Food deserts, food swamps, food apartheid, grocery gaps and other names for food maldistribution

I learned recently that I need to be careful what I share with my pastor. I was particularly pleased with the Jonathan Katz post on processed food, disability and autonomy, and I recommended that he read the article.  My pastor liked it and suggested that I pursue the issue of food deserts, a topic I had not planned to write about on the blog. Two guest bloggers on the site, Bailey Houghtaling and Lily Yang, described low food access areas, which is a more technically appropriate descriptor for food deserts. I looked for but did not find a definitive book on the topic. I went to Amazon whose algorithms suggested two possibilities: Food and Food Justice. I also turned to a trusted contributor to this site, Anna Zeide, who recommended Black Food Geographies. I read all three books, but none of them proved definitive on the topic. The three, however, painted a picture that helped me better understand the topic. Once again, I provide quotations in bold from each of the books and respond.

Food by Fabio Parasecoli is a delightful book from someone who has vast experience with food issues from an international perspective. If I were still teaching, I would find a way to incorporate the book into an ongoing class discussion on food issues in the twenty-first century. He approaches the topic from a social-justice perspective, but he is more likely to question standard dogma than the other two sources.

Food deserts—areas where fresh and nutritious food isn’t available, dominated instead by a prevalence of outlets selling fast food or highly processed, prepackaged products—have become an urgent problem in the cities” (page 159) Parasecoli goes on to point out these areas also exist in the countryside as well in a slightly different context. Food deserts are usually associated with a lack of proximity to a supermarket. The supermarket provides access to fresh fruits and vegetables as well as lean meats and other unprocessed or minimally processed foods.

The author points out that the emphasis on supermarkets ignores exchange networks consisting of community gardens, urban farms, collective transport and shared produce. Not mentioned, are food pantries, which would qualify here as well. These deserts are often contrasted with food swamps. Deserts are areas deficient in fresh and nutritious foods while swamps are filled with fast food and highly processed, prepackaged products. Advocates who use the term desert tend to be interested in providing access to fresh and nutritious food while those using the term swamp tend to be more interested in eliminating access to fast and prepackaged food.

“In 2017 in the United States, families in the bottom 20 percent in terms of wealth spent 34.1 percent of their income on total food expenditures (both at home and outside), whereas the top 20 percent spent less than 10 percent. Food may be cheap, but that does not necessarily make it affordable.” (44-45) Income disparities make access to healthy food much more difficult within these areas, particularly when fresh, whole food is much less affordable than prepackaged food. Supermarket chains tend to be much more likely to locate in affluent and middle-class areas than low-income neighborhoods. On the other hand, fast-food chains and corner or convenience stores populate impoverished locations offering a vast array of swamp food. Can the problems of food deserts/swamps be resolved with a mix of actions from both within and outside the affected areas? A bipartisan effort proposed legislation to help solve the problem by providing economic incentives to locate supermarkets in low-access areas, but it didn’t seem to go anywhere. OR, do we need to completely reconstruct the American food system?

drive-thru menu at a fast-food restaurant
Fast-food outlets are likely to dominate food deserts/swamps

“Will new technologies usher in a greater democratization in the food system, or will they intensify the inequalities between the haves and have nots? Is technology the only way to improve efficiency and yields in food production? More importantly, is producing more the single most important priority?” (134-135) Technology is not necessarily the enemy in Food which distinguishes it from the other two books. The author is interested in technology as it relates directly to accessibility and affordability of food to low-income populations. Despite arguments to the contrary— he indicates that technology does not necessarily need to be the enemy of sustainability, but sustainability is a key objective in a modified food system. The other two books advocate a radical adjustment to the food system. Parasecoli wants changes but not to the extent proposed below.

I found the question on whether we need increased production of food to be curious particularly in Food which is the most international in scope of the three books reviewed. More production of food does not necessarily need to be the top priority in US, but we do not currently produce enough fresh fruits and vegetables in this country to meet the recommended shift in diets. World population today is currently estimated at 7.7 billion. By one calculation the world can sustainably support only about 2 billion at a Western European lifestyle. If true, I can’t envision how we can improve access to food around the world without producing more food through advances in technology, much less feed the additional 1.5 to 2 billion people expected on earth by 2050. Most of this increase in population will come to nations with much poorer access to food than the US.

Food Justice by Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi provides an edgier perspective on the topic of food access as part of an in-depth look how food is produced, distributed and consumed in the US. It decribes how food-justice advocates approached Barack Obama early in his first term to push their agenda. The President asked them if they represented a movement. The book lays out a perspective on how this New Food Movement is developing in the country.

“we characterize food justice as ensuring that the benefits and risks of where, what, and how food is grown and produced, transported and distributed, and accessed and eaten are shared fairly.” (6) The overall definition of social justice as it relates to food appears early in the book. The scope of inquiry encompasses the entire food system from field to table looking at inequities inherent in the current food system, activities to advance the cause of food justice and possible solutions to festering problems. It is clear that Gottlieb and Joshi want radical changes to how food is grown, produced, transported and distributed. My interest here is in food access, but the authors are advocating much more systemic change. Activities by major players in food distribution like local sourcing by Wal-mart stores are not looked on favorably in Food Justice.

