The very mention of "food deserts" is a call to action, evoking images of vacant lots, liquor stores and bodegas stocked only with expiration date-defying processed foods. But while the metaphor of parched food deserts is compelling, it may also be limiting the conversation on food, because it suggests that the solution is as simple as expanding large supermarket chains.
In fact, researchers have found that supermarkets often create as many problems as they solve. Some grassroots food activists are coming up with promising alternatives to the supermarket strategy. But their ideas aren’t getting nearly as much support from recent state and federal initiatives to eradicate food deserts as are corporations’ plans to tap new markets.
"Access is only one piece of the puzzle," writes Eric Holt-Gimenez, a food systems researcher and executive director of Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, in a recent Huffington Post essay. Holtz-Gimenez points to the broader food economy as the core problem when it comes to our diet and health, and to more targeted local initiatives as the solution. "Rather than having their food dollar spirited off to the retail monopoly’s corporate coffers, these [grassroots] alternatives could potentially keep it in the community, where it can recirculate as much as five times," he says.
While pledges to eliminate food deserts are noble, the narrow focus on expanding access to retailers may be overlooking the more structural underpinnings of poor health, particularly the lack of good jobs and surfeit of fast food restaurants in communities of color. Even the federal definition for food deserts (communities in at least one-third of residents live over a mile from a supermarket) only focuses on large retail stores, leading to policy initiatives and campaigns that leave out small groceries and family-owned operations.
California became the most recent state to launch a sweeping food-access initiative when Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Healthy Food Financing Initiative into law on Oct. 6. The bill–modeled after similar initiatives in Pennsylvania and New York and promoted by the Obama administration–declares that "access to healthy food items is a basic human right." It sets up a fund that supports food retailers operating in the supermarket-dry communities.
In passing the bill, California joined the growing ranks of legislatures and private companies vowing this past year to fight food deserts. Earlier this year, the USDA comprehensively mapped the country’s food deserts for the first time. First Lady Michelle Obama also pledged to completely eradicate food deserts in America by 2017, saying that if people want to eat healthily, "they shouldn’t have to take three city buses…to go to another community to make that possible." Corporate retailers have answered the call; in July, executives from Walmart, SUPERVALU, and Walgreens promised to open or expand 1,500 stores in communities designated as food deserts, a move that First Lady Obama touted as "a huge victory for folks all across this country."
But as public awareness and action over food deserts reach a new high-water mark, some critics are now challenging the very notion that supermarkets are the solution. A recent study that tracked over 5,000 people in several cities over 15 years found that greater access to supermarkets "was generally unrelated to diet quality." Low income levels, abundant fast food restaurants and race, on the other hand, were much more reliable predictors of poor diet and health than the number of supermarkets.
The U.S. Office of Minority Health states that in 2009, Latinos and African Americans were respectively 1.2 and 1.5 times as likely to be obese as whites, with the racial disparities even more pronounced among children. Another study from the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, which comprehensively reviewed 40 fast-food studies, found that body mass indexes were generally higher in areas that had fast food restaurants, and that fast food restaurants were universally more prevalent in poor and minority communities.
"Food retail is only one component of the total food environment that affects how people eat and, more fundamentally, their health," explain researchers from the National Academy of Sciences in a 2009 study. "The supply of healthy food will not suddenly induce people to buy and eat such food over less-healthy options, especially when relative prices of the healthier foods are high."
Large retailers and their proponents counter that their sheer clout makes them uniquely capable of serving the millions of Americans living in food deserts. Corporate retailers boast larger distribution networks, ample funding and the ability to borrow at attractive rates, allowing them to offer food at a lower cost and greater scale than smaller companies.
"With more than 140 million customers each week, Walmart is uniquely positioned to make a difference by making food healthier and more affordable to everyone," declared the company in a January press release. "We will use our size and scale to reduce the price premium on these types of products whenever possible."
Lawmakers have presumably been swayed by this argument. With their recent financing initiatives and health campaigns, lawmakers nationwide have aggressively courted corporate solutions rather than grassroots ones. However, this relatively narrow focus on supermarket expansion is arguably introducing a host of new problems even deeper than inadequate food access.
In 2006, researchers found that a Walmart store in Chicago’s West Side displaced local retailers and "reduced employment in nearby zip codes." Rather than revitalizing food deserts, urban expansion by national retailers may in fact exacerbate such communities’ health and economic woes by driving away local businesses and food alternatives.
"For Walmart, urban expansion has nothing to do with food deserts," cautions Holt-Gimenez. "Walmart desperately needs a fix to its sagging bottom line." He adds, "while Walmart’s new stores will bring jobs, they are not living-wage jobs and are unlikely to bring prosperity." Critics also note that corporate retailers are "poised to take more advantage" of public funds like the statewide and national Healthy Food Financing Initiatives than local retailers, as they can set up stores more quickly and prolifically.
Companies like Walmart and Walgreens already enjoy considerable advantages over local retailers, as they’ve boasted. These recent policy initiatives only reinforce that advantage.
Alternatives to the supermarket solution, however, abound. Entrepreneur Dana Frasz is soon launching Food Shift in West Oakland, "a delivery service that is the missing link between wasted food and people who need it." Helming a refrigerated truck, Food Shift will collect safe food that will otherwise go wasted from participating businesses, and either compost them or deliver them to local agencies. Frasz recently attended a packed Berkeley legal clinic for local food entrepreneurs in low-income communities of color, who face additional barriers to funding and legal counsel compared to national retailers.
Another innovator, Natasha Bowens, is amplifying the personal stories of fellow farmers of color in her photo documentary "The COLOR of FOOD." Through community-supported agriculture programs and farmers’ markets, farmers of color across America are "creating control over our food, and self determination through jobs and regional economies," says Bowens.
Innovators like Frasz and those Bowens highlights are thinking beyond access when it comes to food deserts, working to secure good jobs and sustainable livelihoods in addition to good food. "Walgreens, CVS, Walmart and other big stores are not invested in the community," Frasz says. "We need to encourage the growth of businesses that care about the community, are open to community input, will employ locals at a living wage and will invest their profits back into the community."
Joseph Jung is a research intern at the Applied Research Center, which publishes Colorlines.com.