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{Are Food Deserts A Mirage?}

Posted on February 17th, 2014

The existence of food deserts is an article of faith among food justice advocates, and was one of the major motivations for the creation of the Exeter Gardens project. But a few rumblings in the research have raised questions about whether access to affordable, healthy food is truly so limited for low-income Americans in urban areas, and whether access itself is the greatest factor in health outcomes after all.

The term food desert was popularized by researcher Mari Gallagher in a major 2006 study on food access in Chicago. Soon the phrase became a call to arms for activists and civic reformers, to the point where First Lady Michelle Obama took up the cause with her Let’s Move campaign. It’s a powerful and arresting image that has helped draw public attention and political will to the problem of health for the poor. But as with all vivid metaphors, it distills a complex issue into a simpler form. That doesn’t mean the premise is false, only that it’s worth examining the complexities.

According to the USDA, an urban neighborhood qualifies as a food desert if its poverty rate is 20 percent or greater or its median income is below 80 percent of the city’s median family income, and 500 of its residents or 33 percent of its population live more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store.

Okay, but how are we defining a neighborhood’s boundaries in this calculation?

By census tract – an area designated as “relatively homogenous” in economic status and living conditions. If a census tract is both “low-income” and “low-access” according to these thresholds, it is assumed that its residents do not have ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. (See the USDA’s food desert map for a topography of our nutritional wastelands.)

The trouble with this and other definitions is that they can’t really capture either the quality or the price of food available to poor people. Any broad measure misses those nuances, and any study that does examine them is too localized to be applied more broadly. So when a contrarian paper comes along that seems to upend the consensus on food deserts by claiming that low-income neighborhoods in fact have twice as many supermarkets and large-scale grocers per square mile as affluent communities, it’s not really telling us anything because its conclusions founder on the same vagaries. Never mind that many other studies contradict its statistical finding, the issue is that proximity does not equal access. Nor does it mean quality. Just because there’s a convenience store nearby doesn’t mean it has fresh fruit. And just because low-income people who live by Exeter Gardens have a Whole Foods down the street doesn’t mean they can afford to shop there.

The relative density of supermarkets in low-income areas, if true, is misleading. It’s not how close a store that’s most important; it’s how hard it is to get there, how much it costs, and what it has to offer. Middle-class and wealthy people often live in spread-out suburbs and think nothing of driving several miles to a high-end grocery store or supermarket to stock up on produce. Many poor people don’t even have a car. Oh, and they’re also poor. From 1985 to 2000, the price of fresh produce rose 40 percent while the price of fast food and soft drinks fell by nearly a quarter. Sweets and starches are one tenth the price of fruits and vegetables on a per-calorie basis.

Certainly there are other factors at play in food choices — culture, education, psychology. But access matters. Access may not be a sufficient response, but it’s certainly a necessary one. No-one has a good answer for the confluence of social distress that poverty inflicts on people; it’s a complex phenomenon. There’s a tendency in social change work to seize on a premise or data set and declare that alleviating this specific need or apparent disparity will be THE transformative intervention. But there’s just as much of a tendency to seize on a sliver of confounding or contradictory data and declare the premise a sham.

What’s not in dispute is that people in low-income, minority neighborhoods get sicker and die sooner. They are more likely to suffer and die early from diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Perhaps the most valuable thing a project like Exeter Gardens can do is act as a responsive lab experiment to see which interventions, programs and interactions create the most impact. Whether we wander in food deserts or not, something must be done to end this plague on the poorest among us.

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Variously described as "ChangeMonger-in-Chief," "dreamer and schemer," and "evil genius for good," Hasdai is the founder of ChangingMedia, a digital agency that helps visionary organizations harness the power of new media to create social change. An enthusiastic passport collector, Hasdai became a U.S. citizen on the 4th of July and is a fierce patriot with little to no interest in soccer. He has transformed a derelict lot into a flourishing urban farm as co-founder of Exeter Gardens, and is trying to make textiles sing with the Synesthesia Musical Loom Project. He has been carjacked in Baltimore but still loves it. His goal in life was to be a pirate, but he gets sea-sick.

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