Food injustice is one of America’s greatest problems—even if metaverse grocery stores are fully stocked

Rather than lean into big tech’s vision for the grocery future, Document hears from those carving space for new food systems

Nearly half of all United States grocery stores were out of toilet paper for some portion of the day on April 19, 2020. Stocks would replenish, but the moment foreshadowed the supply chain disarray that would come to characterize the pandemic. Soon, even the mega-corporations surrendered to the truth: “The Food Supply Chain is Breaking,” proclaimed Tyson Foods in an April full-page New York Times ad. Images rolled in of farmers across the country having to dump and destroy millions of pounds of fresh goods they could no longer sell to shuttered schools, hotels, restaurants, and businesses. Close to 3.7 million gallons of milk were dumped during each Day of April, according to Dairy Farmers of America.

But months later, Tyson Foods reported $43.2 billion in sales at the end of 2020—some $800 million more than the previous year. In that same period, Feeding America estimates that the number of food-insecure Americans almost doubled to 50 million people in 2020. Then, the Delta and Omicron variants swept the globe, further straining resources. Again, grocery stores struggled to fill shelves, but some created an illusion of abundance by filling them with cardboard cutouts, as if food was an actor at the Grammys who had just gotten up to go to the bathroom.

I sensed a strange dichotomy between corporate abundance and starving Americans, but hadn’t seen it articulated until it was expressed on Twitter. I scrolled through back-to-back-photos: one of an empty grocery store, and below it, a grocery store stocked and full in the metaverse. Apparently, it was an experience created for Walmart in 2017 by a digital ad agency, to show us what it’d be like to experience the corporation in all its glory in the next frontier. The video quickly became a meme, but as it spiraled through Twitter, I wondered why we were all talking about this fake shopping experience when we could barely fill the shelves in real life. Surely someone had to be thinking of new ways to feed people as these systems failed. But corporate dreaming distracted the zeitgeist. Akin to WALL-E or Keiichi Matsuda’s Hyper-Reality, it felt like an articulation of philosopher Theodor Adorno’s totally “administered world,” which writer Mitch Therieau describes as “the most extreme hypothetical version of a political-economic system that provides material plenty even as it sucks all the existential significance out of life and blocks all avenues to resistance.”

In many ways, we’re already there. In our current arrangement, the grocery bag has already been symbolically annihilated. In our grocery stores, there is little room for representation beyond the corporate; flavors are hodgepodged, muted, and segregated into “international aisles.” And that’s not even getting into the ways our current food system alienates us from our food sources and systemically denies low-income communities of color their right to healthy and culturally appropriate food.

This dynamic has deepened as the pandemic has further distanced us from food as a communal experience—a new contrast between our eating ideals and our eating realities, which we see represented in memes like “ate without youtube” and “the femine urge to have breakfast for five hours.” Here, we see a collective longing for the actual time and space to have an unfettered meal with other human beings.

“There’s so much beauty in being part of the food system that isn’t captured when you’re thinking about the box in the grocery store. It’s so disconnected from anything that I saw growing up.”

If the metaverse is imagined as merely an allegory for the exaggerated future of our semio-capital present, this next frontier will further magnify these conditions and divorce food from its full potential. So before we fully embody this dystopia, I’m hoping to infuse it with more egalitarian projections by hearing from those our current food system already leaves behind. It’s apparent that our modern arrangement prevents many—particularly colonized and marginalized people—from utilizing food as a connector to land, community, and culture, so I wanted to learn how individuals are carving out spaces to combat that. I was curious to find those creating blueprints for new models where food fulfills its essence as a generative force, rather than becoming just another object to be packaged, digitized, and sold to the highest bidder.

For A-dae Briones, forming a community around food has always been a negotiation with the operating logic of capitalism: that it’s merely a means to get you from point A to point B. Briones was born and raised in Cochiti, a indigenous reservation in New Mexico where food binds new life to the 800 person community. When a baby is born, the community brings it the day’s harvest. Days are arranged around agricultural seasons, routines determined by reading the clouds and the moisture in the high desert.

“There’s so much beauty in being part of the food system that isn’t captured when you’re thinking about the box in the grocery store. It’s so disconnected from anything that I saw growing up,” Briones says over Zoom. “You planted your fields with other people, and then you went and irrigated, or held the weeds with other people. Then you harvested with other people, and then you cooked and ate the food with other people.”

In this subsistence way of life, kids mature into contributing adults by spending days on the farm, learning how to best apply their skills to their communal needs. But Briones only spent five years on her family’s plot. That’s because in 1979, the US Army Corps of Engineers began construction of a dam on their land. Initially taking up half of their space, the project was a tremendous blow to their agricultural lifestyle. But later, faulty construction led to a leak and then a slow flood, spilling out and then drowning the surroundings.

