What Academics Focused On Improving Americans’ Diets Got Wrong

It’s time to look beyond the concept of “food deserts.”
INGLEWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 01: First lady Michelle Obama speaks at the future site of Gonzalez Northgate Market to discuss the California FreshWorks Fund on February 1, 2012 in Inglewood, California. The $264 million ... INGLEWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 01: First lady Michelle Obama speaks at the future site of Gonzalez Northgate Market to discuss the California FreshWorks Fund on February 1, 2012 in Inglewood, California. The $264 million public-private fund plans to bring healthy food stores to under-served communities and create or retain up to six thousand jobs. The fund has committed $20 million in financing to Northgate for the first three projects, which are in South Los Angeles, Inglewood and the City Heights portion of San Diego. The first lady will end her two-day visit with a television appearance to promote her fight against childhood obesity and a fundraiser for her husband U.S. President Barack Obama. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images) MORE LESS

This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.

As policy concepts go, the term “food desert” had a good ride, but it is time to think bigger. The fight for healthier options was never only about food.

Just a decade ago, many in the academic community thought we had it all figured out when it came to geography and health. Researchers assumed that higher numbers of close, cheap fast-food restaurants must have been the cause of higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and hypertension in poor, urban neighborhoods. Food oriented think tanks were convinced that an abundance of nearby convenience stores, and relatively few grocery stores, meant people were lured away from what nutritious options did exist.

In 2011, the Obama administration ushered in an ambitious “Healthy Food Financing Initiative” that has since distributed hundreds of millions of dollars to improve access to healthy food in underserved areas across the country. Subsidizing supermarkets was seen as the big fix, but smaller options like farmers’ markets, community gardens, and urban farms were funded, too. 

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But now we know that distance doesn’t determine people’s diets in the ways that we thought. A number of people got it wrong. I was one of them.  

When I began my research on the topic, I was so fixated on getting healthy, local, and organic food into poor neighborhoods that I lost track of the bigger problem, too. The reason why installing new grocery stores did not change people’s diets was that people in “food deserts” weren’t asking for help to change the way they ate. What they wanted was investment in their communities. 

To understand how I had gotten it so wrong, I sat and spoke with 100 people in Greenville, South Carolina, about how they shopped for food. After spending time in their kitchens and on their front porches, I came to see the food desert concept as inextricably flawed; living far from a grocery store is just one of multiple barriers to healthy eating. 

It took me a while, but I eventually came to see how the “healthy food” framing of the issue distracted us from the bigger problem. While focusing on the public health dimensions of this debate was an expedient way to get politically minded foodies to join the fight, this strategy was short sighted. Although these new white and middle-class allies brought a good deal of political capital to the cause, spending so much time talking about fruits and vegetables was also a way to sidestep tougher conversations about racism and poverty. 

The geographic distribution of high-quality retail in America is not random. The movement of retail out of the urban core started in the 1960s and ‘70s when the U.S. government engaged in what is now referred to as “urban renewal” style revitalization.

Community organizers today have begun switching to the term “food apartheid” to underscore how the food landscape in America was created by institutionally racist public policies of the past. And they are right. But that terminology doesn’t go far enough, either. Because the issue is bigger than food and it always has been. It is about all forms of commerce. It is about retail inequality.

The geographic distribution of high-quality retail in America is not random. The movement of retail out of the urban core started in the 1960s and ‘70s when the U.S. government engaged in what is now referred to as “urban renewal” style revitalization. At the time, urban infrastructure post World War II had decayed considerably across the country. Good paying manufacturing jobs had started to disappear and the housing stock in many cities had fallen into a state of disrepair. Rather than reinvest in crumbling neighborhoods, the government chose wholesale demolition of entire city blocks. Instead of rebuilding neighborhoods, state and federal agencies divided them with highways that paved the way to the suburbs. Households with the means to leave — often white — saw the writing on the wall and started leaving in droves, kickstarting an era of white flight away from city centers. Retailers, too, saw where the money was going and started pulling up stakes. 

This racialized movement of wealth and population from the urban core left segregated and concentrated poverty in its wake. The largely Black population left behind without the means to escape were, in many cases, crammed by city officials into dense public housing and left to fend for themselves. Divested and depleted, these neighborhoods struggled to support the familiar corner stores that had catered to their needs for generations. The few mom-and-pop ventures that held on were eventually crushed by the emergence of big box stores that set up shop outside of town.

As a nation, we’ve decided it is morally appropriate to subsidize the retail sale of healthy food in areas still struggling to rebuild from that era. That is what the Healthy Food Financing Initiative was designed to do. But we shouldn’t stop there. Eligibility for the grants, loans, and tax breaks we offer to build grocery stores and support farmers’ markets should be expanded to a wider spectrum of retail offerings. Locally owned businesses operated by and for nearby communities are a necessary public good. 

Supermarkets are important, but sustainable communities need affordable hardware stores, credit unions, and family-style restaurants. But without enough population density and disposable income in the area, businesses in poorer zip codes cannot compete against the national chain stores that stick to high-traffic roads on the way out of town. In that vacuum, these communities are inundated with “bad retail” that too often exploits the vulnerable (liquor stores and payday lenders top this list). These neighborhoods are tired of being the dumping grounds for these kinds of storefronts. They simply want a say over what can be bought and sold in their communities.

It is time to think bigger than the Healthy Food Financing Initiative. The fight over local food options isn’t new and it was always about more than food anyway. Look back to an earlier battle over food access: the lunch counter sit-ins of the Civil Rights movement. Those protests weren’t about what was on the menu. They were about justice and equality. 

These communities need a neighborhood retail financing initiative that can level the playing field. For better or worse, in our consumer-based society, local retail serves as a symbol of a community’s worth to the outside world. Exclusionary retail, be it prohibitively expensive or culturally tone-deaf, sends the message that nearby residents don’t matter. They deserve better. They deserve retail that is built around their wants and needs.

By investing in these communities now, we can move toward a reality in which they can support quality retail on their own terms. Until then, a neighborhood retail financing initiative can bridge the gap. We’ve funded efforts to improve access to healthy food, now we should take the next step and expand those efforts to include more diverse forms of retail. Through such an initiative, urban communities could be redeveloped, and we can begin to put an end to decades of retail inequality. 

Kenneth Kolb is Professor of Sociology at Furman University. His is the author of Retail Inequality: Reframing the Food Desert Debate.

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