If you have been following the conversation around the lack of fresh foods available in certain districts across the country, then you have probably heard the label "food desert." More and more, this term is being used to justify the existence of large corporate grocery chains in poor communities. Food activist LaDonna Redmond explains:
“The use of the phrase ‘food desert’ creates a set of problems. The first problem is the term suggests that economic development is at the expense of community development.
[It’s] really nothing more than a marketing term. Food desert identifies for corporate America how to sell cheap, off brand food to our community. When we know that cheap, highly processed food is at the crux of the rise in chronic diet related diseases.
In the end, the term masks the real harm of the U.S. corporate controlled food system by suppressing the ability of community entrepreneurs to develop and finance scalable community solutions. The danger of accepting the food desert philosophy is that it masks the real problem of the corporate controlled food system: poverty and hunger.” I couldn't agree more.
This term has been thrown around by the USDA, anti-hunger advocates and large supermarkets themselves like Wal-Mart to explain their existence in communities facing food hardship and ultimately those same corporate chains receive subsidies that aren’t available to smaller, local entrepreneurs. The arrival of these retailers that are supposed to help the community many times help to set the stage for gentrification, as well as not paying a living wage job to residents, if the jobs are even available to them at all.
There is no doubt that many impoverished communities need access to healthy, quality, culturally relevant food. But it ought to be fresh food that will support our local farmers who are also suffering from a broken food system and nourish the bellies of our babies while simultaneously stimulating economic and community development. We need food to go back to being a tool for change and culture. We must get beyond “food deserts” and eventually beyond food justice and get to food sovereignty.
What does that mean? It means that we not solely rely on large corporations to “fix” our current food predicament, a predicament that they intentionally created. It means that we analyze and utilize our current community resources to create innovative and just solutions. Take for example Melissa Danielle’s Bed-Stuy Bounty that utilizes an online platform to buy food at wholesale and then split amongst buyers in a club. She delivers by bike or you can pick up from her home in Bed-stuy. Solutions like The People’s Grocery in Oakland, CA which includes a mobile market and several urban gardens and headed by Oakland native Nikki Henderson, they have set the model for mobile markets. Or consider Growing Power started by former professional athlete Will Allen that boasts several farms including one inside the city limits of Milwaukee and Chicago. There are projects like K. Rashid Nuri’s Truly Living Well which boasts a large urban farm a block away from the eternal resting place of Coretta and Martin Luther King, Jr., a farmer’s market and Community Supported Agriculture, as well as trainings, rentals and a summer camp. All of these projects are in “food deserts”; but instead of wooing large corporate food retail chains, they instead created the solutions themselves.
Sustaining these initiatives isn’t easy. Ms. Redmond opened a grocery store in Chicago which ultimately closed. She shared that her experience taught her that the industry is dominated by large chains beholden to large food companies. Any alternatives remain difficult to gain capital for. Growing Power itself has received major criticism for accepting $1 million from Wal-mart. In New York City, there are few, if any subsidies given to small food retailers, but corporate grocer Fresh Direct is receiving $130 million in subsidies with no community benefits and only promises to try and create jobs while adding increased truck presence in an already overburdened community.
If communities understand that corporations rarely, if ever, have our best interest at heart, and if we educate ourselves on the economics of food while seeking out, creating and supporting the positive initiatives of organizations like the ones above, we have a fighting chance of reclaiming a piece of the food system and changing the face of our communities.
Tanya Fields is a food justice activist, public speaker, educator, food enthusiast, sometimes blogger, fierce mama bear of four precocious children and the founder and executive director of the BLK Projek. She is currently raising funds to start a mobile market in the South Bronx. In her spare time she updates a food blog called Mama’s Kitchen From Scratch and does a cooking demo workshop called Fab Food on a Food Stamp Budget. You can find her on Twitter and Facebook.