A-dae Briones.

“We lost a hundred percent of our agricultural lands between 1979 and 1992,” says Briones. Suddenly, her family and her community were off the farm and in courtrooms, battling foreigners in suits and shiny shoes. Briones remembers her questions: “Nobody dresses like that in my community. Who are these people? And why are they talking to our grandparents where they are? How dare they talk to my grandpa like that?”

The debacle cemented her calling: to help indigenous people remain on their land so they could practice and preserve their traditional food ways. In 2o17 she became the Director of Programs for Native Agriculture and Food Systems for First Nations, a job centered on supporting tribal communities and their food systems through grants. Briones identifies needs by listening to communities like the one she grew up in. When the pandemic hit, discussions changed. The supply chain failures and food shortages reified a system that never really looked after native and other marginalized communities in the first place. There emerged a resistance and struggle for more local control within the food system, not only in tribal spaces, but across the country.

“The conversation switched,” says Briones. “The communities that we work with are demanding food sovereignty. They’re saying, ‘No, we don’t want chicken from Arkansas. Let’s take that $20,000 for transportation and use it to create our own chicken processing chain.’”

To explore this type of localization, Briones is exploring alternative models. She recently became a founding member of Big Green DAO, a decentralized autonomous organization pledging to support projects aligned under their charter, “Growing Food Changes Lives.” To Briones, DAOs have the potential to shift power because they put grantmaking responsibility in the hands of frontline communities. With traditional nonprofits, raising money hinges on communities needing to demonstrate to single purse holders or corporate boards their worthiness of funding. DAOs can combat that dynamic by enabling collective ownership, allowing groups of people to pool and then distribute resources to causes democratically agreed upon through community votes.

Briones emphasized that these new technologies cannot replace on-the-ground community organizing. She and the Big Green founding committee hope to prove that the model is viable as they enter the process of determining where to allocate their first round of grants. At the same time, others are thinking about innovative ways to restructure the grocery store to be more inclusive.

In Austin, there are few as involved in that effort as Ari Díaz. The 21-year-old community organizer and food writer hesitates to call herself a chef, but in the time between our meeting and this story’s publishing, she has landed a culinary training position at local staple Mexican restaurant Nixta Taqueria.

“The goal is to highlight ingredients, products, and flavors that I felt were muted under the white-dominant food culture we have in America.”

She invites me over to observe her process as she creates a product for her new online grocery store, Aleph Cookery—a concept meant to be an antidote to how large corporate groceries have traditionally muted and segregated foods so vital to marginalized communities of color. As she describes the vision, vibrant floral scents rise from the kitchen and blend with jazz and soul overtones coming from the stereo.

“I’m taking bits and pieces of everything I grew up around that I feel will slowly fade away if we keep going towards those ‘utopian’ ideas, like that metaverse Walmart,” she says. “The goal is to highlight ingredients, products, and flavors that I felt were muted under the white-dominant food culture we have in America.”

To Ari, this is food at its best: a connector to homelands, culture, and tradition. But what drives her is the fact that, for her and her family, it’s never been that simple. She grewup in a range of places in and around Dallas, but her first memories of being around a diverse food culture were in North Dallas, where finding food from around the world was a matter of knowing where to look. Syrian restaurants sat next door to Ethiopian and Afghani spots, but while they were on food stamps, Díaz and her family rarely got to enjoy the variety.

When her parents split when she was six, Ari moved to Anna, Texas, a rural town close to the Oklahoma border where the nearest grocery store was 40 minutes away. She describes home as an abusive environment during that time. With her mom working long hours, she was often locked in rooms for hours on end by abusive family members. When it was time to eat, her stepfather slid food through the door. It was only once she returned to her dad and grandparents that she was able to reconnect with food.

“That’s where the Mexican food came in—it felt both familiar and new, because I wasn’t always surrounded by it,” remembers Díaz. “But it was a big deal. You ate everything on your plate, and never said you didn’t like anything.”

Ari Díaz by Erin Eubanks.

But to get a meal on the table was to defy the odds. At the time, her father, Jose Díaz, was living off cans of tuna, bags of carrots, and beers. At the end of the week, he’d make sure to save up enough to take his daughter to the grocery store and buy food for a weekend of meals together. But on a $30 budget, rounding out the cart was a stressful experience.

“You can’t buy fresh or dried chilis, really. You have to go to a Mexican grocery if you want good ones,” Díaz says. “We were buying Kraft Mac and Cheese—like, all of this packaged, processed shit for super cheap.”

