Food Deserts and Unjust Foodscapes

This blog post draws from a forthcoming chapter I have written for The Routledge Handbook of Landscape and Food that is edited by Josh Zeunert and Tim Waterman.  The book will be published early in 2018.  I am drawing on a section that focuses on the food desert concept in order to show how the standard interventions aiming to address food deserts does little to reconfigure the institutional forces that give rise to unjust foodscapes in the first instance.  The excerpt closes by identifying some of the ways that food justice activists are tyring to address the problems.  The full chapter is available here to download. 

Excerpt From Blake, M (2018), Landscape and the politics of food justice, in Zeunert, J. and T. Waterman (eds.) The Routledge Handbook of Landscape and Food.  Routledge, London and New York.

The links between social justice and landscapes of food access are at the heart of the food justice movement and a key component of this access is how food is made available in ways that are affordable, at a quality that is both safe and healthy, and in a manner that speaks to the cultural foodways of those who live in these environments. Food justice has arisen as response to and against those in agrifood science and industry who summon the argument that with growing population we need new food technologies and further industrialisation and its attendant concentrations of power to justify the ratcheting up of capitalism’s control over our food system (see for example Agyeman and McEntee, 2014; Foley et al., 2011). The idea of an unjust foodscape is implied in the food justice literature but has not been typically labelled as such (but see Blake, 2017). An unjust foodscape provides a landscape view that reveals not plenty but want by looking for what is seen as well as what is absent (after Sobol and Wansink, 2007). Importantly, unjust foodscapes must be interrogated in the ways that they reveal or hide what is or is not encountered—and by whom and how the encountering is or is not enabled (after Dolphijn, 2004; see also Wenzer ,2015)—as well as who benefits or does not benefit from that encounter (Blake, 2017). The food desert concept provides the most fully researched example of how unjust foodscapes are produced and then reproduced differently through political-economic processes.

Food deserts and their policy

Concerns regarding access to food that is healthy and affordable in urban contexts continue to inspire an abundance of scholarly research seeking to understand and explain how, in lands of plenty, there can still be sub-populations who do not have access to food. In response to this, an extensive body of literature has emerged that identifies areas characterised by high economic deprivation, social exclusion, and low access to healthy and affordable food as food deserts (see for example Beaulac et al., 2009; Cummins, 2014; Larsen and Gilliland, 2008; Wrigley et al., 2003; Walker et al., 2010). The US Department of Agriculture (USDA, n.d.) has adopted a definition of a ‘food desert’ as a place where there is not “ready access to fresh, healthy, affordable food”. The bulk of food desert research is quantitative in its methodological approach. The work typically focuses on the US and UK contexts (but see Battersby, 2012 for a discussion in relation to South Africa). The research argues that lack of access occurs because of a combination of urban development that has created an absence of supermarkets in inner-city spaces and transport linkages that render it difficult for low-income residents to access those suburban spaces where healthy food is identified as plentiful (Bedore, 2010; Shannon, 2016). To identify food deserts the USDA (n.d.), for example, produced a map of census tracts where at least a third of the population lives beyond a mile from a major supermarket as a tool for supporting food access (Shannon, 2016: 187; see also Donald, 2011). The proposed solution pursued most frequently by local and national state actors is to create a policy to encourage the re-population of these urban landscape spaces with supermarkets to provide better access. Examples of such policies are tax incentives and financial support to supermarket chains to encourage them to locate within what are considered low commercial value neighbourhoods (Donald, 2011; Pothukuchi, 2005; Shannon, 2016).

