real estate market, and social mobility are all major factors in modern gentrification, but food can play a significant role as well.
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(Photo: Sonny Abesamis/Flickr)

(Photo: Sonny Abesamis/Flickr)

Last month, an angry mob took to the streets of East London. Armed with masks to conceal their identities, red paint to throw on shop windows, and torches for intimidation, the crowd of over 100 was protesting the rapid and stark gentrification overtaking the traditionally working-class community of East London. Their target, however, wasn't a new apartment building or yoga studio, but instead a café—a cereal café, to be specific.

The Cereal Killer Café, which sells popular commercial cereals for around $6 a bowl, opened last year. Almost instantly, it was dogged by controversy. The gimmicky product, the high prices, and the two self-ignorant twin brother owners—all positioned in a neighborhood that, just a few years ago, was one of London's poorest—came together to embody an issue that Londoners have been upset about for a while now. London-based journalist Feargus O'Sullivan wrote in CityLab that Cereal Killer is a "handily located Exhibit A [of] a place whose novelty theme and high(ish) prices have been widely damned as the ultimate in hipster excess."

These places work to slowly fragment the local culture, to replace tradition with privilege, to create a new norm.

The level of vitriol directed toward this café—which, technically, has done nothing wrong—is extraordinary; protesters, some of whom were carrying pig's heads, threw bottles, lit fires, and set off smoke grenades. But this anger, while more extreme, isn't unprecedented in its nature.

Last year, John Gravois was struck by a similar trend in his hometown of San Francisco. Toast—freshly baked and expertly sliced—had become the Bay Area's trendy new food; many coffee shops offered toast as their sole menu item. "[L]ike the cupcake and the dill pickle before it," he wrote, "[toast] had been elevated to the artisanal plane." While his piece detailed how artisanal toast unexpectedly became a sort of embodiment of culinary hipsterdom, Gravois also noted the backlash that followed this trend's birth.

In a scathing article that Gravois cited, which included the headline "$4 Toast: Why the Tech Industry Is Ruining San Francisco," VentureBeat's Jolie O'Dell wrote, "In San Francisco, flaunting your wealth has been elevated to new lows ... we overspend on the simplest facets of life. Coffee. Water. Bread. Housing. The kinds of things our pioneer forebears made themselves and considered basic necessities or small comforts." Gravois noted how "$4 toast" soon became a rallying cry in the Bay Area, a parable for the city's high prices and indulgent consumer culture. It even inspired a petition to the mayor's office, calling for alleviation from the city's high cost of living.

When the Killer Cereal Café first opened, British news networks and newspapers published similar pieces, using the shop as an allegory for gentrification. In one particularly noteworthy television interview, a journalist pressed one of the café owners on the irony of their high-priced novelty items being situated in one of London's poorest areas. The owner's blunt response, before cutting short the interview: "I don't like the questions you're asking me."

Whether or not a neighborhood's experiencing a toast or cereal craze, gentrification is an issue that many communities have been forced to deal with. As we've previously reported, jobs, the real estate market, and social mobility are all major factors in modern gentrification, but, as new research shows, food plays a lesser but important role as well, especially when ethnic communities are being displaced.

"Data reveals how environmental racism and privilege affected the relationships that a community has with its food, invisibilized its members and its cultural and social practices around food and beyond, and in turn destabilized their place-making and territorialization," concludes social scientist Isabelle Anguelovski in a study released earlier this year. When a new restaurant or café opens, Anguelovski contends, it is either directly or indirectly taking the place of another shop or café. Food is an important way that communities form collective identities—their culture is shared, strengthened, and showcased by local cuisine. "Culinary heritage [creates] a deep sense of place," Anguelovski writes.

When a cereal café moves into a traditionally poor or minority community, the problem isn't necessarily that locals will suddenly begin eating Froot Loops for dinner, but instead that these places work to slowly fragment the local culture, to replace tradition with privilege, to create a new norm.

In discussing a particular case that took place in October 2011, when Whole Foods Market—not a niche cereal or toast bar, but a monolithic example of culinary privilege—opened a location in Boston's Latino neighborhood, Hyde Square, Anguelovski wrote of the local community's push back:

Latino Hi-Lo customers and their supporters opposed the fact that white middle-class gentrifiers are the ones who get to define the discourses and acceptable consumption practices around alternative food consumption. They attempted to make their own cultural claims about space, territory, and food in the city while contesting white middle-class visions of food access, foodscapes, and healthy food as well as their colorblindness, whiteness, and food privilege. They refused to become invisible and out-of-place in their gentrifying neighborhood through the creation of new white foodscapes.

There's nothing technically wrong with high-priced cereal or toast, but when food begins to perpetuate privilege and environmental gentrification at the expense of minority cultures, that's a problem. Anguelovski suggests a few solutions:

In the same vein as some affordable housing programs and ordinances, especially inclusionary zoning ordinances, Planning Departments together with Departments for Neighborhood Development could, for instance, create programs and grants directed at sponsoring and encouraging locally-owned food venues and shops that (re)-create and strengthen the diversity and affordability of food practices in racially-mixed and gentrifying neighborhoods.

Anguelovski concludes by conceding that, sure, there's space for the "alternative food movement," but perhaps try to rebrand you healthy, organic, or novelty foods in a way that "does not exclude entire racial and ethnic groups."

Frosted Flakes may be "more than good," but they're definitely not worth $6.

Since We Last Spoke examines the latest policy and research updates to past Pacific Standard news coverage.