Last day of Food Desert Awareness Month

Today is the last day of Food Desert Awareness Month, hosted by the National Center for Public Awareness.
Food Desert defined:

A food desert is a large geographic area with no or distant grocery stores. Often, food deserts have an imbalance of food choice, meaning more nearby fringe food such as fast food, convenience stores, and liquor stores. While these communities are without enough mainstream grocers, many do have community assets, disposable income, appropriate sites for sustainable grocery stores, and talented community leaders working to improve healthy food options.

This is a super important piece in the broader conversation about food politics. As people get more aware about where their food comes from and what’s in it–folks in urban (or rural) communities that don’t have options for food purchasing get left behind. There are some really great projects to bring urban gardening and farming to low-income communities, as well as farmer’s markets and other fresh produce.
Ladonna Redmond has more to say in her article Food is Freedom in the Nation:

There are many Americans who have the resources to buy healthy food and still are denied access to it. This denial of access has created “food deserts,” a term I despise but use for the sake of argument. The trouble with the term “food deserts” is that it describes lack in a way that indicates that the solution is outside of the community labeled a desert.
To engage a broader audience, food-justice activists need to change their language.To change our food system, we need to change the way we talk about it.
There is a pervasive idea in the sustainable-food movement that simply returning to a food system of the past would right all that is wrong in the food world. However, history does not show that there has ever been a time when our food system was fair or just. Reflecting through my eyes, the eyes of an African-American woman, I see a system that from the earliest days of the founding of America was built on the annihilation of Native Americans and enslavement of Africans.

Read the rest here.

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16 Comments

  1. Mollie
    Posted September 30, 2009 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    The concept of a food desert and its alternatives are really interesting.. Thanks Miriam!

  2. saintcatherine
    Posted September 30, 2009 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    RE: Solutions to food deserts (short term, that is): I thought that this article on hack cabs here in altimore was fascinating and sparked a good discussion about community entrepreneurship to provide basic needs.
    http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/baltimore-city/bal-md.gr.hack15sep15,0,7298946.story

  3. cattrack2
    Posted September 30, 2009 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Last year the LA City Council voted to ban new fast food developments in a broad swath of “minority” LA, including South Central. The result is simply the granting of a monopoly to existing franchises like McDonald’s while banning innovative chains like Jamba Juice. Way to go LA City Council!
    The problem with labeling this a “denial of access” issue is that it suggests gov’t is the solution when in fact, as the LA case demonstrates, its the problem. This has also happened in Chicago, where the Alderman have voted to keep super stores out of the city limits, so this is a US wide problem. There’s not a single urban area where retailers are willingly “denying access to food” to urban residents. If Koo Koo Roo’s–or Kroger–thought it could make a buck in these communities, I guarantee you it would. The problem is that oftentimes healthy food, healthily prepared is often more expensive, and more of a gamble than the neighborhood can bear.

  4. cattrack2
    Posted September 30, 2009 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    When I lived in Africa I found that their cab system, which was essentially a hack system, HUGELY increased the availability of low cost transportation. I’ve often thought we should adopt something similar in the US, and reduce regulations on cabbies.

  5. jeana
    Posted September 30, 2009 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Actually, government can easily be the solution. If you can buy 5 boxes of macaroni & cheese for a few dollars and that can feed your family for 5 days, vs buying broccoli and carrots that are more expensive, you choose the macaroni. So that’s where government should come in. Government can subsidize healthy food the way they subsidize government contractors, the financial industry, and the health insurance companies. They can, they absolutely can.
    And those WalMart stores are not a solution anyway. They put all the neighborhood stores out of business and take all their earnings out of the community. They are one of the problems.

  6. cattrack2
    Posted September 30, 2009 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    That’s an interesting perspective Jeana. Three things strike me. 1)Since the gov’t already subsidizes food through food stamps & WIC, your suggestion would limit choice for the poor.
    2) We don’t know what’s really healthy. I grew up w/ gov’t cheese & butter, but now we know that’s not terribly healthy. 15 years ago trans fats were introduced as a more healthy alternative to natural fats, now of course they’re considered a health risk. People talk about taxing soda in order to reduce childhood obesity, while kids have been declining sodas in favor of energy drinks for ten years now. And let’s not even get into the health-environment paradox inherent in drinking bottled water.
    3) Why should limited tax dollars subsidize food when Wal Mart & Target can decrease prices 10-15% for us? Why should we subsidize small businessman at the expense of the poor people they serve? That doesn’t happen in middle class neighborhoods. When I lived in Chicago I belonged to a Co-Op grocery. No one subsidized us.
    Just *food for thought*, lol…

  7. Mighty Ponygirl
    Posted September 30, 2009 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Hm… I definitely see the point of this but it seems pretty vague for something we’re supposed to be “aware” of. What constitutes Distant? I take a rather lengthy drive once a week to stock up on food because there’s a kickass co-op about 20 minutes away to “stock up” even though there’s a local grocery store within walking distance of me that doesn’t sell any local/organic food. 20 minutes is a massive time in the car for me (it’s really the only day of the week I drive), but for my husband, who commutes twice that every day, 20 minutes is no big deal. For someone without a car, a twenty minute drive is an impossible distance. So we have to understand what Distant metric here is.
    Also, it would be great to see some sort of map showing where the food deserts are, particularly in ratio to the population density as well as the average income level of the residents.
    Finally, If you have a tract of strip malls that takes up a few square miles of space outside of town, it’s going to constitute a food desert, but if there’s no nearby residential zoning, then I’m not sure how it’s a problem. Yeah, it sucks that if you head out for a day of shopping at the Bed Bath and Beyond and Home Depot and Ikea your best bet for lunch is an Applebee’s instead of a McDonalds, but when I tried picking fresh vegetables from the drainage field and then cooking them up in one of the sample kitchens at Ikea there was some…. legal unpleasantness.