She felt added urgency at the end of 2020 after her father suffered a stroke induced by a budget-constrained unhealthy diet. At the start of 2021, Ari was admitted to an eating disorder hospital center. She had been suffering through cycles of binge and restrictive eating for as long as she could remember, but didn’t connect it to a larger condition until after she called the recovery center. They told her to come in right away after hearing her symptoms.

“An eating disorder is never about the food,” she says. “It was just me using food as a way to cope with all these other things that I never processed—my PTSD from abuse and financial anxiety and my dad having a $30 grocery budget.”

Like much of Western medical care, Ari says, the treatment center viewed her recovery through an individualistic lens. She found more power by connecting her struggles to those of her community—a process that hinged on viewing her and her family’s relationship to food through the context of a larger American food system that has systematically denied poor communities of color the right to healthy and culturally appropriate food.

“Engaging with people in my community, and my friends and my family, that’s the most healing thing of all,” Díaz says.

When she started scheming her own projects, she was empowered by simply passing on her learnings to her dad—helping him to see that he was not necessarily responsible for his food-related health problems, and that he could find remedies by reconnecting to food he already enjoyed.

“What’s interesting about a grown man of color trying to navigate health is that his first instinct is to go with what millennial moms are pushing, the kind of gentrified health culture of quinoa and rice bowls,” she says. “And my dad was like, ‘That looks disgusting. I never want to try that.’ But I helped him connect to his health through foods that have been important to our cultures since the beginning of time: fresh tortillas and beans—food that is healthy that we’ve lost access to, because our communities have been flooded with unhealthy options. Seeing him pick up a tostada again, and just put pico on it, and not have three beers with it, was great. He’s still honoring his cultural ties while prioritizing his health.”

This kind of represcription of health according to cultural tradition is what Ari hopes to inspire with Aleph Cookery and her work at large: projects that she doesn’t see as end-all, be-all solutions, but merely blueprints that show it’s possible to create food systems where there is enough space for everyone to access foods that simultaneously sustain and reconnect them to the planet and community.

Aleph employs a redistribution economic model that Ari says is really about meeting people where they’re at. Just as her father found it easier to eat healthy without radically departing from his lifestyle, she believes people will support projects aimed at reducing food insecurity by redistributing products that already fit in with their habits.

“For the online grocery store, I’m making products for people with a higher tax bracket,” she says. “For the people who are going to spend $20 on olive oil at the grocery store, I’ll say, ‘Here’s this $12 speciality olive oil containing an ingredient that I’ll redistribute to my community.’”

A portion of Aleph’s proceeds goes toward produce bags that are distributed throughout Austin through local mutual aid efforts like the ATX Free Fridge Project. Her first product was a traditional Mexican guajillo oil made using the dried chilis she couldn’t find at Walmart as a child. Distributed on a donation basis, she sold some bottles for up to $50, allowing her to redistribute the key ingredient—the dried chilis—in her produce bags.

Tonight she’s in her room, sprawled on the floor around books, zines, magazines, and encyclopedias. Her goal is to come up with a second product for Aleph—one she’s making in collaboration with Talisman Coffee, a family run business where beans are grown in Matagalpa, Nicaragua and roasted in Austin. Her hope is to make something that reconnects her to a flavor from her childhood while simultaneously reflecting the new community created when she met the team behind Talisman at a farmers market and they became her first food friends in town.

Food injustice is one of America’s greatest problems—even if metaverse grocery stores are fully stocked

I take a seat on the floor next to her and we drink tea. She hands me a book to peruse while she enters the flow, a large one titled Connectedness: An Incomplete Encyclopedia of the Anthropocene. As I grab it, out falls what appears to be a bookmark. “My vaccine card, oh my god!” she yells. “I was looking for this because I was supposed to go to a concert last night.”

She breaks out laughing, and the moment reflects where she’s at. As we talk, she simultaneously cooks and does laundry, as one does who is trying to juggle graduating from UT, working at a record store, and forming her own grocery store all at once. She has bigger goals, but now she’s working within the constraints of her schedule, where the main goal is to reconnect with joy around food and turn that into tangible products that feed her community.

“A lot of my work centers on positivity, because I feel like that’s what I needed when I was younger,” she says. “To focus on the joy behind food is to repair that generational tie that food has among my communities.”

