Food and Nutrition

Why It’s Time To Stop Using the Term ‘Food Deserts’—And What To Use Instead

Photo: Well+Good Creative
I didn’t live in the best neighborhood growing up as a Black youth. It’s been decades, but I still freshly remember the days of emptying my piggy bank and taking the 15 minute walk to McDonald’s for my regular $1 McChicken lunch. When food was scarce at home and my single mother was working her weekend shift, this was my standard practice. The second-closest spot to get any sort of food or snacks was the corner liquor store, but entry for a 13-year-old was rightly discouraged.

Getting to grocery stores for what my family called “the good food” wasn’t impossible, but given the distance, those trips were sporadic. So, what groceries we did obtain were meant to last as long as possible, meaning plenty of packaged and shelf-stable foods. On days when supply was running low, well, McChickens abounded.

I never really knew this situation was abnormal, and I certainly didn’t know there was a name for it, until I started my undergraduate degree in nutrition and dietetics. It was right about then that I learned that I had spent my childhood living in what's commonly referred to as a "food desert." As I learned more about the racial and social climate of the United States (especially in recent years), I've grown to believe that a name change is sorely needed. These are not food deserts—they are American apartheids.

What is a food desert?

Before launching into the pitch for a change in how we label these areas, let’s briefly cover what a food desert currently means. “As a dietitian, I was taught to define a ‘food desert’ as any area that lacked easy access to a grocery store, usually within a defined range such as ‘within two miles’ or ‘along a public transportation route,'” says Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, LD, of Street Smart Nutrition. Basically, for people who live in these areas without access to transportation, getting fresh food or viable groceries is challenging—almost like being deserted.

You may also have heard of the term "food swamps." Its meaning is similar in that there is access to some food, but it may be much lower in nutritional quality when compared to what you find in a supermarket. “Food swamps speak to neighborhoods with more convenience stores or bodegas than full-service grocery stores,” Harbstreet says.

Harbstreet's point brings me to the demographic factor: Areas known as food deserts and food swamps are overwhelmingly occupied by minority groups, particularly African Americans, of low socioeconomic status. In households with little money and easy access to food that is typically fast food or whichever energy-dense snacks can be found at the closest gas station, it comes as little surprise that the nutritional status of this population is poor.

Hopefully, it also comes as little surprise that telling these individuals to “try harder” or “prioritize their health” does little to remedy the issue. “If someone is working two or more jobs, we can’t just tell them to travel to get food,” says Shana Minei Spence, MS, RDN, CDN, an anti-diet and weight-inclusive dietitian who works in public health. “If someone is already struggling to put food on the table, the fact that traveling costs money is going to be top-of-mind.”

Why "food apartheid" is the more accurate term

These unrealistic "just work harder"-style suggestions likely sound familiar to many minority communities, who are repeatedly told to pull up their bootstraps if they want equality—not only in fresh food and water access, but also in housing, social image, and income. This is another form of oppression toward these marginalized groups, and it’s why “food apartheids,” rather than “food deserts,” is a phrase with more of a ring of justice to it.

Unlike the actual deserts of Nevada or the swamps of Florida, the phenomena we call "food deserts" and "food swamps" do not occur naturally.

Following the Great Depression, the New Deal was enacted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to “restore prosperity to Americans.” Well, those Americans didn’t seem to include Black Americans. That’s because the New Deal made housing more affordable than ever, but nearly all of the homes were being built in the exclusively white suburbs. Additionally, home loans were made notably difficult to obtain for Black Americans when compared to white Americans. Thus, the practice of redlining—refusing to insure mortgages in and around Black neighborhoods—was in full effect. Redlining was so named because actual red lines would be drawn on maps to mark African-American neighborhoods as “hazardous.”

As a result, most minority groups were banished to the most unattractive parts of town and in poor housing, which made it unappealing for major supermarket chains to build their locations in these areas. The reason poor neighborhoods are rich in liquor and corner stores is unclear, with many activists believing they were planted there to deliberately poison specific ethnic populations with alcohol, processed snacks, and low-quality food. It’s likely, however, that the discriminatory practices of how neighborhoods have been historically structured are to blame. In fact, the prevalence of liquor stores in minority and low-income neighborhoods cannot be explained by supply and demand, as African Americans and Latinx communities report lower drinking rates than whites. Studies have found that these stores tend to be located in areas with low retail rents which also happen to be areas inhabited by poorer, minority residents. These differing land values can be easily explained by the aforementioned practices of redlining.

