Food deserts have become a much discussed issue in the public policy sphere. After all, improving food access in areas bereft of nutritious options is as much of a political ‘gimmie’ as saying schools should be good and roads should be smooth. While the particulars of addressing food insecurity can quickly become politically contentious, it’s hard to find disagreement on the idea that everyone should at least have access to good, healthy food. So, it makes sense that the food desert has seen a lot of play time on the political field.
For the record, the USDA defines a food desert as any low-income census tract where a “significant number or share” of the population is further than a half mile from a supermarket or large grocery store in urban areas (ten miles for a rural census tract.)
Based on this definition, politicians from the local to the national scale have sprung into action. In 2010, Michelle Obama, then First Lady of the United States, declared a goal to eradicate food deserts as part of her efforts to end childhood obesity. The city council of Los Angeles offered large grocery stores and restaurants with health options a host of financial incentives for opening their doors in that city’s food deserts. New York City started a “Green Carts” program that licenses special food carts to sell produce in the city’s food deserts and hire locals to do it.
These are valiant efforts at tackling a historically thorny problem. So the argument goes, disenfranchised people in economically depressed areas lack access to healthy options and are left only with overly processed, obesity-and-heart-disease causing selections from fast food chains.
But, as it usually does, it turns out that the issue of food deserts is more complicated that it appears at first glance. The critical assumption behind opening grocery stores in food deserts or deploying an army of produce carts is that people don’t eat healthy food because they can’t get to it. It’s cast as an access problem; a supply-side economics question.
However, when researchers looked at the effect of opening grocery stores in food deserts, they found that the sudden access to arugula didn’t do much to address nutritional inequality. They found that 91% of the inequality we want to reduce is driven by consumer habit, culture, and custom. If someone doesn’t know how to make healthier foods, doesn’t have the equipment to cook it, and doesn’t have the time to prepare it, it would make sense that greater access to healthy options would do little to address unhealthy, but familiar, meal time routines. Even families that move out of food deserts and into more affluent areas where kale is more common still tend to adhere to their dietary habits for quite a while. So instead of a more even distribution of supermarkets, the authors of the study recommend “demand-side benefits of improving health education – if possible through effective interventions – rather than changing local supply.”
That’s not to say that the observation of food deserts is an idea entirely without substance. It’s just that saying you’re going to eradicate food deserts in 5 years by opening a bunch of Safeways misses many of the larger, systemic problems driving nutritional inequality; problems like subpar nutritional education.
Which is exactly the issue that a growing number of entrepreneurs are trying to address holistically through local food co-ops. Across the United States’ disadvantaged areas, emerging from all but abandoned urban sprawl, these spunky food stores are providing both access to nutritious, often locally grown food as well as classes on how to prepare it. In this way, they position themselves to holistically address the issues of systemic nutritional inequality.
With their focus on strengthening local food systems, these co-ops are also addressing another aspect of vulnerability in food deserts. A common security feature in any system is redundancy and the ability for parts of the system to operate independently in times of stress. That way, a catastrophe in one part of the system can’t bring the entire thing to it’s knees.
But our global food system is critically lacking in this ability to segment itself and operate in smaller units. That particular weakness was highlighted on the national level in the US by the dust bowl in the 1930s. During that crisis, the clearing of land for crops and the unsustainable use of water set the stage an environmental catastrophe that lead to nationwide food shortages and compounded the already crippling effects of the Great Depression.
Shockingly, we seem to have learned very little in the ensuing 80 years. When scientists from the University of Chicago examined our current food system’s resiliency, they found that we are just as vulnerable today as we were then. Our pursuit of ever cheaper crops coming from further away has left us in a precarious position. Adding to the concern is modeling work that suggests a changing climate could lead to the same crop loss and food shortages seen during the dust bowl by the middle of this century; even under “normal” conditions.
Speaking of climate change, over reliance on our mono-cropped, non-diversified, food production methods is driving that crisis forward as well. The clearing of land for commodity crops, emissions from industrial feed lots, and the clearing of land in the global south to grow more commodity crops for those feed lots add up to nearly 30% of global carbon emissions. At the same time, shifting seasonality and rain fall patterns are making yields increasingly unpredictable. Even when yields are good, rising levels of atmospheric carbon are decreasing the nutritional quality of our crops. Our over-reliance on vulnerable food systems is making those very systems more vulnerable with each passing day.
All of this has lead experts to insist on an entirely new approach to feeding ourselves. Olivier De Schutter, UN special rapporteur on the right to food, put it simply: “A transition to diversified agro-ecological systems is needed.” Agro-ecology is a form of farming that situations its operations as non-disruptively as possible with in the existing ecosystem as opposed to trying to force a sloppy, man-made ‘order’ onto the land. It places a focus on soil health, strategically designed landscapes, and ‘polycrop’ systems that reinforce each other.
Agro-ecology shows us that land can grow more than just one crop. That food, produced locally, can be distributed in ways that ensure both equitable access and nutritional knowledge. More locally produced and consumed food means a decrease in carbon emissions from transportation. The local, cellular nature of these types of food systems can increase food resiliency, soften the impact of climate change, and truly eradicate food deserts. For these reasons, the table is set for a twenty-first century rethink on how we feed ourselves.
Between agro-ecology and a reexamination of our food distribution, we have an opportunity to address nutritional inequality holistically. If we simply open more supermarkets, we will continue to rely on problematic agricultural practices while still failing to address the roots of food deserts. Between local food systems, community-based food distribution, and agro-ecology, we have the pieces we need. So far we have failed to learn our lessons from the past; from the dust bowl to historic inequalities. It’s high time that we start.
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