A succession of transfers on a protracted bus ride in the sweltering heat of summer or an extended walk in the freezing cold while the weight of numerous, bursting grocery bags pries into the flesh of the palms, strains the shoulders, and inspires a sloth-paced shamble across an urban landscape – these are just two of many less than fond memories that come to mind for many Americans when a grumbling stomach signals an impending sojourn for nourishment. Situations like these often inspire discussions of “food deserts” within the larger attempt to understand the perpetual dearth of safe and nutritious food that many people around the world face on a daily basis; however, food deserts are often ill understood, inconsistently defined, or shrouded in controversy. What are food deserts? How are they problematic or controversial? And, how can they be fixed? Herein I explore general answers to the aforementioned questions as well as the specific case of Chicago, America’s third-largest city and home to numerous food deserts. Ultimately, I find that, while additional research is necessary to fully understand this intricate topic and alternative framings of the issue, an ideal option for dealing with food deserts is a three tiered approach which centers on the development of economic incentives, public-private partnerships, and technological development.
A multiplicity of approaches to, and definitions of, food deserts have been offered in the literature addressing the topic. Some opt to provide strict limits on what can or cannot be described as a food desert while others leave the issue open and instead focus on general themes of accessibility. In Starved for Access, Lois Morton and Troy Blanchard offer a strict definition with the assertion that food deserts are those counties in which “all residents must drive more than 10 miles to the nearest supermarket chain or supercenter.” Alternatively, the work of Mari Gallagher, which focuses on the urban setting of Chicago, suggests that food deserts can be broadly conceived as “large geographic areas with no or distant grocery stores,” but also emphasizes the role of food balance (e.g. access to alternative food sources such as fast food restaurants) as well as the character and implication of the word desert as a verb, saying, “[it] focuses on action and agency, emphasizing the lack of access to good food in some areas is not a natural, accidental phenomenon, but is instead the result of decisions made at multiple levels by multiple actors.” Regardless of the definition adopted, however, the concept of a food desert revolves around the universal theme of accessibility to food of a particular character in a particular geographic area. Thus, whether it is a question of multiple bus transfers, prolonged treks with large opportunity costs, or too little income (e.g. physical or economic access, etc.) in the quest to gain access to food that is healthy or nutritious (e.g. as potentially measured by food balance in fast food to market terms) within a certain census tract, city block, or otherwise specified area, it is roughly a discussion of food deserts.
In the Chicago region specifically, research has revealed two main characteristics of food deserts using varying definitions: 1. they appear in three main clusters throughout the western and southern sections of the city, and 2. the three main clusters of food deserts consist primarily of African-American majority tracts. First, the three main clusters of underserved communities situated in the western and southern portions of Chicago are depicted in Figures 2 and 3, and represent the findings of two, independent studies of food deserts in Chicago. The first study, represented in Figure 2, was conducted by Mari Gallagher’s research group in 2006 and represents the distance of each tract from grocery stores of all types. Moreover, this figure proved to fit closely to additional maps in the report which sought to depict food deserts using Gallagher’s aforementioned, food balance approach. Figure 3, prepared by Chicago’s Department of Housing and Economic Development under the recently elected mayor, Rahm Emanuel, adopts a different strategy for delineating underserved communities, or food deserts. The left portion of the figure shows areas that fall below (red) or above (blue) the median income in Chicago as well as outside of a 1 mile buffer zone surrounding each grocery store over 10,000 square feet. Additionally, the right half of the figure shows these same areas as delineated by their proximity, within ½ a mile, of grocery stores which are more than 2,500 square feet. As measured in this fashion, the three main, clusters of underserved communities are still observed in the western and southern portions of the city, particularly in the portion which assessed proximity to grocery stores in excess of 10,000 feet.
In addition to the clustering nature of community tracts which may be described as food deserts via the aforementioned metrics, Figure 4 represents food deserts, as established by Mari Gallagher, in terms of their “racial” composition. Of note, the majority of demarcated tracts which comprise the three primary clusters have populations which are predominantly African-American. Moreover, other racial groups which comprise a majority in the remaining food desert tracts in descending order of most tracts occupied are White, Latino, and Asian; however, none of these groups approach the same number of contiguous tracts which are considered food deserts.