  8. Auriane
    Posted September 30, 2009 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    I live in an area considered a “food desert.” The last real grocery store left the area three years ago, and only the cheap Chinese, McDonald’s and KFC remain, along with a couple of convenience stores.
    I own a car and am able to easily get to a store, but I see my neighbors sometimes buying groceries for the whole family at the mini-mart across the street. I’ve taken the people in my building to buy groceries on several occasions, and have witnessed their frustration with not being able to get around as easily.
    To make it better, some share cabs while others try and get as much as possible home via bicycle, but having a store nearby — as opposed to a handful of fast food places and mini marts, which often attract local gang members — would be preferable to many in my neighborhood.
    Recently, a Beauty Warehouse Supply opened in the neighborhood, and, tellingly, someone Sharpied “We need a f***ing grocery store” into one of the vinyl signs.
    Not everyone has the ability to easily get to a grocery store 20 minutes away, not even in an urban area where there’s more likely to be some form of public transportation.

  9. Comrade Kevin
    Posted September 30, 2009 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    Returning to past ways regarding farming is a nice dream, but one shouldn’t forget that when this country was primarily agricultural, farming was a sole means of livelihood and an occupation, and with that came the same hierarchical class struggle than exists now in different forms. Growing food to supplement our existing grocery store purchases makes more sense than a wholesale return to a distant age.
    And, as this article points out, sustainable farming is an option only available for those of us with enough land that growing crops would be feasible. Most people in urban areas do not have this luxury. I myself lived a couple years ago in an area where the closet grocery store was miles away. The area had been gentrified only recently and one couldn’t even order a pizza because the coverage area didn’t include my residence. The only restaurant was a Chinese greasy spoon whose quality of food left much to be desired. There were, however, a few aging fast food joints and that was what passed for anything like a quick food source.

  10. eileen
    Posted September 30, 2009 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for posting about this! Too often we neglect to talk about the ways in which the lower class are cut out of the local/organic/whole food movement. I’ve written some more about it here: http://eileeneats.blogspot.com/2009/09/food-desert-awareness-week_30.html
    Feel free to check it out if you’re interested.
    In terms of government subsidies, if we were to STOP subsidizing Big Corn, we may end up with a food supply that is not full of processed corn (especially high fructose corn syrup). It would be a start…

  11. jeana
    Posted September 30, 2009 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    I don’t see how this would limit choices for the poor. Food stamps and WIC don’t guarantee healthy eating. If there aren’t vegetables or they’re expensive and cruddy, no one will eat them. I thought the government subsidized farmers. Why do we pay for fruits & vegetables from Argentina & Chile? We have land.
    Your #2 just shows that you really can’t trust what the government says! Although I wonder how much was what they really thought vs. how much of that was what they had cheap and so could be pushed onto the poor.
    I don’t like how WalMart squeezes out local businesses. And they may decrease prices 10-15%, but how much do you pay in added taxes to cover their employees’ health benefits? Employees who make so little (probably where some of that savings come from) that they qualify for Medicaid.
    I personally like organic, at least for my son. But it does cost more and now I am disgusted by the Whole Foods CEO and so don’t know what to do. But I can drive anywhere and I do have choices, so I can’t complain.

  12. jeana
    Posted September 30, 2009 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    There is some program–and I forget what it’s called–where if you have fruit trees, you can sign up to allow people to come by and pick your fruit to eat. There are always so many fruit trees with tons of fruit, and people can’t usually eat everything on their trees. It’s at least a step in the right direction.

  13. cattrack2
    Posted September 30, 2009 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

    A lot of this comes down to economics…You’re right, we shouldn’t still be subsidizing farmers to (over)produce corn…when that land could be profitably used for items we import. We import from Argentina & Chile because there’s only so much land (and water) in California that Los Angelenos & San Franciscans will put up with as farmland…Wal-Mart may not provide health care benefits to its part timers, but the mom & pop they replaced didn’t either…Organic food is so expensive because natural fertilizers & insecticides are much less effective, making it more expensive for organic farmers to operate (which is why man made fertilizers & insecticides are so popular)… So it all comes down to economics–and in the matter of corn subsidies, politics :-)

  14. jeana
    Posted September 30, 2009 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

    Although I love organics, I hear that buying from local farmers in farmer’s markets is a good alternative, since Argentina and Chile food loses so many nutrients. And I worry about the pesticides they put in food. It’s depressing.

  15. jeana
    Posted September 30, 2009 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

    I just saw a local article today (http://www.eastvalleytribune.com/story/145183) that said that people on WIC are being “forced” to eat healthier. For instance, women and children over 2 are only allowed to buy milk that’s nonfat or lowfat.
    “The list instead will include more whole grains. WIC families will be able to get soy-based beverages and tofu. Canned tuna and salmon will now be an acceptable purchase.
    And for the first time ever, there will be specific allocations for fresh fruits and vegetables.”
    So governments can make a difference. (Where there is choice of food, that is.)

  16. FLT
    Posted October 2, 2009 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    Having grocery stores nearby (however that is defined) will be only part of the struggle.
    People also need to learn how to cook. I can, and often do, feed my whole family for the cost of one fast-food meal. That’s because if you give me a bag each of rice and beans, I was taught what to do with them.
    One of my friends eats out a lot because she doesn’t know how to cook, and being a single mother, can’t afford to waste food by learning on trial and error. She was never taught, and at age 30, is also scared to try a new thing.

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