A friend of mine lives in a food desert. To reach it, drive inland from San Diego towards Arizona until you’ve left civilization long behind – not just the city and its suburbs, but also the Indian casinos too – then turn off the highway and drive for another 10 minutes, even deeper into the middle of nowhere. Suddenly, you’ll find yourself in a quaint town that consists of one street.
Before I visited him, I’d never truly experienced such a phenomenon. I didn’t even suspect I’d entered into a food desert the first time I visited. My friend, whose kitchen prominently displays bags of beans and rice the size of cat food bags, had made tortillas and (of course) beans and rice. I brought an avocado, salsa, and beer. Our dinner lacked nothing.
The next time I visited, I looked in his fridge. As I did, he said, "I haven’t been to Costco lately... there’s nowhere to buy food here except the gas station."
Whoa. I was in a food desert.
In this diary, I’d like to talk about two distinct types of food deserts: rural ones (like my friend’s home) and urban ones, where there’s all kind of junk but no food.
What does one eat in a food desert? Here’s what I found in my friend’s kitchen (besides rice and beans): Kraft cheese (cheddar and parmesan), hot dogs, Coors Light (I scolded him), Fat Tire (I drank some), Life cereal, and Bisquick. I can’t quite remember what else. I think I saw some peanut butter and jelly – with trans fat and high fructose corn syrup, respectively.
Before I went back, I ran to a natural foods store and picked up replacements for each item, plus a little bit more. A six-pack of local beer, organic jam, fresh almond butter, organic wheat bread, organic rolled oats, organic pancake mix, maple syrup, a few apples, a grapefruit, organic cheddar cheese, parmesano reggiano, a few organic cereals, Organic Valley milk, several small yogurts, and pumpkin spice "tea cookies" (a selfish buy – I wanted to eat them without bringing a whole box into my apartment). My friend’s a forest fire fighter, so the shopping trip was my contribution to putting out San Diego’s fires.
Were there once stores in his town? Did a Wal-Mart chase them out? I couldn’t tell you. I doubt his neighbors all grow and catch their own food (he does, to a small extent – ask him about his homemade rattlesnake tacos). It’s a ridiculous situation, really, considering that San Diego County is one of the top food-producing counties in the nation.
An analysis of several Iowa counties by journalist Ken Meter reports similar findings. Time after time, he saw the same thing: farmers grow acres upon acres of food that humans don’t directly eat, while consumers buy food from outside the region. I wouldn’t be surprised if the consumers bought back some of the same foods originally grown in their counties – corn, soybeans, and alfalfa, for example – in the forms of meat and processed foods.
San Diego differs from Iowa as it grows more "specialty crops" than commodities. If you’re eating strawberries out of season, there’s a good chance Southern California grew them. In other words, my friend’s town doesn’t even face the same problems of a rural area devoted to industrial monoculture. The food we produce needn’t travel anywhere for further processing. We enjoy a year round supply of fresh, local food and yet my friend’s choices are the gas station, Costco, or catching rattlesnakes.
Travel from San Diego a few hours north to south L.A. You’re still near where all that year round fresh food grows, but you won’t find any. According to the LA Times, South LA has the highest concentration of fast food restaurants AND the fewest grocery stores in the city.
The eating habits produced by such an environment result in 30% obesity among adults and 29% among children (compared to 20.9% for adults and 23.3% for children in the county). South L.A. also wins in the diabetes category, with 11.7% compared with 8.1% in the county.
One analysis of urban food deserts such as these suggests a new name: nutritional apartheid:
In the UK, and in some similarly densely populated inner cities in the US, people have historically relied upon small food shops and relatively small grocery stores in their neighborhood. These food sources were within walking distance and transit systems served other mobility needs, so few people own cars. Thus, when the small food shops are shuttered and the supermarket chains closed their inner city stores and consolidate into larger suburban stores, many residents find themselves in what has been called food deserts.
The metaphor, food deserts, is generally not apt in most urban areas in North America since it implies a total lack of food, whereas places to buy food are generally widespread over the American landscape - just not always healthy food. That high minority areas are underserved by supermarkets and overserved by fast food restaurants and convenience stores in comparison to high income, high white areas brings to mind anther metaphorical term; nutritional apartheid. This term has more resonance in the US than food deserts due in part to the historical geography of racist practices (e.g., redlining) in the US that have left many minorities, especially African-Americans, ghettoized into decaying inner city neighborhoods, and because as just mentioned, minorities often have many places to buy unhealthy food.
Shaw, Hilary J., 2006: Food Deserts: towards the development of a classification. Geografiska Annaler, Series B: Human Geography. (2): 231–247.
The cornucopia of fast food in South LA led LA officials to propose a moratorium on new fast food restaurants. The article I read about it referred to the tactic as "health zoning."
The City Council will be asked this fall to consider an up to two-year moratorium on new fast-food restaurants in South L.A., a part of the city where fast food is at least as much a practicality as a preference. " The people don't want them, but when they don't have any other options, they may gravitate to what's there," said Councilwoman Jan Perry, who proposed the ordinance in June, and whose district includes portions of South L.A. that would be affected by the plan. In just one-quarter of a mile near USC on Figueroa Street, from Adams Boulevard south, there are about 20 fast-food outlets. "To be honest, it's all we eat," Rey Merlan said one recent lunch hour at a Kentucky Fried Chicken. "Everywhere, it's fast food everywhere."