Critiques of the food desert approach

While the research on food deserts could be understood as showing concern for low-income consumers, there is a strong and multi-pronged argument that the approaches typically taken to ameliorate food deserts are not in tune with establishing greater food justice. There are a number of salient critiques as follows. Firstly, study and policy that focuses on supermarket access as measured by their presence or absence do little to interrogate the social inequalities that give rise to a lack of access to food in the first instance (Donald, 2013; Shannon, 2016). Secondly, such policy solutions are neoliberal in that they address a complex social problem by deferring to the market (Blake, 2017; Guthman, 2011; Wolf, 2014). Thirdly, the tax incentives and other financial supports amount to welfare for wealthy corporations and thus divert needed resources away from those who are most vulnerable within society (Donald, 2013). Fourthly, the presence of a supermarket in a neighbourhood does not necessarily ensure access to healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food (Drewnowski, 2009). Fifthly, the support of already wealthy private enterprises does nothing toward enabling communities to empower themselves (McClintock, 2011; Shannon, 2016). Sixthly, supermarkets can further exacerbate the problem of food injustice and insecurity in neighbourhoods by pushing out the smaller scale and independent stores who may already be providing access to healthy and affordable food (Donald, 2013; McClintock, 2011). Seventhly, the threat that large-scale supermarkets pose to the economic viability of smaller independent stores threatens household livelihood strategies for those groups who tend to concentrate in this occupational sector (Donald, 2013). Eighthly, the focus on American and British cities has failed to adequately theorise the food desert in relation to cities within other contexts that have different political economies and where urban residents have differently configured everyday lives (Batterby, 2012). Finally, food desert policy is a data-driven solution that hides as much as it reveals because not all supermarkets offer high-quality food at price points that are acceptable for those living in low-income families who may or may not live in low-income communities (Shannon, 2016). What these critiques also reveal is how a solution to a problem of absence within primarily urban landscapes may reshape these spaces without actually solving the problem in a way that is just or fair. Moreover, by populating the urban contexts with large supermarkets, the presence of an unjust foodscape is obscured by this new state-sponsored urban landscape of corporate controlled food, which is also unjust but in different ways, compared to expressions of absence.

Although these critiques are damning of state-sponsored food desert solutions that operate under neoliberal principles that favour large corporations, the term is useful for revealing how unjust foodscapes are formed. McClintock (2011), for example, examines food deserts in the context of Oakland, California, highlighting the ways in which historical material processes within the city led to the capital devaluation of some neighbourhoods and coupled with racist redlining practices produce a racialised and unjust urban landscape. The subsequent trapping of a population of people of colour in this neighbourhood and the abandonment by major food retailers who had in an earlier period pushed out smaller, independent groceries has left the area underserved by food outlets that provide fresh and healthy food. Importantly these abandoned areas also remained populated by low-quality, low-nutrition food outlets, areas, which British public health policy circles now refer to as ‘food swamps’. McClintock’s (2011) account of Oakland’s flatlands illustrates the ways in which political-economic landscape processes produce inequality.

Food Justice responses to food deserts

As a response to dispossession by abandonment, in some of these communities, residents have sought to create their own solutions by repopulating these urban spaces with community gardens, social eating activities, cooperative grocery stores, and the like. McClintock (2011), for example, points to bottom-up, community-based interventions that aim to create local opportunities such as people’s supermarkets and community gardens that have begun to emerge in Oakland. While food justice activity in Oakland has been well researched (for example, in Alkon and Nortgard, 2009; McClintock, 2011; Sbicca, 2012), there is considerable evidence of similar activity occurring in other locations. For example. McKinney and Kato (2017) identify activity in New Orleans that similarly seeks to support those living in food deserts. Likewise White (2011) reveals the ways in which the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network has sought to work through food to introduce transformative resilience in communities shaped by racist policy and the abandonment of capital. Further examples can be found in the chapters in Alkon and Agyeman (2011), and several other examples are discussed in Cadieux and Slocum (2015).

References cited:

Alkon, A. H., and Agyeman, J., 2011. Cultivating food justice: Race, class, and sustainability. MIT Press, Boston MA.

Alkon, A.H. and Norgaard, K.M., 2009. Breaking the food chains: An investigation of food justice activism. Sociological Inquiry, 79(3), pp.289-305.

Agyeman, J. and McEntee, J., 2014. Moving the field of food justice forward through the lens of urban political ecology. Geography Compass, 8(3), pp.211-220.