It’s maddening that this information is not more widely taught or known, and this lack of awareness fuels the firmly-held beliefs of some white Americans that minorities who have crappy houses and even crappier diets are that way due to a lack of fortitude. “It is implied that the onus is on the community rather than the systems put in place. People very incorrectly assume that folks in lower-income areas—which are mostly communities of color—want the oversaturation of fast-food restaurants and want more convenience stores. This simply isn’t true,” Spence says.

The institutionalized racism that gave birth to food apartheids has produced a health crisis among these communities. As Jesse Lunsford, RDN, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition at Metropolitan State University of Denver says, “Our food system is directly tied to profits, which necessarily requires companies to manage costs while raising prices. Nowhere in that equation is suitability for human health considered.” Healthful foods—like fresh produce and dairy, lean meats, and whole grains—are often too expensive for low-income populations. Even if they manage to travel out of their food apartheid for their groceries, the pipe dream of having a “healthy diet” is still out of reach. The high-class, mainstream way of eating for health is promoted as being rich in foods such as seafood, quinoa, exclusively organic produce, naturally-sweetened beverages, and grass-fed meat.

For minority populations who can’t afford to eat this way every day (and whose cultural foods aren't included in western conversations about "healthy eating"), it breeds hopelessness for ever achieving a healthful diet. Thus, the easiest option is to eat whatever is closest and cheapest. “There is nothing about being Black that makes someone more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than a white person, yet rates are higher in Black Americans than white Americans," Dr. Lunsford says. "Race is not really a risk factor, but a correlation to systemic outcomes.” Black communities have a disproportionately higher chance of developing nutritionally-related chronic diseases, and given their government-mandated food situation, it’s not difficult to see why.

All of this brings us back to why "food apartheid" is a more accurate descriptor of these communities than "food desert." By dictionary definition, an apartheid is "a former policy of segregation and political, social, and economic discrimination against the non-white majority in the Republic of South Africa." But apartheids are not just policies associated with South Africa. The word "apartheid" is more valid because it encompasses all of the factors that produced so-called food deserts: segregation, redlining, real estate discrimination, and economical depreciation of black neighborhood land value. And did any of the above occur naturally, as a desert does? Absolutely not.

Taking steps towards a more equitable future

So, what can we do to progress towards universal food sovereignty? Well, the aforementioned change in language around “food deserts” is an easy first step. “I believe words matter in public health, and perhaps 'apartheid' is harder to ignore than 'desert' or 'swamp,'” Dr. Lunsford says. That’s exactly what the goal is: making this issue something you can’t ignore.

Just as food deserts didn’t just appear as a natural phenomenon, the marginalized communities that live in them did not put themselves there—institutionalized racism did. Therefore, it is the responsibility of these institutions, not the groups oppressed by them, to improve the situation. “I cannot stress enough that people need to pay attention to what’s happening in their communities with local officials and projects," Spence says. "We pay attention for the most part of our federal elections, but it is the local officials that have a say on areas and can really make a change."

All Americans need to raise our awareness that these food apartheids very much exist, and have existed right here in our own communities. However, if you are insulated from the effects of an apartheid, it’s easy for them to go unnoticed and, consequently, unaltered.

The impact that poverty and race has on health is the reason I became a dietitian. I watched so many members of my African American family deteriorate from type 2 diabetes and heart disease due to a lack of nutrition education and other resources to support a healthy lifestyle. It’s borderline infuriating to know these hardships have been a mostly residual result of policies created by the very bodies who are supposed to protect our liberties and our lives.

Calling food deserts food apartheids moving forward may roll some eyes and cause others to bristle at first. It’s certainly uncomfortable, but we never made a change in this country by settling into complacency. Discomfort, despite being an inevitable source of social discourse for any sort of shift in human rights, is vital to the populations it affects. So, let’s start by getting comfortable with the term “food apartheid,” so we can realize the hopes of eliminating it.

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