What is a ‘food desert’?
Traditionally, the term ‘food desert’ has been used to identify an unnatural phenomenon in which pockets of communities go hungry because they are geographically limited in their access to food. This is an outdated version that has received severe critique and criticism by modern experts and activists because of they way it over-simplifies the issue, and overlooks the greater issues that people tend to gloss over when it comes to the topic of hunger in America.
The lack of access to food, whether it be in an urban or rural area, in the United States has little to do with not having enough food; but rather, it is primarily dependent on the economic circumstances that people find themselves in.
Correction: the economic circumstance that people find themselves to be put into.
According to Karen Washington, a farmer and social advocate of social justice and race equality, the term ‘food desert’, is now considered to be an outsider term used to label certain neighborhoods. She describes it as a “band-aid term” with follows the premise that low-income neighborhoods, where most ‘food deserts’ are found, simply barren of food. And so for years, the symbol has traditionally been a desert.
That simply isn’t the case.
The issue is not about hunger and the lack of access to food; the issue is the socio-economic, and political oversight that has put entire populations of people at a disadvantage. And so food policy experts and activists are trying to change the way people talk about hunger by redefining the phrase and replacing it with something that resonates with the root of the issue.
Washington had this to say:
We tell people that we do have food- what we don’t have is access to healthy foods. So instead of calling it a food desert, we like to use the term ‘food apartheid.’
For Washington and other specialists in her field, changing the term from ‘desert’ to ‘apartheid’ is the first step towards having a real conversation about understanding hunger.
The word ‘apartheid’ is synonymous to the South African apartheid, which was a legalized system of segregation that occurred int the late 20th century. The reason that experts who are doing work in the area of ‘food deserts’ are now favor of ‘food apartheid’ is because it acknowledges that the lack of access to foods to ‘some but not all’ is a racial-political issue.
Kristen Reynolds, a critical human geographer and co-author of the book Beyond the Kale: Urban Agriculture and Social Justice Activism in New York City, explains:
We have a system devised to be emergency food programs for people who are accessing food through food banks, SNAP, or previously called food stamps. This was set up as emergency channels to which the government can help people in acute situations of need, but because of the way that the agriculture institution has evolved, people have become reliant on those programs.
Although the welfare infrastructure was initially put into place to help with the food crisis in America, it inadvertently created a system of oppressive dependence on these programs by the people who need it most. However, this by it self did not generate the physical locations where ‘food apartheids’ are found.
From the point of view of zoning policy, within New York City for instance, there are no initiatives for grocery stores and supermarkets to move into lower-income areas to bring fresh vegetables and fruit to where those products are not easily available. It is from these ‘red-tape’ zoning regulations that gives this issue its physical boundaries.
And so, by redirecting the focus of the issue onto the term ‘food apartheid,’ it points out the fact that certain social groups are excluded from certain levels of consumption.
Beyond Hunger - Ari’s Story.
To say that people don’t have access to food in New York City would be a false statement. Even in some of its poorer neighborhoods, there are places where people can find food; but its not a matter of finding food, its about finding nutrition.
Ariadne Vasquez, a student at The New School, clarifies by saying:
In the Bronx- the thing about the Bronx is that you have these grocery stores- ‘Associated’, ‘Bravo’, and another one, ‘Fine Fare’… And there’s grocery stores, but the thing about them is: the food isn’t as fresh, and it’s not really, healthy foods.
Vasquez, who previously lived in what she calls a ‘food desert’ in the South Bronx, struggled to maintain her well being in a place that seemed almost hostile at times. While she and her mother were able to get by with mutual support from each other, she describes the brief experience as a time of survival.
It’s hard… I don’t remember- I just didn’t eat well. I think I was malnourished. I think I went to the doctor, and the doctor took my blood-work and said I was malnourished. So one of my mom’s things that she did was, she bought a lot of Ensure… she bought me that to boost-up my nutrition…
Vasquez casually mentioned instances when the neighborhood pedophiles would try and strike conversation with her mother, and how prostitutes would loiter around her local bodega, but it was clear that her time there had taken an emotional toll on her emotional psyche.
So, what now?
So, to tame the fact of economic inequality which is the root of food inaccessibility, the government would have to address questions behind its policies on emergency food programs so that people do not have to be relient on those programs.
Elected officials are able to as easily tackle questions that are politically contentious, as readily provide allocations to already existing programs that don’t don’t upset the social and political structure.
But most importantly, there is still a lot of stereotyping about people who do not have access to food or don’t have high incomes; that they are either not knowledgeable or educated about these issues, or somehow don’t have the urgency or personal will power to leave the situation. That rests upon a kind of ‘blame the victim’ mentality where it’s up to the individual to solve their own problem when it’s actually a structural problem that are deeply rooted in influencing economic equity.
Individuals can’t solve those problems. Not when they are trapped in a system that is actively working against them. And for too long people have been trying to take on voices that have been vastly unaware of the greater, systematic issues that contribute to hunger.