Battersby, J. 2012. Beyond the Food Desert: Finding wasy to speak about urban food security in South Africa.  Geographaska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography, 94(2):141-159.

Beaulac, J., Kristjansson, E. and Cummins, S., 2009. A systematic review of food deserts, 1966-2007. Prev Chronic Dis, 6(3), p.A105.

Bedore, M 2010.  Just Urban Food Systems: A New Direction for Food Access and Urban Social Justice.  Geography Compass 4(9), pp.1418-1432.

Blake, M.K., 2017. Building an unjust foodscape: shifting governance regimes, urban place making and the making of Chinese food as ordinary in Hong Kong. Local Environment, pp.1-16. (e-first edition

Cadieux, K.V. and Slocum, R., 2015. What does it mean to do food justice? Journal of political ecology, 22, p.1.

Cummins, S., 2014. Food deserts. The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Health, Illness, Behavior, and Society. Wiley-Blackwell, Hoboken, NJ.

Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN). No date. [date last accessed 5/12/16].

Dolphijn, R., 2004. Foodscapes: towards a Deleuzian ethics of consumption.  Eburon Publishers, Delft.

Donald, B. 2013. Food retail and access after the crash: Rethinking the food desert problem.  Journal of Economic Geography, 13(2): 231-237.

Drewnowski, A., 2009. Obesity, diets, and social inequalities. Nutrition reviews, 67(suppl 1), pp.S36-S39.

Foley, J.A., Ramankutty, N., Brauman, K.A., Cassidy, E.S., Gerber, J.S., Johnston, M., Mueller, N.D., O’Connell, C., Ray, D.K., West, P.C. and Balzer, C., 2011. Solutions for a cultivated planet. Nature, 478(7369), pp.337-342.

Guthman, J., 2011. Weighing in: Obesity, food justice and the limits of capitalism. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA.

Larsen, K. and Gilliland, J., 2008. Mapping the evolution of ‘food deserts’ in a Canadian city: Supermarket accessibility in London, Ontario, 1961–2005. International Journal of Health Geographics, 7(1), p.16.

McClintock, N., 2011. From industrial garden to food desert: Demarcated devaluation in the flatlands of Oakland, California, in Alkon, A. H., and Agyeman, J. (eds). Cultivating food justice: Race, class, and sustainability. MIT Press, Boston MA. Pp89-120.

McKinney, L. and Kato, Y., 2017. Community context of food justice: reflections on a free local produce program in a New Orleans food desert. AIMS Agriculture and Food 2(2):183-200.

Pothukuchi, K., 2005. Attracting supermarkets to inner-city neighborhoods: economic development outside the box. Economic Development Quarterly, 19(3), pp.232-244.

Sbicca, J., 2012. Growing food justice by planting an anti-oppression foundation: opportunities and obstacles for a budding social movement. Agriculture and Human Values, 29(4), pp.455-466.

Shannon, J., 2016. Beyond the supermarket solution: Linking food deserts, neighborhood context, and everyday mobility. Annals of the American Association of Geographers106(1), pp.186-202.

Sobal, J. and Wansink, B., 2007. Kitchenscapes, tablescapes, platescapes, and foodscapes: Influences of microscale built environments on food intake. Environment and Behavior, 39(1), pp.124-142.

USDA, no date. Documentation, Food Access Research Atlas.  [available online, United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service (date last accessed 23/06/17)

Walker, R.E., Keane, C.R. and Burke, J.G., 2010. Disparities and access to healthy food in the United States: A review of food deserts literature. Health & place, 16(5), pp.876-884.

Wenzer, J. 2015.  Foodscapes in Jackson, P and the CONAX group (eds).  Food Words: Essays in culinary culture. Bloomsbury, London.

Wolf, S. (2014) The neoliberal regime in the agri-food sector: crisis, resilience and restructuring, New York: Routledge.

Wrigley, N., Warm, D. and Margetts, B., 2003. Deprivation, diet, and food-retail access: Findings from the Leeds ‘food deserts’ study. Environment and Planning A, 35(1), pp.151-188.