Are food deserts real?

How do mothers find affordable, healthy food to feed their families? Early this century American social scientists studied food access for low-income families. They adopted the term, ‘food desert,’ as “an area that does not have a supply of healthy foods, such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats.” Their solution to eliminating food deserts was a supermarket. In urban settings one must be within a mile of every shopper. In rural areas it must be within 10 miles. The term is controversial, but alternative descriptions are neither accepted nor understood. The importance of food access has been a major theme of this blogsite. Now, a recent book, How the Other Half Eats, challenges the concept of lack of access.

Food deserts and swamps are the two most common terms to describe problems with food access. At times they describe the same locations from different points of view. A food desert does not have a supermarket close by. A food swamp has too many places of business that draw consumers away from healthy food. No supermarket but shops pushing fast-food operations and junk food is a food swamp. A location without easy access to junk food, fast food, or a supermarket would be a food desert. Places with supermarkets and shops with high-volume unhealthy products can fit either term. It all depends on one’s philosophical perspective.

Is a supermarket the answer? Many social scientists studying this topic would say yes. Most social-justice activists would say no. Anyone who has read Black Food Geographies remembers the searing description of her UnSafeway. Supermarkets must meet the desires of its customers with acceptable choices. Availability of fresh, affordable, healthy items on a consistent basis is the key. Many social-justice advocates would restrict low-income consumers to only healthy, unprocessed foods. The issue is of particular importance in the area of SNAP (food stamps) funding.

What are other alternatives? Inner-city initiatives driven by residents, not outsiders, have proved successful in some environments. Most popular actions involve attracting farmers markets and planting & maintaining urban gardens. Like supermarkets, some farmers markets are better than others. Quality of fresh fruits, vegetables and meats at these sites varies. Allowing use of SNAP and credit cards at these fresh markets is a great idea. Urban gardens introduce residents to the miracle of life developing from seed to full-grown plant. The best ones involve the community in all activities from planting to harvest. Gardening is fun the first time or two, but the work is not for everyone. Excitement fades fast for many new gardeners. It takes an incredible amount of unpaid labor to make an impact in an urban area. Gardens are less successful than farmers market in most locations.

food on display at a local food pantry
Are food pantries still a valid means of distributing food to low-income families? Photo by Roberta Parillo.

Food pantries distribute both fresh and processed food to the working poor. Can pantries limit processed foods at these sites? Should they stop trying to reduce hunger and focus on improving nutrition? Can they cut distribution of processed food, such as items high in sugar and salt? Stocking corner, dollar, and convenience stores with fresh foods might improve access. Such stores face challenges not clear to people outside the retail grocery industry.

Is access the problem? I say yes. My perspective contrasts with How the Other Half Eats. The author rejects the access explanation, finding price, income level, and family circumstances more important. She points to systemic inequities documented in journals that reject access as a problem. I found no mention in the book of urban gardens or farmers markets. None of the 160 people she interviewed were frequent clients of food pantries. She notes that over 90% of Americans have access to automobiles.

Does a sample drawn from the greater San Francisco Bay area generalize to the country as a whole. In addition, there is no direct statement that any interviewees were from either the inner city or a rural area. This criticism is not meant to demean her very insightful study, but it doesn’t rise to the level of refuting the food access/food desert paradigm.

Where do we go from here? One thing is clear. Many American families are not able to afford a healthy diet. These families have young children who did not choose to be poor. Serious questions face this nation, purported to be the wealthiest in the world. Are these families responsible for their situation? Or are they poor due to circumstances beyond their control? Are we doing enough to make sure they have enough money to provide for a healthy diet? Do we need to restrict the types of foods available to poor families? Or is it enough to provide access to a healthy food supply? Should we leave responsibility for the healthiness of their diet on each family?

These questions are difficult to answer. Our answer depends on our personal philosophy, economic circumstances, and level of concern. Will we rise to the occasion? Or will we let nature take its course? Supermarkets in the right location can be part of the solution, but they have limitations. Income inequality contributes to the problem, but does that matter to us? Food pantries can be part of the solution, but we should be able to do more to reduce food insecurity. The United Nations recognizes access to food to be a human right such that

The right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.

The keys are availability, access, affordability and adequacy. We do not meet this standard in the USA. Does any country live up to it? Is it an unachievable goal or is it an aspiration we should try to achieve?

Food desert is still a useful term to try to understand the American plight. It may be too simplistic a concept to describe the actual situation of many poor families. Can America become a healthier nation? Can’t we do better in providing access to more healthy food for families that are food insecure?

Dedicated to my spiritual advisor and friend, John H. Danner.

Next week: How do we define the healthiness of food?

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