Turning Around America’s “Food Deserts”

Tackling the problem: two videos about creative solutions

The last time I wrote about food and food policy, it was in the context of the invisible fist… commenting on one of the most Orwellian stories to date, the brutal closure of raw food sellers by SWAT teams enforcing draconian regulations against non-corporate unpasteurized milk and cheese.

As I try to understand the rapidly changing political landscape and evolving socio-economic ecosystem, it’s becoming more and more obvious that food and food policy is a prominent part of the emerging policy struggle.

In the past few decades, we—or rather the emerging uber-aggressive corporatism we’ve been helpless to change—has created food deserts, after grocery store chains have consolidated into mega-corporations that have trans-regional, or even national, reach, and have increasingly abandoned poor communities, shuttered stores, and only opened up new stores in perceived “affluent areas” to maximize profitability.  These changes, plus the big box super chains pushing-out small, family grocers that had local stores, have created serious access problems.  Food deserts are areas where there is low or limited or NO access to real food, either because of long distances from an open grocery store or lack of transportation thereto.  It’s hard to believe it’s gotten to this point, but the economic changes have been so bad and long-lasting we’re now in a situation where broad swaths of the United States have access to nothing but junk: processed fast food that’s intended as a “sometimes food” relied-on on a near-daily basis.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the agency that funds SNAP, food inspectors, and the complex network of farm subsidies, has begun tracking and mapping food deserts.

A map from USDA data:

Areas with no or low car-access and no groceries available within a mile

The food desert situation is serious, and needs our attention.  It should change our attitudes around obesity as well: this map ^ probably correlates strongly, perhaps exactly, with a map of severe obesity.  We should see obesity as symptomatic of the malnutrition that comes from food deserts.  Americans consume, consume, consume, but don’t get the needed nutrients in (a metaphor for the U.S. economy too).

People are trying different, creative solutions to this problem.  The raw dairy people in California who got shut down are examples of approaches to providing more access to healthier food.  Even though the raw food markets in question operate within American capitalism, trading cheese for set prices, something about them offended the corporatist system of big agribusiness, who obviously want to limit competition if regulations provide a pretense.  Yesterday the stock market hit a record high, the Dow is up 120% since the Obama administration came in, in January 2009, thanks to the bailouts the big fish are super-happy and reaping a great bonanza, and there’s every incentive to maintain the status quo at all costs.  This problem, the invisible fist of Orwellian unfreedom utilized to protect the corporatist system, will likely crop up again as more alternatives to big agribusiness become prominent.

But there’s hope: a lot of exciting projects to develop food solutions are emerging now.  I’ll list two: First there’s Archi’s Acres, a project by Colin and Karen Archiplay. Marine Sgt. Colin Archiplay was highly decorated in Iraq and Afghanistan but found himself directionless, disconnected from his fellow marines, until he and his wife Karen innovated an ultra-low water method of sustainable, soilless, zero-pesticide, high-yield, organic hydroponic agriculture in sealed greenhouses on their small farm near San Diego, and created the Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training (VSAT) program to train veterans to grow healthy food, desperately needed healthy food the U.S. market will always pay well to get.

They tell their story in the below TED Talk, explicitly mentioning spreading the greenhouses as solutions to U.S. food deserts, and a future project to deploy mobile greenhouses of this type to “conflict zones” in the Mideast, which are actual deserts, AND, increasingly, food deserts as well.


Second, not-for-profit grocery stores are cropping up to turn around the food deserts.

Chester, Pennsylvania had no grocery stores at all until the not-for-profit project described in this Moyers – PBS report opened. 

Corporate capitalism has its own internal logic, and the results in places like Chester, PA have been ugly, removing food access from whole communities, or, in the language of economists, “create negative externalities.”

Here’s a map of the food deserts around Philadelphia and, down-river, Chester is improving—I made this map with the USDA Food Access Atlas.

USDA Food Desert Map: the urban areas lining the Delaware River have serious food access issues.
USDA Food Desert Map: the urban areas lining the Delaware River have serious food access issues.


One of the gifts of a Jesuit education I was lucky to receive was the ability to question things, and to turn around America’s food deserts we will need to question and go beyond the internal logic of corporatism that so often binds us.  I don’t think capitalism is the problem.  I think our super-aggressive form of hyper-cut-throat corporate capitalism is the problem, the tyranny of earnings per share being the only goal.  As the manager of the non-profit grocer explained in the above video, being not-for-profit removed the constraints of quarterly profits and the like and made this possible, and they’ve been able to get farmers to give them lower prices and for companies to donate refrigerator equipment, etc.

We need to support these new food solutions, while overturning the cuts in food stamps (SNAP) and other austerity measures that are making food deserts worse.  The best interview I’ve read on the recent SNAP cuts is this Wonkblog interview with Joel Berg, the executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger.  He said: “…the average is about $1.50 per meal, and it’s going to $1.40 per meal after these cuts. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) estimates that it’s equivalent to something like losing 21, 22 meals a month. Many people report to us and food pantries that even before the cuts, it only lasts two-three weeks.”  What isn’t noted is how this will put organic, healthy foods even more out of reach, and how people will double-down on the processed high-calorie foods to extend their calories per dollar, meaning more processed food-only meals to stretch that food stamp another week.

What do you think of food deserts?