The Rhetoric of “Food Deserts”

My commitment to community engagement and social change work stems from my involvement in what many have called the food movement. Having come, like many others, to this effort from a personal place of concern for specific issues—the environment, my own connection to health and the land—I have worked in a variety of settings, attended many conferences and gatherings on the topic and been challenged by divergent beliefs. I have learned that the food movement is characterized by quite different approaches, rooted in divergent perspectives. One group’s interest in the movement is that of solving the problem of food access, or lack thereof.

The term used often by policymakers, public health professionals, and any number of nonprofit organizations to describe this challenge is “food desert.” Indeed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has formally embraced this descriptor to designate communities without access to fresh, healthy food (Gallagher, 2011). Both urban and rural locations can lack access to such foods, but often “food desert” describes neighborhoods in the inner city, littered with convenience stores that sell a variety of differently packaged and flavored corn and soy products. First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” program, arguably the most visible healthy food access program in the U.S., has partnered with Walmart to bring fruits and vegetables into these locations and has reported successes in doing so (Walmart, 2013).

However, new studies have shown that this approach—bringing healthy food to the people—does not work on its own. A recent article in Salon, for example, described an inquiry that used 15 years of data and found no link between health and readily accessible grocery stores (Gilligan, 2014). Another study by Alviola et al. (2013) showed that urban areas in Arkansas actually had better access to fresh fruits and vegetables than rural locations, but the writers speculated that a high density of fast-food establishments was causing health issues. This information suggests that inner city Walmart locations alone are not the answer.

It would be too hasty to say that programs such as that offered by the giant retailer do inner city families no good; in fact, it is obvious when one compares prices at Walmart to those at a typical farmers’ market that the fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods at the national chain are more affordable. Those who have lived in neighborhoods whose convenience stores stock mainly chips and soda, as I have, know that sometimes, any grocery store is welcome. Indeed, it is tempting to defend the idea that people’s environments matter, and that changing a person’s context will affect their health. In fact, the entire environmental justice movement rests on just this premise. The value of easy access to fresh, healthy foods cannot be ignored.

Food justice activists around the country take issue with this stance, however. LaDonna Redmond, a self-termed “freedom fighter” with whom I have had the privilege to work, started planting urban farms because of her son’s food allergies and the fact that she was unable to find healthy, fresh, organic foods in her Chicago neighborhood. This sounds much like the definition of food deserts, yet Redmond does not much like the designation. As she has observed, “the trouble with the term ‘food deserts’ is that it describes lack in a way that indicates that the solution is outside of the community” (Redmond, 2009). Redmond’s view is that “food desert” implies an empty space that needs to be filled, a need that must be assessed and handled. Viewed through the lens of an asset-based approach to development, in which community members identify their resources and create plans to utilize them (Green & Haines, 2012), this implication does not sit well.

Tanya Fields, an activist in New York, has offered an alternative conception of the fresh foods challenge: rather than speaking of food deserts, she argues that advocates should embrace the phrase food sovereignty. For Fields (2013) this “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.” Under a framework of asset-based rather than needs-based solutions, Redmond, Fields, and a network of food justice proponents believe Americans can collectively and radically transform the nation’s food production system into one that supports both local producers and consumers.

One successful community initiative is the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN). In the wake of economic decline, city bankruptcy, and what some might call a proliferation of “food deserts” in the beleaguered community, DBCFSN has developed large urban farms, pressed policies at the city level aimed at supporting locally produced foodstuffs, and started a cooperative buying club with the goal of establishing a local grocery store. Importantly, these solutions have come from within the Black community in Detroit and in recognition that “the most effective movements grow organically from the people whom they are designed to serve” (DBCFSN, 2008). Indeed, the group formed with a primary goal of organizing and highlighting African-American leadership in the local food security movement.

Walmart may well be improving food access in cities across the country, but food justice activist organizations, including DBCFSN, are concerned with communities’ abilities to produce as well as consume the foods their populations require. Many are fighting for more than “just access to the food in the store,” but also desire “access to land that grows food so [they] may grow [their] own” (Redmond, 2009). This motivation suggests that “food desert” communities may not be interested in outsiders’ prescribed remedies. When policymakers define an area as a food desert and ask large corporations to provide for that population’s basic needs, they quite literally may be missing an opportunity to help support a community’s self-sustenance and resilience. A conversation focused on needs alone, rather than on both assets and needs, risks failing to acknowledge the ability of citizens to create a share of their own solutions and thus compromises their dignity.

One may ask the question: Can small-scale community efforts provide the same access to healthy foods that a large-scale retailer can? Perhaps they cannot offer the same prices or variety, but communities’ values reach beyond the cost and diversity of food. Fields (2013) has said, “these retailers that are supposed to help the community many times help 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.” In contrast, community food projects may be more likely to place people’s well- being above profits. Prioritizing job access, mental health, and leadership development (see Growing Power; the BLK ProjeK), their goals are broader than access to healthy food alone.

Thus, the real problem with the Walmart solution to food availability is that our economic system makes it easier for this alternative to come from that retailer’s headquarters, and much more difficult for the answer to come from within communities. Outside support for better food access is necessary, but it is needed in the form of funding and supportive policies that encourage the success of local and grassroots initiatives. DBCFSN, for example, does not operate in a vacuum; outside grants and recognition by public officials have contributed to its success. As policymakers and advocates think about improving food access, I believe they should work to give communities more voice. Grants for food projects abound, but may often be awarded to outsiders “helping” communities rather than residents working for themselves. The key lies in refraining from defining neighborhoods’ needs for those who reside there, but rather listening to food justice activists and citizens when they tell us they do not live in a “desert,” and acting to help them realize their vision.


Alviola, P., Nayga, R., Thomsen, M., & Wang, Z. (2013). Determinants of food deserts. American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 95(5), 1259-1265. doi: 0.1093/ajae/aat029

The BLK ProjeK: Making change block by block. Retrieved from

Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. (2008). Retrieved from

Fields, T. (2013, April 3). End the corporate exploitation of ‘food deserts.’ Ebony. Retrieved from

Gallagher, M. (2011). USDA defines food deserts. Nutrition Digest, 36(3). American Nutrition Association. Retrieved from

Gilligan, H. (2014, February 10). Food deserts aren’t the problem: Getting fresh fruits and vegetables into low-income neighborhoods doesn’t make poor people healthier. Slate. Retrieved from

Green, G. & Haines, A. (2012). Asset building and community development (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Growing Power. Retrieved from

Redmond, L. (2009, September 21). Food is freedom: To engage a broader audience, food-justice advocates need to change their language. The Nation. Retrieved from

Walmart. (2013, February 28). First lady Michelle Obama celebrates Walmart’s progress on making food healthier and more affordable. Walmart News and Views, February 28. Retrieved from

Sarah Halvorson-FriedSarah Halvorson-Fried is a student in the Masters in Urban and Regional Planning program at Virginia Tech. She has worked in agricultural education, engagement and community building in the Twin Cities, Minnesota, and received a B.A. in philosophy from Macalester College. Through her graduate studies, she hopes to understand how public policy can facilitate community driven, equitable economic development.



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