“The prevalence of grocery gaps—that is, the lack of full-service food markets with affordable items, including fresh food, within walking distance—has now been documented in numerous low-income communities in both large metropolitan areas and rural areas, where the distance to markets is far greater.” (41) These authors don’t like the term food desert and replace it with grocery gap. As noted in Food, fresh foods are considered good and processed foods not so much. They also point out differences in these gaps between urban and rural contexts. All too frequently, they suggest, access is unfairly denied on the basis of race, ethnicity and income. Such lack of access is directly linked in this discussion to health-related disparities in obesity and chronic diseases such as diabetes. Efforts to mitigate this situation will be discussed in the coming weeks on this site.

small food supermarket
Food deserts lack access to a supermarket

“Food stores can provide much-needed access to fresh, healthy, local foods or they can make available less healthy, highly processed, less affordable and culturally inappropriate standardized food products for low-income communities.” (227) Full-service grocery stores/supermarkets provide the greatest hope for access to healthy foods and freedom from reliance on the highly processed, unhealthy ones. Note the stress on the importance of culturally appropriate foods be available. The less affordable dimension associated with highly processed items is interesting as one of the complaints about processed foods is that they are cheaper than fresh alternatives. The concept that fresh foods are always more likely to be healthy and culturally appropriate than processed ones seems to me to be an overreach. It also tends to ignore differences in intergenerational values and the consequences of migration both within and across borders of nations.

Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access in Washington, D.C. by Ashanté M. Reese is an anthropological study of a specific community and how it is not properly served by the modern food distribution system. Unlike Food which is international in scope or Food Justice which provides a national perspective, Black Food Geographies focuses on how inequities impact a specific inner-city ward. It thus takes the theoretical issues and gives them a more personal touch.

“Karen Washington offered ‘food apartheid’ as an alternative to ‘food desert’ because it ‘looks at the whole food system along with race, geography, faith and economics. You say ‘food apartheid’ and you get to the root cause of some of the problems around the food system’ ” (7) Once again, food desert is given another name as the term focuses solely on access and ignores the much greater problem of social justice. From the author’s viewpoint, getting groceries to disadvantaged populations is not enough. Reese believes that the entire food system is broken. In the broader context, she declares that discriminatory practices are not merely coincidental. They are manifestations of a broader pattern that needs to be fixed. Deanwood, the community in Washington D.C. that she studies, has been bypassed by an industrial food system which works in suburbs but not in inner cities. She is looking for revolutionary change and not incremental modification.

“The nearest thing we have is a Safeway, which is like one of the worst places in the world. Okay? It’s poorly managed. The prices are higher ’cause they have so much shrinkages they say.” (53) This statement is from one of the many residents interviewed in this study. Problems in loss of access to fresh foods can be traced back to the closing of four small grocery stores in Deanwood years ago. They were replaced by a supermarket which is referred to as the unSafeway throughout the book. The unSafeway is a dysfunctional operation–overcrowded and understocked. Reese and many of the people she interviews make it clear that why just locating a supermarket into the area doesn’t necessarily solve the problems associated with food deserts. The unSafeway is no oasis.

Residents interviewed suggest that lack of food access is part of a number of larger trends with respect to generational values, unpopularity of gardening, outflow of talent from the neighborhood etc., but the author brings us back to the wider picture of social injustice and food apartheid. When I was conducting research on losses of fresh produce as part of a research projects, my colleagues and I came across the curious grocery jargon term, shrinkage. Shrink or shrinkage in the produce section refers to the loss of fresh items that become unsalable generally due to poor appearance. Minimizing shrinkage in the produce section is achieved by careful management of and a predictable demand for fresh fruits and vegetables.

“our food system fails us on many levels, and looking for alternatives or solutions provides some hope and also demonstrates how communities take control and dream the world anew.” (132) Unlike the two previous books, Black Food Geographies tells a sad tale of a community that seems to have given up hope. Deanwood has been beaten down and shows little chance of recovery. There is some action beneath the surface in the form of an organization that has lobbied a community store to stock fresh produce and another group that has started a community garden. Both efforts are described as symbolic rather than turning points. The community doesn’t support the store, and the owner of the store, a member of the community, doesn’t seem all that excited about selling fresh fruits and vegetables.

Likewise, the garden is there to show young people where their food comes from, but it appears to have made little or no impact on the total consumption of fresh items. Examples are presented of how communities in Greensboro, North Carolina, and other locations around the country are inspirational, but such efforts don’t seem to be generating any interest in Deanwood.

box of fresh vegetables
Food deserts do not provide sufficient access to fresh fruits and vegetables

These three books set the stage for a series of articles on accessibility of food in lower-income neighborhoods in coming weeks. I found Food to take the most balanced approach of the three. It approaches the topic from a social justice point of view, but it inserts critical questions to provide perspective. It does not discard technological or market approaches to help solve some of the problems we face with respect to food access. Food Justice is more rooted in advocacy and a desire to radically redesign the food system. It is filled with examples of community action which have resulted in improved access and healthier outcomes. Black Food Geographies goes beyond the food system to look for systemic blockades to intentional limits on food access in specific communities due to “race, geography, faith and economics.” The series of posts that follows in coming weeks will focus on possible ways to improve access through tweaks of the current food system.

Next week: Food access and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by Bailey Houghtaling

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