Extensive research on food deserts has identified a number of impacts which help to answer the questions regarding why food deserts can be problematic; however, numerous considerations and beliefs, moral, social, scientific, and/or economic, frame or reframe these impacts and make the issue of food deserts controversial. First, in terms of impacts, research such as Mari Gallagher’s report, Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Chicago, concluded that “communities that have no or distant grocery stores but nearby fast food restaurants instead…will likely have increased premature death and chronic health conditions, holding other influencers constant. Furthermore, others have suggested even broader impacts of food deserts such as those elaborated in another Gallagher report examining food deserts which stated:
Unless access to healthy food greatly improves, we predict that, over time, those residents will continue to have greater rates of premature illness and death from diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, hypertension, obesity, kidney failure, and other diet-related complications…Food imbalance will likely leave its mark directly on the quality, productivity, and length of life, and indirectly on health care costs, school test scores, and the economic vitality of the city and the region.
Moving forward, with reference to controversy and considerations, there are a number of individuals and groups who begin to question the notion of food deserts as an issue of science and empirical framing. This approach is exemplified by a recent article in the New York Times, Studies Question the Pairing of Food Deserts and Obesity, as well as several articles that it cited. Claims such as “there is no relationship between the type of food in a neighborhood and obesity and its children and adolescents” or “[food deserts] not only have more fast food restaurants and convenience stores than more affluent ones, but more grocery stores, supermarkets, and full-service restaurants, too” were made and demonstrate the extent to which some individuals claim that certain findings of food deserts are wrong, adopt varying methods of measurement, or partake in reframing of the issue altogether. Thus, the said reports and others may look only at adolescents or chose to define food deserts in a certain way (e.g. why one geographic or temporal scale as opposed to another, etc.). Furthermore, the former articles which claimed contrary findings also demonstrate the potential for controversy as a function of simple confusion among definitions. Often times, as seemed the case in the New York Times article, topics like food deserts are assumed to have a standardized definition and thus scientific findings or trends are incorrectly generalized in comparison to all findings addressing a particular issue. In this way, it might be said that a great deal of controversy on the topic consists of groups or individuals talking past one another – contrasting late stage consequential reasoning or deduction with little shared understanding of the most basic, initial assumptions.
Additionally, considerations and beliefs instigate controversy even if the existence and potential impacts of food deserts are accepted. For example, some may perceive or frame empirically testable impacts of particularly defined food deserts as a failure to fulfill a simple, moral imperative to treat others the way they would like to be treated while others may subscribe to more economically oriented or pragmatic beliefs which define food deserts as a problem given the potential for limited access to affordable, safe, and nutritious food to increase societal burdens – in ways somewhat parallel to particular claims made by Gallagher- such as lost worker productivity, greater health care costs borne by taxpayers, or diminished returns on public investment in education, etc. Thus, whether it comes down to questions about particular replicable scientific results, choices of various metrics, or just a difference in fundamental beliefs, there are numerous ways in which food deserts may be considered controversial.
Overcoming the basic groundwork of food deserts discussed above, the final question to be explored is: how can food deserts be fixed? Moving forward, I explore a number of possible solutions to food deserts, as well as some corresponding criticisms, and ultimately suggest that an ideal solution is a three-tiered approach which employs economic incentives, public-private partnerships, and technological development.
The possible solutions to food security and some of their respective problems fall roughly into five, main categories though there is certainly some potential for combination and overlap. They are: community strategies, economic incentives, public-private partnerships, technology, and structural redefinition. The community approach is often characterized by local solutions and attempts at community level unification against a food desert. Some of the most popular remedies prescribed in this approach include such things as community gardens, community supported agriculture, farmer’s markets, and mobile markets. The focus on local action seems to emphasize that some communities can imagine addressing food deserts without having to recruit extensive outside assistance; however, this also seems to be a significant shortcoming. Independence is difficult, super-community scale cooperation and specialization may have numerous benefits, and, as far as the observable reality and possibilities are concerned, the former activist Mark Winne has commented, in his book in Closing the Food Gap, that:
[He has] witnessed many sincere but ultimately failed attempts to transform dirt, water, and seed into food. I tend to look somewhat askance at those who suggest that more of us, if not all of us, and especially the poor, should ‘grow their own food’…our claims of self-reliance often come precariously close to self-righteous and pontificating.
Despite some limitations, the immediate and invested efforts of communities will undoubtedly continue especially given the fact that these community efforts may have value in the eyes of a neighborhood that extends far beyond providing a partial solution to food deserts. In Chicago specifically, several interesting examples of community scale attempts to address food deserts exists. Numerous community gardens have popped up around the city and a non-profit organization, Truck Farm Chicago, utilizes a mobile truck farm to promote gardening and nutrition edification.
