As far as analogies go, the food desert is a pretty effective one. You can almost imagine yourself out in the middle of nowhere, not a banana or egg for miles. It’s not a pleasant thought, especially if you like bananas and eggs. But really, everybody’s gotta eat, and without food nearby, eating is not easy. Because this analogy works so well, it’s very well used – by food activists, public health officials and countless researchers. But like many analogies, it doesn’t really capture the whole picture.
“A lot of the work on food deserts has been people rather unscientifically pointing to urban areas and saying, ‘oh, there’s no grocery stores there’ and that was sort of the end of it,” says Laura Leete. She’s an associate professor of public policy at the University of Oregon, and co-author of a recent paper looking at how food deserts are measured in different cities. What she and her co-authors found is that there’s not a lot of consistency in these measurements across cities. But in looking at the different ways food deserts are measured, it became clear that the context of communities had an important impact on which neighborhoods had low access to food. And, contrary to the easy analogy of the food desert, the people with low access to food in many cities aren’t all living in the same neighborhood.
“In Portland, and in the West in general, urban poverty is less of a concentrated urban phenomenon and the low income households living with low food access are really spread all over an urban area,” says Leete.
While food deserts may be more of a reality in cities in the Eastern U.S. where poverty is more concentrated, cities in the West have more suburbanized poverty. She argues that these aren’t food deserts, but food hinterlands. The issue, Leete says, is not just areas with few grocery stores, but the scattered low-income people who live too far from grocery stores and have few options to get to them.
“The food desert idea has been bandied about a lot and it’s been popular, but it’s really only a relevant problem to people who don’t have access to cars, and that’s a certain particular subset of the population. It’s not even the poor population, but it might be 25 percent of the poor population,” says Leete. “In some urban areas virtually all or some huge percentage of the poor have access to cars and in some other urban areas very few of them do. So it’s a very context-specific problem.”
And in the context of transportation, residents in food hinterlands are limited. But merely building a grocery store can’t possibly accommodate a fairly large population that’s spread out across the city.
“The policy solutions break down into space-based solutions versus transit-based solutions: bringing the stuff to the people or bringing the people to the stuff,” says Leete. “And the hinterland idea suggests that maybe we need to bring the people to the stuff.”
But under the current paradigm, food accessibility tends to be tied to the idea of the food desert. Leete hopes that there will start to be a deeper understanding of the broader issues in food accessibility, and that more appropriate policy solutions will emerge.
“Food desert people are usually trying to get grocery stores and farmers markets into the food desert. For this really spatially dispersed problem, the policy solutions are probably different and have more to do with transit than with actually locating grocery stores.”
Photo credit: Yiorgos Karahalis / Reuters