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Saturday, March 2, 2024

Food Desert, A Misnomer: It is Apartheid That Taints Food Policy Across The US

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It conjures images of a bleak backdrop across many areas in America where basic needs are denied. A ‘Food Desert’ is commonly used to denote a place with negligible access to food for a number of reasons. It is marked by a majority of households with low incomes, lack of access to stores that sell groceries at affordable rates, and scarce transport. And the numbers are alarming.

USDA defines a food desert as a low-income census tract with a majority of its residents having minimal access to supermarkets or even local grocery stores for lack of money and inadequate transportation.

As many as 23.5 million Americans are part of these desolate tracts. And it has led to malnutrition, heart diseases, and obesity. The cost of food and lack of access to it due to physical isolation has come in the way of many Americans getting access to healthy and adequate food. but the term ‘Food Desert’ is not adequate, and is deceptive.

A Misleading And Imposed Term

The first image that the term conjures up is a barren and depopulated landscape. But instead, it is a vibrant ecosystem. The second hitch with this definition is that it presupposes that the answer to these areas that lack access to healthy food, is just the lack of access to grocery stores. The third problem is that these communities themselves do no refer to this term to describe their areas. Finally, it doesn’t refer to the intention behind the condition. Such situations are the result of improper public policies and economic practices that have created such areas

food desert

The term Food Desert generally indicates areas populated by colored communities. But despite this common usage, this term diverts from the actual cause that drives this inadequate access to nutritious and wholesome food for these communities.

The situation has got worse since the pandemic, but there has been food insecurity among vast swathes of the population even before March last year. Many Americans were even then without access to healthy affordable food.

‘Food Desert’ is a term that has its origin more outside than inside the community and has wrongly caught on across public health fields. Black and Latino-dominated areas have fewer quality stores with access to wholesome food than stores in white neighborhoods.

But the term covers up to two vital issues. These are vibrant communities and the issues facing them are not naturally occurring. The roots of this inequity lie outside.

More Food Apartheid Than A Food Desert: A Problem Rooted In Racism

A correct term to describe an issue can lead to a solution to the problem. It causes us to correctly identify the problem and devise ways to erase it. And those in the know, including community leaders and health workers, have instead of ‘Food Desert’ urged for the term ‘Food Apartheid.’ This will help focus on solutions that are inspired and driven by communities through local changes that will stand the test of time.

The problem has its roots in racism. The total destruction of the black communities’ right to self-determination over their food resources and the introduction of destructive foods by unscrupulous corporate have caused havoc on the health of the community. It is a racial bias perpetuated and abetted by the system. The policies have been discriminatory and there has been a total withdrawal of resources from these communities.

Creating A Food Mirage In A Food Desert

Flooding an area with groceries is never the solution to the problem. This creates more of a ‘food mirage,’ as the only products within reach of these communities are low-priced junk food. These were rightly termed as ‘food swamps’ for their lack of access to healthy food.  They contributed to, instead of resolving the problem of inadequate nutrition in a food desert.

Food Desert


Besieging a community with cheap fast food is just adding to the problem. The fight for food justice has a connection with the fight for economic equality. With the flight of white families to suburbs during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, many inner cities were left without adequate jobs. They could no longer afford the cost of healthy food with such inadequate job opportunities.

The problem also has its roots in policies that are racially discriminatory. The right description of a problem changes the focus from denoting such communities as desolate regions to areas that can be improved through policies that focus on structural changes.

A Combination Of Solutions Instead Of A Single One

The first step lies in identifying the causes that contribute to this food inadequacy. And then come the various community-specific solutions.

Small scale and local farming strengthen the local food systems. Several nonprofits are creating organic grocery stores that are both affordable and operate on the lines of co-operatives. They include the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, The Ron Finley Project, and Whitelock Community Farm.

In a radical policy move, Navajo Nation imposed a tax on unhealthy food and uses the money to fund health initiatives within the community.

Food Apartheid To Food Sovereignty

Choosing the right word is as important as choosing the right word in moving forward. It is not ‘Food Desert,’ but ‘Food Apartheid’ that adequately describes the underlying causes among communities that leads to denial of healthy food. It directly addresses the problem and the dynamics that are at play in the food system.

The current system of globalized food production and delivery does not value the rights of small farming communities.

And that leads us to the importance of food sovereignty for genuine food security. The term addresses the right of indigenous communities to reclaim the native food habits that have been their sustenance for ages. It has also addressed the need for urban farming on small scale to give nutritional security to communities denied access to wholesome food.

We realize that the identification of a problem lies in first identifying and describing it rightly. It is not food security but food sovereignty that offers a solution to the eradication of unhealthy nutritional practices. Reducing food to an economic commodity takes away from the fact that it the basis of life. Food sovereignty instead gives a solution towards a path away from a food desert that is radically different.

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