When I return to her home a week later, I find her on her back screened-in porch, where she’s grinding coffee beans for her second Aleph product: a sweet seasoning salt she’s calling Cajín. A rendition of Tajín, Cajín is comprised of sugar, toasted sesame seeds, toasted coconut, cinnamon, coffee beans, and chocolate, instead of the lime, dried chile, and salt found in your traditional Tajín. It’s a product that reconnects Aleph to days of her youth spent eating fruit cups—that sweet medley of pineapples, mango, and coconut that she’d top with Tajín.

“I’m trying to repair my relationship with food by reconnecting to these flavors and things that I grew up with in a way that feels safe and reinforces a sense of home,” says Ari. “It’s taking those plays on the community that I was in growing up, and bringing those to the forefront. Saying, like, ‘Look, there’s space for this too.’”

Where Ari Díaz grounds her work in reclaiming food and its potential to represent, express, and facilitate community, A Living Collective hopes to do something similar by homesteading and stewarding five acres of land in remote Arizona.

“Land and food and resources go hand in hand. The more land we have, the more power we have, because we have the power to grow our own food. We have the power to exist outside of this context that is actively destroying us.”

They describe themselves as “a decolonial coalition, building a place for the mind to exist.” The collective creates space for that by tending to the soil, growing food, and creating a short-term living and rest center for art and education. It’s a project envisioned and brought to life by Raji Ganesan, Khalil Mccullen, and Rahba, who I connect with over Zoom. For Khalil, the project is grounded in an exploration of “what it means to be a nourished human being, in alignment with one’s environment.” He says, “How we change food systems has the power to affect that. In our current arrangement, in any of our social systems, there’s no social cohesion. That sense of shared responsibility and shared benefit is lost. For colonized people, our existence is not localized. It’s about somewhere outside of our locality that benefits from what we do. So then trying to reorient that relationship becomes mad important.”

“Land and food and resources go hand in hand,” adds Rahba. “The more land we have, the more power we have, because we have the power to grow our own food. We have the power to exist outside of this context that is actively destroying us.”

Rahba began forming his vision as a child. He recalls first feeling connected to food and community through a faint childhood memory waking up at his great-grandmother’s house in Tuskegee, Alabama.“I woke up in this big bed and there were cats everywhere. And I just, like, freaked out,” he says. “But they had land and they were growing and it was providing food and a rest space for the community.”

Raji first sensed a new potential for community through travel, as well. The daughter of Tamil immigrants from South India, she observed a new type of social cohesion when she took a trip to her parents’ home in her youth. “They were creating community in a potent and intense way,” she recalls, “selling stuff on the street. There’s always an opportunity to interact, whether it’s through exchanging resources or stories, because they all lived so close to each other.”

Both Rahba and Raji bounced around the country as they grew. Rahba explored cooperative culture by living with intentional communities he found online, while Raji moved with her parents away from Phoenix to spots like Austin and New Orleans before settling back in the desert for high school. There, she leaned into art, community, and earthwork, a path concluding with her creating a youth arts center out of a house on the south side of Phoenix. She realized the vitality of her teachings during one particular lunch period.

“We had to break down what the french fry was made out of, because one of my student’s didn’t understand that his french fry was from a potato,” she recalls. “You have this young person who is malnourished by American capitalism and also has to be reconnected to the idea that a potato made that french fry.”

Raji described the experience of taking the students to a community garden a few days later as both revelatory and traumatizing, as students realized both how close and how far they were from their food sources. The simple act of reconnection was crucial.

“To be spiritually connected to the food growing process, we are reminded of our place in an ecosystem,” Raji says. “When we’re talking about belonging, I don’t think there’s anything really deeper that you can give back to somebody who’s experienced hundreds of years of displacement.”

By the late 2010s, Rahba, Raji, and Khalil all had relocated to Phoenix, and soon they were frequenting the same events in the city’s small creative scene, a flow that led them to First Friday Art Walk, a weekly community art showcase. One night, Rahba eyed the crowd and spotted Khalil, another artist in the community he recognized but hadn’t met until he went up and asked him to ask for a rolling paper. The exchange led to conversation, and soon, connection.

“We were like, ‘Wow, okay, we’re talking about some similar things and really pulling from some of the same references,’” recalls Khalil. “That just turned into us continuing to kick it.”

In early 2020, they started building a food sovereignty program working to connect Phoenix’s East African community with the city’s larger Black population. The onset of the coronavirus gave the task new meaning. Suddenly the lives of many were upended overnight as jobs were lost, and resources strained. They deepened their work, planting more gardens around the city and connecting with local farmers to make food boxes to distribute around town.

“I remember feeling like, ‘I gotta hit the gardens,’” says Raji. “It was just a frantic energy, cultivating and trying to get as much of this produce as I could to people in my life who I knew had, overnight, lost their livelihoods.”

