Critics say it’s time to stop using the term ‘food deserts’


For several decades, the term “food desert” has been dropped in media reports of underserved neighborhoods and their dearth of healthy and affordable food options for residents. Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control, in a review of 40 years of studies in these areas, trace the term’s origins to Scotland in the 1990s when a task force concerned about nutritional inequalities coined the term. They point out that in the United States, disparities in access to food – which affect more than 39 million people, according to 2017 estimates – are often linked to (low) incomes and communities of color, also resulting in food-related health disparities. like obesity and diabetes.

More recently, however, the term has fallen out of favor. Some critics argue that this is downright inaccurate; deserts are natural ecosystems, they say, while food deserts are intentionally created by public policies and economic practices, as Detroit food activist Malik Yakini said in an interview for the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies, while arguing instead for the use of the term “food apartheid”. Many say the methodologies behind the designation are flawed or outdated – glossing over both the negatives and the positives – and fail to recognize the other characteristics of access to food and resilience and creativity. community members to find exactly what they want to eat. Almost everyone wants a change, not just in name but in practice, to better understand what is happening in these communities in order to actually improve access to healthy food.

The Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (USDA-ERS) has long assessed “food desert” areas in its Food Access Research Atlas (FARA). But even that agency began to move away from the term, now referring to areas with low income (defined, in some cases, as a poverty rate of 20% or more) and low access (defined as an urban area where 33 percent of the population live within a mile or more of a supermarket).

We have been fighting for decades to introduce food systems into urban planning: cities can plan for housing, transport, economic development; we should also include food systems.

“The name ‘food desert’ has done some really important things for the literature and our understanding of the links between the red line, segregation and the role of structural racism in the food system,” said Caroline George, research assistant at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program which worked on a recent report advocating new ways to map food insecurity. “That’s not necessarily wrong, but at the end of the day there are gaps that don’t apply to everything food insecure in the United States, and some pretty important factors are missing.”

For example, according to this report, people often prefer to shop closer to work than home, and often add the drudgery to other errands, called commuting. In addition, FARA has supermarkets and other large retail stores, within the strict boundaries of a given neighborhood; however, it does not count alternative food hubs such as farmers’ markets and community gardens, or supermarkets that could technically exist outside of a neighborhood but are located just around its perimeter. More recently, George points out, Supplementary Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) beneficiaries have also been able to order groceries for delivery, which current tracking methods do not yet take into account.

The point is, said George, that people have “resilient food access strategies that are less focused on the deficit, and by measuring and recognizing them, we can figure out how to best support them through policies.” . One way, she suggests, is participatory mapping, where community members come together to share their personal food-gathering strategies – a technique that was recently investigated in Providence, Rhode Island, and which the researchers say. , can foster a more textured and nuanced understanding of what assets residents have and don’t have when it comes to providing food for themselves and their families. “Maybe you write it down on a whiteboard or a GIS platform, and then you can start distilling the community stories into a more data-driven approach,” George explained. She would also like to see the USDA’s recently updated Thrifty Food Plan for the 48 Contiguous States, which is used to value SNAP dollars and which increased benefits for a family of four by 21%, to 835.57 $, takes into account that grocery store prices are higher in some localities, which can be a significant barrier to the supply of healthy foods. Ensuring adequate financial resources to acquire food “has the best impacts for these households,” said George.

Another recent study, from Michigan State University, came to the same conclusions as the Brookings study. Looking at three areas designated as “food desert” in Grand Rapids, he also found that access to food could not be adequately defined simply by counting the supermarkets within the neighborhood boundaries. “Farmers’ markets, farm stalls, CSA, small convenience stores, there are many other retail outlets where people find fresh produce,” said Zeenat Kotval-Karamchandani, town planner and co-author of the study. . When you factor this in, “you won’t see much of a food desert anymore. “

Farmers markets, farm stalls, CSA, small convenience stores, there are a lot more retail outlets where people find fresh produce.

Since some of these retailers may be more expensive – or at least may be perceived as more expensive – than supermarkets, Kotval-Karamchandani advocates offering community members more shopping choices. One way to do this, she said, is to encourage large chain stores like Kroeger and Meijer to open smaller express versions of their stores in low-income / low-access neighborhoods. “We have been fighting for decades to introduce food systems into urban planning: cities can plan for housing, transport, economic development; we should also include food systems, ”she said. “We zone places; we have the power to do it. One challenge, however, is the fact that new cities are no longer built from scratch. “We’ve gone past that time and now we’re like, Oops, that was a mistake, these are the unintended consequences, let’s fix it.”

Organizations like The Food Trust (TFT) are trying to counter some of these mistakes. When you delve deeper into the mapping issue, you find that the situation of poor access to groceries and food resources is manifested again and again in low income urban and rural communities, ”he said. TFT uses the Healthy Food Finance Initiative (HFFI), a public-private partnership between the USDA and the nonprofit Reinvestment Fund, to provide grants, low-interest loans and credit to ‘tax on food suppliers interested in opening a business in disadvantaged communities. The idea is that with less debt up front, these retailers will have a better chance of staying in business and continuing to serve residents.

Lang said community buy-in for these kinds of resources is essential, which means TFT will reach out to civic associations and community leaders to ensure a new outlet is sought; for example, before giving the green light to an application for a super natural product in Reading, conversations took place with local partners and residents to confirm that it was a welcome addition to the neighborhood. Active community participation is something that more and more advocates now recognize as a critical counterpoint to the decades in which outsiders determined the needs of a neighborhood – and one of the ways in which we arrived at ” food deserts ”and all their inherent definitional issues in the first place.

More advocates are also realizing that ‘access alone is not enough’, as USDA-ERS researchers have started to say, and education – that farmers’ markets are taking Double Up Food. Bucks to extend the benefits of SNAP to products, and that small stores take SNAP EBT cards; and on which foods are even considered healthy – is of paramount importance. Double Up Food Bucks, for example, has been enthusiastically embraced by low-commodity communities, like Des Moines, Iowa, as it spans every other dollar for the purchase of fresh fruit and vegetables, and often local. For the latter, the USDA-ERS suggests tactics such as in-store awareness campaigns, including “the installation of shopping baskets with compartments based on the shares recommended by the food groups in the total food consumption. “. For the rest, said Kotval-Karamchandani, “What is the most regular form of communication? [in these communities]- leaflets ? Publish on local television? The stores have large windows: “We accept EBT.

This article was first published by The Counter. Read the original article here.


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