Saturday, March 3, 2012

Living with Food Deserts

I recently read an article by Eric Schlosser in The Atlantic entitled “Access to Good, Healthy Food Should Be a Basic Human Right,” and it caused me to think of access to food differently than I have in quite some time.  The issue for millions of Americans, as Schlosser reminded me, is not necessarily organic food or sustainable food but simple and consistent access to Good, Healthy Food.

Several years ago, the U.S. Department of Agricultural released an online Food Desert Locator “that pinpoints the location of ‘food deserts’ around the country and provides data on population characteristics of census tracts where residents have limited access to affordable and nutritious foods.”

This large federal study, describes a food desert as “a low-income census tract where either a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. ‘Low income’ tracts are defined as those where at least 20 percent of the people have income at or below the federal poverty levels for family size, or where median family income for the tract is at or below 80 percent of the surrounding area's median family income. Tracts qualify as "low access" tracts if at least 500 persons or 33 percent of their population live more than a mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (for rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles).”

A cursory glance at the Food Desert Locator immediately makes two facts clear: food deserts are everywhere, and if you don’t live in a food desert, there is one near you. 

From my office at Lander University in Greenwood, SC, where I can tuck myself away amongst all the comforts of academic life, I only need to walk about two blocks to find myself in one of these “food desert” census tracts.  When I lived in Gainesville, Florida a few years ago, my wife taught at an elementary school five miles from our apartment—in another one of these food deserts. When I lived in Wilmington, NC as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, I enjoyed plenty of good food and good music in the city’s riverfront downtown, which happens to be another food desert.

The Food Desert Locator uses hard data—census statistics—to map out its deserts, and like everything the USDA does, it has its problems.  For one, it focuses on the presence of supermarkets, and it sees supermarkets as the best solution to the problem of food access.  Partially in response to this study, Walmart has launched an initiative to open stores in some 300 food deserts.  To its credit, Walmart did indeed open a store adjacent to the elementary school in Gainesville, Florida where my wife formerly taught, and it is an asset to the community.  As critics have recognized, however, the study’s focus on supermarkets means that “existing small-scale food-retail infrastructure in places like Harlem doesn't typically figure into official analyzes, and thus isn't valued.”

I can’t speak to the situation in Harlem, but the same problem exists where I live.  For instance, right smack in the center of the food desert adjacent to my university in Greenwood, there is a community garden on Seaboard Avenue and two independent Hispanic groceries.  Additionally, there are two outstanding farm stands within walking distance of that census tract.

Eric Schlosser is right: access to good, healthy food should be regarded as a basic human right.  To correct the problem of food deserts, I’m willing to adopt the mantra that politicians like to apply to energy policy: I want an all-of-the-above policy.  If supermarkets can be convinced to move into these areas, I am all for it; if they will not (and they won’t, because their goals are first driven by economics), we should all support and celebrate the smaller, more mobile stores and markets that either already serve these areas or move into them in the future. 

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