THE TERM “food desert” captured the public imagination from the moment it entered the conversation. From Main Street to the White House, it provided an evocative shorthand for the messy realities of poverty and dwindling economic opportunity affecting rural and urban communities across America. While criteria for what qualifies as a food desert vary, it is primarily defined by long distances from or low concentration of healthy food retailers in urban and rural areas, each of these imagined to diverge from some ideal number.
I first heard the term when researcher Mari Gallagher published results measuring the distance from every Chicago block to the nearest grocery store and fast-food restaurant. This report was followed by deeper dives into other cities, such as Detroit.
While I grew up on the West Coast, I have called Michigan home for the past thirty years—first as a sustainable agriculture professor at Michigan State University, then as a program officer with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, launching a new grant program that would help seed the local food movement with more than 200 million dollars in investments, and now with the nonprofit I founded, Fair Food Network (www.fairfoodnetwork.org). I joined the 2007 “Detroit Stranded in the Food Desert” Forum with a mix of emotions: hope—that we were finally coming to terms with an issue that had plagued our food system and many low-income neighborhoods for years; and skepticism—that by definition, identifying food deserts is an attempt to use a quick-fix solution (grocery stores) to solve a much more gnarly issue (lack of access to affordable, healthy food).
Transforming the Approach to Food Deserts
Over the years, the phrase “food desert” has spurred some tangible wins. Leading up to the 2008 Farm Bill, several Members of Congress, led by Chicago’s Bobby Rush, mounted an effort to include language about food deserts. When the Farm Bill was signed into law that year, it included funding and instructions for the USDA to conduct a national study on the issue. That study in turn led to additional policy action that included the Healthy Food Finance and Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive programs in the 2014 Farm Bill—true bright spots in national food legislation that would likely not have been possible without the earlier galvanizing focus on food deserts.
But there are still serious issues behind this overly simplistic term.
First, it ignores on-the-ground realities. Detroit, for example, has a vibrant farmers’ market network—including mobile markets—that reaches deep into the city’s most underserved neighborhoods, as well as a strong tradition of smaller, independent food retailers, not to mention the more than 1,500 community and school gardens spread throughout the city. What’s more, the issue of who has access to healthy, affordable food is also about who has access to the resources it takes to produce, process, and distribute that food. There is a well-worn proverb that if you give a man a fish, he eats for the day, but teach him how to fish and he eats for a lifetime. In today’s food system, the issue is more about who owns the pond. Without access to the source, all the fishing knowledge in the world cannot be put to use. And in many low-income communities in the United States, which often are also communities of color, access to the pond of resources for food system revitalization (land, capital, markets) is limited.
Lack of access to healthy food in traditionally underserved communities is not a problem to be solved but a symptom of a food system in need of repair and transformation. And you don’t get to transformation by solving problems one at a time: you get there by reimagining the system and designing models and policies that cause the symptoms to dissolve.
Of the many systems in our world today that need to be reimagined, none is more important for our future than our food system. Indeed, food connects us like few other things. It reflects our cultures, traditions, and rituals, and is our most profound and basic connection to the earth. It nurtures, sustains, and heals us, and its lack or excess creates disease. Food touches everything. Globally, the manner in which we produce and transport food impacts our climate, soils, and water. Nationally, the food system contributes three-quarters of a trillion dollars to the economy. Locally, it can divide communities between those who have food and those who do not.
While we can and should focus on the food we consume, we cannot eat or shop our way into a better, fairer food system. What is needed now is bolder and more holistic action that reaches beyond our plates. Specifically, we need programs and policies that create simultaneous wins for families, farmers, communities, and the environment.
Signs of System Change
Promising signs are all around us, including efforts such as Fair Food Network’s healthy food incentive program, Double Up Food Bucks (www.fairfoodnetwork.org /what-we-do/projects/double-up-food-bucks), which matches the value of federal nutrition benefits spent at participating farmers’ markets and grocery stores, helping people bring home more healthy fruits and vegetables while supporting local farmers. Evaluation has shown that families are eating more healthy food while farmers are gaining new customers and making more money. In this way, this program simultaneously addresses affordability and access, as well as supply and demand for healthy food.
Since 2009, Double Up has grown from five farmers’ markets in Detroit to more than 150 sites across the state, including grocery stores in one of the first pilots in the nation. Double Up’s strong track record and unique statewide scale were also key to helping inspire the 100-million-dollar Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive grants programs in the 2014 Farm Bill. Fair Food Network is now working with partners across the country to bring this proven model to their communities.
Programs that improve access to healthy food for low-income Americans while supporting family farmers take us beyond the passive simplicity of food deserts. Indeed, they represent an opportunity in which those most vulnerable in our society can become active agents in building vibrant local food systems and economies.
In this way, food systems work manifests the great Jewish tradition of tikkun olam, repairing the world, for the world cannot be repaired without reimagining our food system. This belief drives my work and is fundamental to the programs and policies we support at Fair Food Network.
The time is now to move beyond conversation and overly simplistic terms. What can each of us do, individually and as a progressive collective? Let us claim the responsibility of helping the most vulnerable among us and seize the potential of such work to build a more equitable and just food system for all.
(To return to the Spring 2016 Table of Contents, click here.)