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DEC 5, 2022
Part 2: Food deserts aren't real
“When modern industry can provide abundance for all, nothing is more vicious to poor people than a lifetime of poverty." –Murray Bookchin
Part I: The scarcity hoax
Part II: Food deserts aren't real
Part III: Road to the future
Part IV: The last capitalist
Part V: Revolution
In part I, I showed how inequality is the roadblock to growing the local food movement and solving climate change. I also analyzed enforced scarcity as a means to maintain class hierarchies.
In part II, I examine the true nature of food deserts, how they happen, why different name is more apt, and explore the existing solutions. Let’s get started.
Food deserts aren't real
A name is a reference point, and it ought to reference reality. "Food desert" falls short. It's a convenient label for institutions that prefer to avoid accountability and fight symptoms rather than find a cure.
If we want sustainable long-term food access in our most vulnerable communities, we have to understand the disease.
In 2015, US census data showed 38 percent of the US population lives in a food desert. So, what is it? The name is a misnomer, but the phenomenon is based on real data.
The USDA classifies food deserts in the following ways:
- Low-income (LI) & low food access (LA) where urban citizens are 1+ mile, and rural citizens are 10+ miles, from the nearest supermarket.
- LI & LA at 1/2 mile & 10 miles
- LI & LA at 1 mile & 20 miles
- LI & LA at 1 mile & 10 miles using vehicle access
Explore with the USDA's Food Access Research Atlas Mapping tool here.
About half of the people living in a food desert qualify for food stamps (EBT, SNAP), which means the other half is supposed to be able to afford groceries. But there's still the issue of access to a supermarket.
However, not all supermarkets are of equal quality. Fresh and organic local items fall along economic and racial borders, especially within urban centers but in rural areas as well.
Wages are stagnant. $5.25 an hour after taxes, that's the going rate, and government programs don’t seem to fill the gap.
I won’t dive too deep into the reason Americans with jobs can’t afford basic necessities (it’s wealth inequality).
US Food Co-op Map - Food
We operate the farm in order to benefit the members.
–Andy Jones, Farm Mgr, Intervale Community Farm
Created by Monica Bruckner, Montana State University
Community engagement is vital to opening and sustaining a new store in neighborhoods where residents are understandably skeptical of outside developers and worry about gentrification and rising rents.
ProPublica from The Sigma Awards 2022
Food deserts are better described as sacrifice zones. Cancer Alley, in Louisiana, is the most well-known sacrifice zone in the US.
There is a high concentration (and I mean high) of petrochemical plants running a stretch of the Mississippi River. This leads to increased cancer risks for local citizens, who are largely of color and poor.
Air quality in Little Rock is better. But some of our neighborhoods still meet the definition of a sacrifice zone: “communities that have been permanently impaired by environmental damage or economic disinvestment.”
The second part is my focus here, but the environmental damage is poignantly relevant (not discussed here; see part I).
Arkansas leads the US in hunger, with 1 in 5 children food insecure. In 2009, the situation was so bad that the national nonprofit, Share Our Strength, selected our state to prove its concept of reducing childhood hunger, No Kid Hungry.
Food deserts (sacrifice zones) are microeconomies, from which wealth is extracted faster than it can be replaced through wages.
That’s why there’s no grocery store: the community simply doesn’t have the buying power to keep one open.
In rural and urban areas alike, they’re everywhere these days: dollar stores. Designed to sell highly-processed and prepackaged shelf-stable foods but not fresh produce, many of these new stores are met with protest from their communities.
At the city, state, and federal levels, there have been many attempts to raise awareness and address rising food insecurity, including commercial, government, nonprofit, and community efforts.
Commercial efforts have been the least successful, with government-led initiatives close behind.
Nonprofit and community-led efforts, however, have been highly successful, with 92 percent success and above (more on this in part III). And for good reason.
Community-led grocery stores are more likely to hire from within the community, pay livable wages, and work with the community to find solutions to unequal food access.
In part III, I take a closer look at these solutions, explore case studies, and begin to outline FareMarket’s role in creating and fostering community-led food businesses in Little Rock and beyond.
Written by Benjamin Harrison
Benjamin is the founder and CEO of FareMarket, a data analyst, professional writer and researcher, food justice advocate, and a former urban farmer.