Figure 5 depicts a community garden in Hyde Park, a neighborhood on the Southside of Chicago, and Figure 6 provides a close up of the truck farm operated by Truck Farm Chicago. Moreover, an organization known as Fresh Moves, spearheaded an effort, “after reading a 2006 report that mapped food deserts in Chicago” (the Gallagher report cited above), to bring a mobile market to underserved communities via a converted Chicago Transit Authority Bus (Please see Figure 7).
Economic incentives and public-private partnerships are two additional possibilities for addressing food deserts. In these scenarios, governments may provide tax breaks or subsidies to companies who build markets in areas that are designated as food deserts (i.e. economic incentives) or they may make their economic intervention even more explicit in the form of direct partnerships or interventions. This option like the others, has its advantages and pitfalls. Public criticisms of government spending
are extensive and may make things like subsidies a sort of political suicide for legislators. Further, while these options operate at a much larger scale than community strategies and can effect very rapid, widespread change in a way that seems consistent with our economic system and moors of fairness – the taxpayers who demand the elimination of food deserts as motivated by such moral and economic benefits as described earlier, may effectively purchase the elimination of food deserts through the funding of subsidies, tax-breaks, or partnerships – this requires an adherence to a certain economic perspective that presents many difficulties including: attempting quantify/value moral and social benefits that resist reduction and conversion into monetary terms, discounting future beneftis in a way that may be ethically dubious towards future generations, or wrestling with the ever present problem of bounded rationality that prevents perfectly rational understandings of issues. In the context of Chicago, the aforementioned, economically
oriented methods of addressing food deserts have been employed as of late. The recently elected Mayor, Rahm Emanuel, has been featured in such articles as Emanuel Takes on Chicago’s Food Deserts, where it was described that he had recently, “gathered grocery chain CEOS for a food desert summit…walked in with data about neighborhood population density…handed over a list of 11 sites that need a big-box store and are commercially zoned [and] ‘offered us his support from the mayor’s office to do what he can to help us get these things opened.’”
The remaining solutions to food deserts are technology and structural change. Technology might be adopted as a direct strategy, in which case it may fit multiple categories of solutions, but the latent, external benefits of technology have also been lauded as possible solutions to a number of social problems throughout history; think statistical methods originally developed by industry hired individuals which are now used extensively in dealing with numerous social problems. In this vein of thinking, the market activities of various companies or entrepreneurs may yield benefits that help mitigate potential problems of food deserts as manifest or secondary effects. For example, the internet and transportation improvements seem promising; specifically developed software programs allow for the easy identification of food deserts, individuals can collaborate online more easily in the procurement of food (e.g. ride sharing to the grocery store, etc.), and companies like Zipcar, which rent cars by the hour and have profited from information technology developed by industry, may now result in a range of individuals being able to go further, faster and more efficiently in attempts obtain improved food because of reduced costs of entry to utilize a vehicle. Next, with regard to structural solutions, fundamental changes in the organization and assumptions of our society are often proposed. One prime example of this type of thinking includes Bill McKibben, who, in his book Deep Economy, applied principles of Deep Ecological thought to rethinking of the contemporary society, including food of production, distribution, and consumption. While dramatic, structural solutions have a long tradition of intellectual support and appeal, recent history suggests the difficulty of cultivating a capacity to overcome the powerful inertia of capitalism as a global system (e.g. the Cold War Era and the collapse of the U.S.S.R., globalization and the expansion of world markets, etc.)
Overall, the aforementioned options for addressing food deserts – from the most local and tangible community efforts to the broad, abstract realm of radical, structural change – each have a number of unique strengths and limitations. Despite these mixed results, however, a three tiered approach, including economic incentives, public-private partnerships, and technological development, seems most appropriate and feasible. Community efforts have proven success, but demonstrated, severe limitations. Structural change seems to have infinite theoretical potential, but has failed to provide proven challengers to the inertia of the current organization of human civilization. Thus, we are left with the economic incentives, public-private partnerships, and technological development as the most reasonable alternative. Technology is not a panacea and may cause some problems in its attempts to resolve others, but the extent of change provided with such innovations as the internet demonstrates its potential for extensive change on a broad scale that parallels the extent of food deserts. Lastly, economic incentives and public-private partnerships have limitations, notably their mixed popularity in the political realm; yet, recent political trends such as their incorporation by Rahm Emmanuel, as the mayor of the third-largest city in the United States and former member of President Obama’s administration, suggests that their political feasibility is improving and they have demonstrated potential to work on a broad scale and expedient timeline if thoughtfully constructed.
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