I lead an organization whose core is urban agriculture. Historic Westside Gardens aims to build a rooted, powerful and resilient Westside. I also dig ….in papers, to educate myself, hence "Gil’s digs".
Thus, this is my personal findings digging into many research papers or books.
In this dig, I would like to highlight one point to set the plot for a series of digs. The language we use and which frame the conversation about the role of urban agriculture. Most of Urban Agriculture occurs in low-wealth neighborhoods. One reason for this phenomenon is that in these neighborhoods we find enough cheap land.
The first terms are “food desert”. The USDA defines what's considered a food desert. It defines which areas will receive help. A food desert is a “low-access community. That means at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract's population. And they live more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store. For rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles.. When we use “food desert” focusing on distance we associate it with a natural cause. Where there are food deserts, there were thriving communities, there were grocery stores. (see pictures below). In fact, these are food desertED areas. This happened due to economic and political decisions. These are created deserts, disinvested communities. By using the terminology of ‘food desert’ we perpetuate oppression.
I see several reasons to ask you to stop using the words ‘food desert’.
First the people who live in these neighborhoods do not see themselves living in a desert. It is offending and diminishing. Second, these food deserted areas do have food. There are convenient stores. There is a difference between no food and lack of healthful food. Food insecurity is not only about hunger it is also about lack of choice and quality.
Third, it associates desert and poverty (who else would live in a deserted area?). Economy Nobel prize laureate Amartya Sen states: ‘poverty is a deprivation of opportunity’. Disinvestment and food desertification are a deprivation of opportunity. Economic, capitalistic, urban dynamics and political choices are the cause of food desertification. Also, there are no 'poor neighborhood'. There are people struggling with poverty and lack of resources . They know that there is a lot going on and positive in these communities. There is communal life, more than there is in rich neighborhoods. Stigmatizing areas and communities reinforce oppression and privilege. Since most of the people living in these areas are people of color and minorities it adds racism to the mix.
Fourth, I am not using the opposite words "Food Swamp". It is also a geographic metaphor which carries denigrating connotation. It refers to the vast presence of fast food businesses and convenience stores. They offer food products which are not healthful. This situation is the fruit of policies and powerful forces. “Supersizing Urban America- How inner Cities got fast food with government help” is a book by Jou. It describes how this happened . I don't use "food swamp".
The government policies made it easier for minorities to open fast-food franchises. Hence, many fast food stores and lack of of grocery stores. Today the landscape of urban America reflects this history.
The goal was to curb urban unrest following the race riots of the 1960s. The Small Business Administration (SBA) push loans to minority entrepreneurs. Equal Opportunity Loans (EOL) . In roughly a decade the EOL program "disbursed about $25 million. 1,560 individual loans to entrepreneurs opening franchises." Many of these new businesses were fast-food franchises. The SBA started providing job training and entrepreneurship programs. Many of which also involved fast-food franchises.
Fast-food companies, saturated their original markets of roadside stops and suburbs. They needed expansion to grow profits. Reaching out to potential African-American franchisees was their roadmap to success. After the riots, White-owned businesses were seen as unwelcome interlopers in black neighborhoods. "Recruiting African-American franchisees was seen as a way to mitigate potential conflicts. It meant outsourcing the everyday difficulties and dangers of operating restaurants in inner-cities". "They [fast-food corporations] know that doing business in my area is hell. There's cutting, shooting, killing. So they say, we really don't want to do this ourselves, so why don't we get this black cat over here and franchise him?" Brady Keys, former NFL football player turned franchisee.
Fast-food franchisees were the recipients of these SBA loans. Why not grocery stores or independent restaurants? One is that profit margins for fast-food can be as high as 6 percent, compared with 1 percent for grocery stores. Grocery stores also often need more square footage to operate – Space is hard to find in a populated area.
Today the overly easy access to fast food has become a hot-button issue because of the obesity crisis. There is a strategy to bring grocery stores and farmers market. To replace fast-food restaurants proved to be more difficult that expected.
In conclusion, do not use “food desert” when you hear or talk about the food situation in our communities. Better, underline the fact that it is a consequence of policies and choices. These are our neighborhoods and they are food desertED communities.
Urban agriculture tries to address this situation. Urban agriculture strategies are are not without risk. It can contribute to planning processes that will impoverish communities. By being part of the new neo-liberal economy it might speed up gentrification. "Greenlining" and 'food gentrification' already exist. Stay tuned.