One afternoon, at the end of my Fall 2019 semester, I decided to treat myself to a lunch at New Moon Cafe in downtown Burlington. It's tucked away in a little niche on Cherry St., making it the perfect secluded study spot for a student looking to get away from the hustle-and-bustle of the iconic Church St. marketplace. I placed my order, a half [vegan] sandwich and salad, and reached to pull my wallet out. What the cashier said next made my jaw drop to the floor. 

"That will be $17.29." 

The sticker shock I experienced within that moment was something that I wasn't really exposed to much. Eating out is a rare occurrence in my life, but not because I have highly refined tastes; it's just easier to not have to question the ingredient list of every entree on the menu. I also admire the art of home cooking, and it's an activity I genuinely enjoy. So when I do eat out, I want it to be worth the experience. 

I held my tongue, paid the cashier, and left a 20% tip on the bill. At $17, I was expecting my meal to be one of the best sandwiches I'd ever tasted. The honest reality? It was mediocre at best, and left both my wallet and my stomach disappointed. 

Burlington restaurants can't truthfully exist in the realm of mediocrity. It's the most (read as: only) urban locale in the state and has seen commercial rent skyrocket in recent years. But the cost of doing business in the area is not just felt by culinary cavilers, but also the patrons that frequent these restaurants.

In short, Burlington isn't cheap for anyone. The average rent price in Burlington (for a four bedroom house) is well over $3000 a month. The landlords in Burlington up-charge their poorly-insulated, and often dangerous houses because they know that students face a housing shortage and need somewhere to live when UVM kicks them off campus as juniors. Furthermore, many UVM students and service-sector employees can't afford to purchase groceries at the local City Market co-op, nor can they afford to thrive in a city like Burlington. I, for one, have had to stomach the unfortunate reality that I can't afford to live in Burlington after I graduate from university in the fall. Despite its rich culinary offerings, vibrant art scene, and picturesque landscape, the city itself is reinforcing a mass exodus of lower and middle class residents. 

Gentrification in a Nutshell

The primary driver of Burlington's plight is gentrification. Gentrification is a widespread phenomena seen in urban environments and describes how affluent folk systematically reinvest in cities thus driving up the cost of living. Financial capital may move into a city as the result of location, amenities, or proximity to resources. This then prompts businesses to increase their prices or cater their products to a new, "creative" class of foodies and residents. And if you were ever looking for an explanation for why an artisan loaf of bread costs $8 at a local bakery, you now have your answer. 

Other residents are either pushed to the wayside or fall through the cracks when food gentrification occurs in an area. One such way in particular is through the placement of supermarkets. Adding urban amenities, such as parks, "arts districts," and specialty grocery stores (e.g., Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, and natural food stores) drive up rent costs in a surrounding area. When people can no longer afford to shop at these niche grocery stores (who often cater their products to those with "refined" tastes and "ethical consumption" habits), they are subjected to living in areas with minimal access to healthy foods. In many cases, grocery stores will actually refuse to operate in areas with perceived lower purchasing power among customers (termed "greenlining"), instead only operating in areas with wealthier populations. This prompts further disinvestment in less affluent areas, resulting in an eroding tax base and less support for community institutions like schools.  

Let's Talk About Foodie-ism

As the example of supermarket green-lining demonstrates, gentrification is a fulfilling and vicious cycle. Perhaps the worst part about it, however, is that "foodie culture" and an obsession with upscale, opulent, and delicious food fuels gentrification. Without foodie culture, Burlington wouldn't have Butch's and Babe's mac & cheese pancakes, tiny cupcakes from My Little Cupcake, or Saratoga Olive Oil Co. (a store that literally just sells fancy olive oil- how much more gentrified can we get?) These are arguably the foods that simultaneously shape Burlington's food culture while also perpetuating its downfall. 

The "blame business" model isn't exactly justified either. Many of the restaurants that charge upwards of $20 a plate are just trying to get by in an economy where they can barely afford to put their own food on their own table. When rent, operation costs, and salaries are high, there's no incentive to charge less than top-price for a meal: especially when tourists have the means to pay for it. However, this process inherently generates questions around inclusivity and classism within public spaces like restaurants. And when we start making assumptions about who can afford to frequent certain restaurants and what quality food is associated with a particular price. At these intersections, we start seeing complex issues around race and income biases emerge. 

If rich (and predominately white) people got us into this mess, is there any way they can get us out? 

The simple answer? No. 

The more complex answer? Yes, if they use their existing political clout to advocate for widespread urban affordability. The crux of the situation, however, is that wealthy, white folk don't seem to want more inclusive urban environments. They don't have a problem sipping their $6 coffee or forking over $17 for a mediocre lunch combo. The people who are actually making a difference and increasing the affordability of the area are those who truly care about not only the city's wellbeing, but also the wellbeing of all its residents regardless of race, income, or housing status. 

If you're a student at UVM, chances are that you're contributing to the problem of Burlington's gentrification. Currently, UVM is one of the most expensive public schools for out-of-state students, with an average price tag of over $50,000 per year. Outside of food, landlords know that "Mommy and Daddy" will pay for their students' housing. This then eliminates the "need" for safe, regulated, and affordable housing for lower-income individuals and financially-independent students.

Businesses further capitalize on the wealth that both students and tourists bring to the area by offering a wealth of culinary experiences- at a price. College students, especially those who are lucky enough to receive constant fiscal support from their parents, are willing to begrudgingly pay to go on a bar crawl or go to Oktoberfest. You can't help but recognize that these types of events we coin as "oh-so-Burlington" are really just marketing scams...sorry. 

That being said, every time you make a decision to eat at a restaurant that charges exorboriant amounts for food while giving little back to its workers in terms of both wages and equity, you're contributing to the problem. On an individual level, you can make the choice to purchase from community-centric businesses: those who employ at-risk folx, donate a portion of their funds to community organizations, and alike. But I'm going to check myself here because the "voting with your fork" argument is flawed and does nothing to change the underlying, systemic injustices that perpetuate gentrification. Instead, [a collective, societal] we need to look to enact structural changes to ensure the vibrancy of urban food culture for all. CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute scholar Nevin Cohen recommends a series of approaches: developing planning programs that support retail diversity, increasing community action networks for environmental equity, and alike. But is that enough? 

What we really need is a re-evaluation of what inclusive, urban foodie culture really means and who it seeks to benefit. Urban spaces are essential to foodie culture because they allow for an intense synergy of cultures and experiences. But when the opportunity to experience "foodie culture" is only geared towards those who can afford it, our collective cultural consciousness is caught in the crosshairs. A shift to a more equitable food urban food environment, one in which experiences are both fiscally and culturally accessible to all residents, is vital to creating a more diverse food system.

It might be hard to imagine what does this big idea actually looks like, but I believe it starts by acknowledging the very tangible consequences of rich folk moving into an area (either physically or culturally) and claiming it as their "own." After all, food carries immense emotional, cultural, and moral ties, so staking a particular culture's right to experience it is immensely complicated. Although we all come from different places, humans share a unique and far-reaching fascination with what we eat. The ability to try new dishes and experience cross-cultural gastronomy shouldn't be something reserved just for those making a six-figure salary.