Wendy Welch Published

The Rooted East Knoxville Collective Brings New Perspectives To Restorative Foodways Justice 

The outside of a restaurant. Close to the camera is a chain link fence. Beyond the fence, painted on the side of the restaurant, are the words, "Make Change through Food."
This collective kitchen is where Femeika Elliott first prepared meal kits to sell at the Knoxville Farmers Market.
Wendy Welch/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

This story originally aired in the June 16, 2024 episode of Inside Appalachia.

Femeika Elliott drives me down Magnolia Avenue, the street dividing east Knoxville from west. The east side is a historic Black neighborhood where Elliott spent summers with her grandmother.

Elliott, a foodways entrepreneur who brings nutrition-dense foods to east Knoxville shoppers, is pointing out the lack of healthy food options in the neighborhood. 

“If we ride down Magnolia Avenue, we see that there are zero healthy food options, compared to all of the other fast food options and drive through liquor stores,” Elliott says. She points to a liquor store as she speaks.

“I often say that it’s very likely for someone that stays in east Knoxville to die by the drive-by or by the drive-through,” Elliott says.  

Most people have heard the term food desert, but Elliott uses a different term to describe east Knoxville’s lack of healthy food options: food apartheid.

Most people are familiar with the term food desert, which describes a place where healthy options are hard to find without suggesting why access is difficult. Activists often prefer the term food apartheid since it points to systemic discrimination, which most often occurs in politically disenfranchised neighborhoods. 

A woman sits on a chair and holds a magazine that reads, "knox.biz She's got a 'Big Idea'"
Femeika Elliott holds a regional magazine showing one of her many awards.

Photo Credit: Wendy Welch/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“Three non-healthy food options to every one healthy food option is typically considered, ‘food apartheid.’” Elliott’s fingers mark the quotes with one hand as she drives. 

It’s hard to say what upsets Elliott more about the situation in East Knoxville: what she sees, or what she doesn’t see. As we pass an ordinary-looking side street, she points it out as the former boundaries of the now-defunct Black business district known as The Bottom. “The Bottom was perceived to be one of the richest places in Knoxville when it comes to Black Knoxville entrepreneurs and business owners. That was before gentrification or what my community calls Black removal,” Elliott says. 

Along with businesses, east Knoxville used to have a lot of farms and gardens. Kimberley Pettigrew, Food Systems Director for the Greater Knoxville United Way, has evidence. At Knoxville’s Beck Cultural Exchange Center, she found archival photographs and transcripts that point to the history of grocery stores, restaurants and seed stores in the area. 

“People had chickens, people were farmers,” Pettigrew says. “And [they] sold that food to White people in the same location where the organization I worked for ran a farmers market.” 

All that began disappearing in the 1970s, the most active period of Black removal in Knoxville. “So it’s something that was taken away,” Pettigrew says, “It was taken away intentionally.”

Thriving Black businesses in east Knoxville were long gone by the time Elliott was born into a military family there. Raised in multiple locations, she spent summers with her grandmother in Knoxville and returned after university graduation, planning to launch a career in social work.

Instead she launched a healthy meals business and began a lifelong fight for food equity and restorative justice in her community. She wanted her community to have fresh fruits and vegetables available.

“The way that I see it, we should get back to our traditions and learn how to be self-sufficient and sustainable,” Elliott says. “I practice the art of Sankofa, which is an African proverb meaning ‘going back and getting it.’ Which is the methodology of going back and restoring our pathways and traditions that made us who we are. And so gardening, farming, we taught folks that.” 

She first provided nutritional advice to a few friends and family members, like her former housemate Zerconia “Z” Davis.

Davis recalls experiencing “tomato envy” when Elliott began coming home with fresh produce she grew at her mother’s house — on a tiny second story balcony. 

Elliott laughs. “Yeah, it was funny because she was like, ‘Where are you getting these tomatoes and peppers from,’ and I was like, ‘Oh on my mom’s balcony.’ And she’s like, ‘What are you doing out there?’ and I’m like, ‘Huh, we just made a garden.’”

“How?” Davis asks with a grin as the two dissolve into laughter. “How do you grow a garden on a tiny balcony?”

When Davis moved out, she started her own garden. Elliott gave her seeds and ideas, and soon Davis had so many of her own tomatoes that she was sharing them with Elliott instead of the other way around.

“I got so many tomatoes, come get ‘em,” Davis says with another laugh. 

“You go girl,” Elliott shouts. “We’re making salsa, hello!”

The duo looked at ways to container garden in small spaces using recycled household detritus, including toilet rolls, two liter milk jugs and boxes. 

Davis says she found in gardening not just healthy food she wanted to eat, but peace she hadn’t experienced since launching her fast-paced career in finance.

A selfie of a smiling woman with dark hair and dangling earrings. She wears an olive turtleneck shirt.
Zerconia Davis was the first taste tester of Femeika Elliott’s healthy meal kits.

Courtesy Photo

“Gardening is honestly a form of therapy in every way, shape and form.” Davis says. “It teaches you patience. In the world we live in today, with phones — everything is instant. Learning patience and learning how to be present in the moment and just enjoy the fact that your seed sprouted. And then you get to watch it turn into a flower.” 

Elliott helped Davis with another problem, too. 

“My first job, it was a very stressful job, and I had gained a lot of weight. I wasn’t healthy,” Davis says.

So Elliott started making healthy meal plans for her friend.

“When I first started meal prepping for her prior to her learning on her own, it was an uphill battle, because she was like, ‘Whadaya mean I gotta portion this off? And what the hell is quinoa? And why am I eating this?’ It was all questions, all the time,” Elliott says.

While Davis had expected to lose the weight, she hadn’t anticipated enjoying the process.

“I think what surprised me the most was how easy it could be while it could still taste good,” Davis says, adding that Elliott’s meal kits were ahead of their time in both taste and nutritional content. “It looked like something you would want to eat when you were done making it.”

Encouraged by her friend, Elliott began selling meal kits at the local farmer’s market. But she wanted to reach more people in the east Knoxville community. She recalls reckoning with herself: 

“What you’re doing now is not cutting it, like it’s not enough.” 

A famous proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” That was on Elliott’s mind as she found three other foodways activists and entrepreneurs also focused on restorative foodways. Together they formed an organization called the Rooted East Knoxville Collective.

“I started Rooted East because I saw a need to bring our Black community back into equilibrium.” Elliott sums up her motivation. 

Rooted East began winning regional awards. In 2023, the collective helped a historic Black church put 36 raised beds on its lawn. In 2024, more than 100 beds went in on the lawn of that same church, plus 30 gardens in the larger community.

This pleased Elliott, but she is not about to stop there. “I also want to see people coming together over food, breaking bread, learning, you know, about what they’ve experienced in the city, in their homes, in our lives — just bringing people back together,” Elliott says.

The Rooted East Knoxville Collective asks where gardens and businesses used to be in the area, seeking the wisdom and memory of community elders, and then attempts to put these resources back. Elliott describes it as hard but rewarding work that should be done within the community for the community, a concept known as Ujima. 

“At some point we have to hold ourselves accountable and acknowledge hey, we strayed away from tradition. And we need to practice Sankofa, you know, we need to practice Ujima,” Elliott says. “It’s a collective work and responsibility.”

In east Knoxville, restorative justice grows organically from within the community. 

A tractor is shown parked just outside a garden. It is a sunny day and the vegetation looks green and vibrant.
Battlefield Farms is one of the collective garden sites in east Knoxville.

Photo Credit: Wendy Welch/West Virginia Public Broadcasting


This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia.

The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts and culture.