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Moving Beyond Food Deserts

November 6, 2013

food-desert-1John Bare, Vice President of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, published an interesting op-ed on the CNN website this morning, arguing that the food movement should banish the term “food desert” from its vocabulary. Bare contends that the emphasis on food deserts “focuses on diagnosis but not a cure” and that “The food desert diagnosis too easily turns into a cub used to beat families most in need. Being labeled a food desert makes a neighborhood undesirable, rather than a target of opportunity.” Instead, Bare argues that we should focus on the positives—construction of food oases—rather than on the negatives of food deserts.

In essence, Bare is presenting to key issues here. The first centers on what he sees as the excessive analysis of neighborhoods attempting to classify them as food deserts or not according to metrics established by the USDA. Bare’s solution here is a straightforward one—ask them. “Show up at a neighborhood meeting with research on how residents are living in a food desert. Guess what? They already know.”

Bare’s second argument is that the label of “food deserts” disempowers the very neighborhoods its intended to help. It blames the victims for choosing to live in “food deserts.” And it overlooks the countless efforts to establish “food oases.”

I’m not particularly convinced by the first half of Bare’s argument. Analyses of food deserts highlight the underlying dynamics which drive their creation in the first place. They emphasize racist policies that relocate supermarkets away from poor communities of color into white suburbs. And they draw attention to the impact of such moves.

The second part of Bare’s argument, though, is far more powerful and poses some interesting questions to think about. Is the “food desert” discourse disempowering? Should we be focused on individual examples of overcoming the food desert challenges? Or is there still need for conversations about the class-based and race-based dynamics that govern access to food?

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