Covering Food Deserts

Published on
September 15, 2010

The word "desert" immediately conjures up a lack of things - such as water, food, and people. But deserts are never really as empty as we imagine them to be; in fact they're filled with life, sometimes hidden or untapped. And so it is, to a degree, with "food deserts" - a recent term of art for communities, urban and rural, that at least appear to be devoid of healthy food.    

For journalists, the temptation - and number one potential pitfall - in a food desert story is to report on what's not there: no grocery stores, no fresh food, no supermarkets...and, one might assume, no money. The reality is more complicated. When covering these zip code-sized islands of America with minimal, if any, access to fresh food, reporters need to look beneath the arid surface and dig deep for context and underlying systemic forces.

Just what is a food desert? A recent USDA Economic Research Service report to Congress on the topic  found that 11.5 million people, or 4.1 percent of the total U.S. population, "live in low-income areas more than 1 mile from a supermarket." In a May 2009 story, Time magazine framed the problem as a lack of large-scale supermarkets: "Experts have declared roughly half of Detroit (pop. 916,000) a food desert and estimate that nearly 633,000 of Chicago's 3 million residents live in neighborhoods either lacking or far away from conventional supermarkets like Jewel, Pathmark and Winn-Dixie."

By these definitions, a food desert is simply a geographic space without access to a supermarket or any other source of healthful food. But a reporter who examines this vacancy will find much more: a community of people, a history of development and planning policies that failed to consider the community's food needs, and an underlying economics within both the neighborhood and the broader food industry - such as supermarket industry consolidation - that make such 'deserts' possible.

A broader context

Just as these areas cannot survive in a nutritional vacuum, the story itself cannot be told in isolation: the issue of food segregation - the gaping divide between food haves and have-nots - is inseparable from systemic issues relating to the broader food economy, the workings of the supermarket industry, and larger issues of economic and social disparity. Sensitive cultural issues relating to diet and food choices also come into play - issues of who gets to decide what kind of food a community gets to eat. Reporters wading into this story should be open to covering ‘food deserts' and access issues within these broader contexts.

Imagine you're covering a single neighborhood that lacks any stores offering fresh produce. Among your initial questions might be these: what are the health and social effects of this state of affairs? How, and what, do people eat? How are children and families affected?  Is food just one of many essentials that are unavailable to the community?

We haven't even gotten to the biggest question: why does the food vacuum exist anyway?  Here the story quickly gets complicated and multilayered. Certainly investigating supermarkets' reluctance to locate in poor neighborhoods is part of this story. It's important to keep in mind that while a single company may have its own reasons, there is a long pattern of supermarkets abandoning inner-city neighborhoods, giving rise to what many critics call "supermarket redlining."

Simply put, one cannot report a food desert story well without also examining economic divides that underlie unequal access to fresh food. Among the key questions: what are the myths and assumptions driving supermarkets' reluctance to set up shop in poor neighborhoods largely inhabited by people of color?  What is the actual buying power in these communities?  In research for my book on the American food industry, Diet for a Dead Planet, I found substantial evidence of significant purchasing power even in poor communities - and a long pattern of fear-based abandonment by supermarkets.

The geography of food

Digging more deeply, an enterprising reporter might examine the economy and geography of food in the wider city or rural area. What is the larger map of food availability? What are the existing and potential food growing resources in so-called food deserts?  Is there vacant, unused land that could be put to use growing food for the community?  Are there any local policies either encouraging or discouraging this from happening? Also examine the employment picture in these "desert" areas - how could local policies help put residents to work growing or distributing food?

On the ground level, there are plenty of encouraging stories of small, locally-oriented produce shops striving to create a fresh food market in areas largely inhabited by fast food outlets and convenience markets peddling junk food. In the San Francisco Bay area for instance, a "Good Neighbors" program in the southeast portion of the city has, with modest but very small-scale success, helped bring fresh produce onto store shelves that once carried mostly chips and soda. More famously, Oakland-based People's Grocery created a roving market on wheels - bringing fresh food where the people are instead of the other way around.

Given deadline pressures, space limitations, and a general journalistic trend toward micro-level stories, reporters on this beat may be tempted to focus on a single neighborhood program, or one store, that's pitted against this enormous complex problem. While such a story may be easy to package, it will likely fall short of what's really needed - analytic reporting that examines food inequality as a systemic issue, rather than a neighborhood level challenge.

Michele Simon, author of Appetite for Profit, a book that skewers the food industry's effects on public health, argues that food deserts "are constructs of our economic political system that favors profits over people....stories leave out that just having a farmers market in these areas is not enough, we need to get rid of the bad as well as bringing in the good. And we have to address the marketing and subsidies, the whole picture."

Controversy over "food deserts" term

In fact, many advocates of food equality reject the term "food deserts" altogether. Hank Herrera, a longtime food justice activist and policy advocate explains, "Some of us don't use the term "food desert" because a a natural phenomenon. Lack of access to fresh, healthy food is not natural. It is not accidental."

Herrera says that communities "that lack access to fresh, healthy, affordable food result from structural inequities, deliberate public and private resource allocation decisions that exclude healthy from those communities. That kind of inequity is food apartheid. The desert metaphor is inappropriate for conditions deliberately constructed by people. The desert metaphor only diverts attention from the inequitable, unjust condition."

The food equity beat also provides a unique opportunity for journalists to ask imaginative, far-reaching questions about how public space, community resources, and local policies might create something new to fill the supposedly empty space. Rather than simply inserting an out-of-town chain supermarket, which exports profits and tax dollars out of the community, how might communities and policymakers create something different?

"When food deserts are mentioned in most news media, (the story) often focuses on the problem while giving a nod that the answer is to provide more chain supermarkets," says David Burley, assistant professor of sociology at Southeastern Louisiana University. "I would like to see more thoughtful possibilities, like how many of these communities are taking this opportunity to develop an economy of place where they grow some of their own food developing skills and independence among residents through farmers markets, community gardens, urban farming, co-op grocery stores. This gives community members self-worth while being able to make a living doing something that enhances community."

Burley's words offer a useful key for reporters seeking to unlock the "food desert" story, and speak to the richness of issues and questions at play in this emerging beat. This richness provides an important guide for moving the story away from narrative of "lack," and toward deeper coverage of the multiple causes and potential solutions to the crisis of food access in America's poor and working-class communities.

Christopher Cook is the author of the critically acclaimed book, "Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis," now available in paperback. He has written for the Los Angeles Times, Harper's, The Economist, Mother Jones, The Christian Science MonitorThe Nation, The American Prospect, The Progressive, In These Times, and many others. His writing has been republished in numerous anthologies. He has also worked as a reporter for The Oakland Tribune and United Press International, and as city editor for The San Francisco Bay Guardian.