“Food Deserts” and the Geography of Hunger

Tea for clowns in Russia. Photo courtesy of the author, all rights reserved.

Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of postings by students in a graduate seminar on food justice at the University of New Orleans. You can read more about the class and find the syllabus here. The class is part of a new PhD program in Justice Studies at UNO.

Bob Danton
University of New Orleans

When I was young and still looking at the world through rose-colored glasses, I had the opportunity to travel to Russia for three weeks, as part of an international humanitarian clowning trip led by Patch Adams and the Gesundheit! Institute. As my first trip outside the United States, I experienced “culture shock” on a wide array of different levels. This was my first time navigating what was, to me, a truly foreign food system.

One day, after an exhausting but deeply rewarding bout of clowning, we were offered a respite in the form of tea. Nestled somewhere deep inside in a large brutalist Soviet-era building, we were presented with a delightful array of meat pastries and biscuits and many things I didn’t recognize then and have since forgotten. After regaining some energy, I found myself filled with questions for our host, and asked one which at the time seemed simple, and in retrospect seems painfully naïve: ‘was your life better under the communist USSR, or is it better now under capitalism?’

The woman pondered for just a moment before responding simply ‘I used to stand in a line for bread; now I have no money for bread.’ While many years have passed and I cannot promise to quote her words exactly, the message was clear: nothing had truly changed materially in her life. Here, in one of the biggest cities in the world, capital of a global superpower, surrounded by glittering skyscrapers, palaces, and other symbols of extravagant wealth, was a woman who was deeply food insecure; and despite my naivety, I was acutely aware that her situation was likely not far from the norm. Suddenly I lost my appetite for the delicious meat pies in front of me: in front of us visitors was more food than she probably fed her family in a week. The rose-colored glasses had shattered.

Whether in Moscow or in New Orleans, Louisiana where I live and where I am studying Food Justice with Dr. Beriss, urban citizens across the globe, in nations both rich and poor, live with food insecurity every day. This insecurity, while pervasive and global, is also spatially located. Most of us by now have heard and become familiar with the concept of ‘food deserts’ as geographical areas where food is inaccessible. In her book Black Food Geographies, Dr. Ashanté Reese tackles this terminology in the context of her study of food geographies in the Black neighborhood of Deanwood in Washington, DC. She effectively argues against the use of the term, noting that its origin in the field of natural (physical) geography implies a given state; that is, it implies that the ‘food desert,’ like a real desert, is a naturally occurring phenomena, and not the result of human factors as is the case in reality. ‘Food swamps,’ a newer term created to designate areas with an overabundance of unhealthy and low-nutritional value foods, can be critiqued in this same light; these are human-made geographies, not naturally occurring phenomena like deserts and swamps. Reese explores other terms including ‘supermarket redlining,’ which she argues is too narrow in its focus on supermarkets (a critique she also places on much of the current literature on urban ‘food deserts’) and instead offers the phrase ‘food apartheid.’ Reese frames the new phrase as able to demonstrate the social and economic factors leading to the creation of these points of inaccessibility; like formal apartheid, she argues that there is a broad structural and ideological policy of racism which keeps Black people separate, subordinate, and in this particular instance, deprived of access to (healthy) food. Dr. Nathan McClintock further explores these power balances in the food systems (or lack thereof) in Oakland, California, linking lack of food access in the flatlands of East and West Oakland directly to the city’s history of legal redlining and institutionalized spatial racism.

How then, should we perceive the spatial elements of hunger, especially as they play out in urban cores, in an increasingly globalized world? Perhaps it is time to develop a new terminology, one that considers the pervasiveness of unequal development in cities around the world. I have, for much of my time in New Orleans, and in the San Francisco Bay Area before that, lived in spaces that may be termed ‘food deserts.’ As a middle-class white man, I hardly feel that it would be just to describe myself as a victim of ‘food apartheid,’ despite factors such as my lack of a car often meaning I must travel farther than I would like to on bike or foot to buy groceries. For my Russian hostess, on the other hand, that term seems perhaps more appropriate; despite the lack of a racial element in her situation, it is clear that there has been systematic repression of access and power in her life- even, in fact, transcending national regime and economic shifts.

Food, considered by many to be one of the most basic human rights, can be an effective window into broader considerations of justice in our society. Jason Hackworth, professor of geography and planning at the University of Toronto, examines in depth the issue of unequal urban development in his book The Neoliberal City. His basic thesis revolves around the modern trend towards increasingly blurred lines between political and economic actors in American cities and the massively unequal development that has resulted from what he terms ‘glocalization,’ a simultaneous movement of power from the national and state levels downward to local governments and upwards to transnational corporations. The power balance between these actors is clear: the corporations outpower the local governments. The resulting uneven development affects not only the homes and other real estate Hackworth examines, but our food as well. The end result is a system wherein local governments and the communities and people they represent are left with few options to respond to problems such as major grocery chains disinvesting in poor inner-city neighborhoods. Even if an enlightened Oakland wanted to repair the inequalities created by its historic racist politics, it no longer has any real power to do so- the city’s power is dwarfed by that of the transnational corporate forces now in control of our foodways. The power over our food access has been transferred wholesale from our communities and governments into the cold and uncaring hands of the “free market.”

Taking into account these factors I argue that we need a new terminology for our spatial awareness of disparities in our globalized food system. I am no more a victim of ‘food apartheid’ than the residents of Deanwood are inhabitants of some naturally occurring, unchanging ‘desert.’ The woman I met in Russia was not a victim of ‘supermarket redlining’ but rather of a much broader set of economic policies in Russia that have largely kept the poor poor from feudalism through communism and into capitalism. What we all share is a level of food insecurity that has a spatial dimension in our local cities as well as a relationship to massive transnational corporations and economic processes. Viewing food access through a spatial lens allows us to understand broader patterns of injustice in the world, explore ways in which local community identities and cultures are linked to and influenced by global economic factors, and see more clearly the ties between community, culture, economy, and power. Residents of Deanwood see food access as linked to factors in their community far beyond access itself; a grocery store in the neighborhood to them also represents both economic power and community identity, both now under massive pressure from powerful neoliberal forces. Driving or bussing to neighboring states or richer neighborhoods in D.C. for access to good food, beyond merely being a hardship, takes money out of Deanwood, removes the local food store as a location of community and cultural interaction, and erodes civic pride in the neighborhood.

Terminology can be important to framing the way we see the world; just as the phrase ‘the third world’ has been understood as racist and gradually replaced with ‘developing world’ or ‘global south’, we must be aware that the way we talk about areas lacking food access and the people who live within them have real world effects on our efforts to create change. Perhaps then, it is time to retire ‘food desert.’ Indeed, there may be no single term that meets our needs to describe differing, localized patterns of hunger; food apartheid may be a great fit for Deanwood, but perhaps not for Moscow, or for poor rural white communities in America. Although I do not yet have the answer as to an ideal new terminology for these globally created, transnationally connected, hyper-locally expressed patterns of food insecurity and in-access, I believe it is a conversation worth pursuing.

References

Hackworth, J. (2007). The Neoliberal City: Governance, Ideology, and Development in American Urbanism. Cornell University Press.

McClintock, N. (2011). From Industrial Garden to Food Desert: Demarcated Devaluation in the Flatlands of Oakland, California. In A. H. Alkon & J. Agyeman (Eds.), Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability (pp. 89–120). The MIT Press.

Reese, A. M. (2019). Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access in Washington, D.C. University of North Carolina Press.

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