But these isolated acts of mutual aid exhausted all three of them—a fatigue brought on by the social and economic dynamics inherent to a nonprofit, where goals feel liberating, but are burdened by having to operate within capitalist frameworks.

“We’re gathering a lot of funding, but constantly being blocked for actually making the organization sustainable, or actually developing a social dynamic that is not just reifying capitalist ways of relating.”

“As we talked more specifically and shared our experiences, we realized that we need as much space as we can get,” says Raji.

“I was like, ‘Yo, this is not enough—there has to be an actual land base that people can interact with,’” adds Khalil.

Then Raji raised the idea, “What if we just collectively became stewards? Owning five acres of land, so much could be made possible now and in the future with that.”

With some money saved up, the three began scoping LandWatch, an online marketplace for vacant land. They zoomed in on plots close enough to a reliable water source, with flat and healthy soil—off the grid but not too remote, in case they needed to retrieve resources from a nearby town. They hit a wall until Rahba checked his DMs. He saw he had missed a message from an account named Southwest Black Ranchers, a fellow Arizonan family that had recently moved out of a Phoenix-area suburb and into Douglas County, where they purchased 10 acres of land. After seeing Rahba and Khalil’s work in the city with the food sovereignty program, they wanted to connect.

“We had been looking for colonized people with some ideas around liberation, like identifying land and getting it, and they were very much doing that,” says Khalil.

“We could collectivize our resources and help each other’s projects grow. So, yeah, it made the most sense to me,” adds Rahba.

They went back to LandWatch and found a plot close to the Southwest Black Ranchers. From there, Khalil says the land acquisition process was “unbelievably easy.” They verified the plot on Google Maps, drove down to it, made sure it fit the bill, called the realtor while standing on the plot, sent him money, and a few days later, they received their deed in the mail. Soon, they’d take tents down to acclimate to the elements.

A Living Collective.

“It’s unbelievable how simple it is,” says Khalil. “Like, it can actually be silent. It can actually be dark.”

“What an amazing gift: I can be outside and have sun on my skin and experience the earth,” adds Raji. “That really shouldn’t be a privilege, but that’s a huge part of what’s informing our work. It’s this belief that’s really in the body, remembering and knowing what’s possible in those environments, because it’s a total reset. I’m not used to this kind of autonomy. It truly cannot be found in a city.”

Khalil and Raji soon returned to Phoenix to spread the word and generate excitement around the project through community fundraising and educational events. Rahba remained on the land for close to eight months. He says he spent the first few weeks not listening to music at all, but there was still so much to observe and hear.

“I’m digging trenches, digging waterways, and making compost, but also a lot of just walking around and observing what’s happening. Because things have been happening way before I ever got there,” he says.

Now they’re in the resource acquisition phase. Raji calls Rahba a “Craigslist Search Wizard,” helping them to acquire two hauling trailers which have helped stock the land with basic necessities like shelter, power, water storage, and fridges. Moving forward, they hope to continue to steward the land and make it comfortable for the three of them to homestead and later open to the larger community—providing a spot for rest, idea facilitation, art creation, permaculture education, and overall expansion.

“I think so much of what we’re offering is, hopefully, an economic model to be developed,” Khalil says. “Creating autonomy, economic stability, so you can think about spending your money differently because you’re growing your own food.”

Hearing A Living Collective summarize its vision brought to mind the goals of A-dae and Ari. All three are grounded in reclaiming space for connection and community around food, and hoping to create a different future through new ways of organizing resources.

“The picture of the metaverse with stocked grocery shelves, to me, is just a recreation of the traditional,” says Briones. “To create retail markets where people are consumers and somebody is the owner—that’s just recreating what already exists. That’s pointless, and defeats the whole point of creating a metaverse. What I hope that this new world does is create new ways of looking at systems and communities where we don’t even need the grocery store.”

“If you don’t own some land, or these material things, you’re just gonna be left to go shop at Walmart in the metaverse. It really is becoming that stark of a contrast,” says Khalil. “All of that continues to motivate me to keep it material.”

Each understands the limitations of individual effort. It’s an interdependent and interconnected process, but small habits can create complex systems.

“My only goal is to show people that another way is possible,” says Díaz. “Starting from the ground, having community-building intentions. It’s not something you can just slap on overnight and say, ‘Okay, we’re doing it now.’”

“I think we’ve used the word node a lot, as far as how we see what we’re doing,” says Khalil. “Being a node in this larger web or basket that we’re weaving—a node that we’d really like to see glow brighter, have more people’s energy, supporting these experiences that allow us to keep walking towards something new.”