Food Deserts — what if, in your neighbourhood, you could only buy junk food and processed food?

Anthropologist Michael Powell looks at food in America, from Farmers Markets to “Food Desertification” (that’s about how in poor urban areas, opportunities to buy healthy food without driving a long distance are severely limited). Excerpted from the “Savage Minds” blog:

Food desertification across the U.S. circa 2000. Via Foodmapper blog

“One of the most rapidly growing retail forms today is the farmer’s market, a transitory gathering of local farmers who set up tables under tents and provide access to locally grown fruits and vegetables. There are many different types of farmer’s markets, some limiting what a vendor can sell to only produce grown on the vendor’s own farm, while others allow more leeway and may include prepared foods. In California, where I live, farmer’s markets were made legal about 25 years ago. The original intent was to provide access to locally grown fruits and vegetables to lower-class neighborhoods.

The idea was that by cutting out the middle-man of grocery stores, farmers could sell produce at a profit but below market rates. Anyone who has been to one of these new farmer’s markets knows that it hasn’t worked out this way. Instead, many farmer’s markets are specifically targeted to the emerging and rapidly expanding “foodie” audience. This is certainly an interesting turn of events, not only because of the original intention of cutting out the middle man, but also because of the way that we can read and interpret the farmer’s market, as well as the way that these symbols of the farm and the farmer’s market have since been appropriated by major food retailers, including Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Safeway and others.

The farm has long been a potent symbolic context in which to sell food—the roadside fruit stand, grain elevators, barns, etc—and you’ll notice at many farmer’s markets that vendors often go out of their way to merchandise their produce using special details, like wooden boxes left rough and chalkboard signage that lets you know the sign was written by hand. Over the course of the last 5 years, Safeway Inc. (a $40 billion dollar chain with 197,000 employees) has renovated nearly its entire chain of almost 2,000 grocery stores across the country, employing a “lifestyle” design that has transformed the “perimeter” of the grocery store into a more organic and food-friendly environment. Their produce section now imitates many elements of a traditional farmer’s market, with wood floors and produce in wood boxes (except no nails sticking out).

While farmer’s markets are growing rapidly, we shouldn’t expect this to create a revolution in food just yet, at least not for the majority of Americans. These vibrant markets, while gaining steam, still feed a relatively infinitesimal percentage of the population, unfortunately. As the head of one of the most prominent farmer’s markets in the nation explained to me several months ago, if, at some point, these markets grew too large, agriculture lobbying groups could step in to reinstate laws banning or restricting them—perhaps in the name of food safety. In addition, the logistics of making this work from a business perspective is a daunting challenge.

The more time that farmer’s get away from doing the actual work of farming, the more they would need to rely on creating their own distribution systems to get produce to each of the markets. Soon enough, middlemen organizations would have to step in to help make this work happen, which might then change the farmer’s market experience. More importantly though, most Americans have grown so accustomed to cheap prices for food that it would take a massive shift to get people to consider both buying more fruits and vegetables (staggering numbers of people cannot cook and have no interest due to lack of time), and also, paying perhaps as much as twice the cost for this food that they don’t even know what to do with yet. Food philosophy movements have great momentum right now (and I am an admitted “foodie”), but we shouldn’t turn a blind eye to the larger portrait of our food environment.

I’m thinking, in particular about food deserts, which starts to take us full circle back to the original intent of the farmer’s market. Food deserts are geographic areas with limited access to the full range of food options typically found at the traditional grocery store—including fruits and vegetables, as well as dairy and even frozen or canned foods. Now, as many of us are aware, the majority of Americans are overweight today and a third are classified as obese. Multiple causes to explain this epidemic exist, and the problem is too complex for me to fully account for here. One of the most interesting findings to emerge from the study of our national weight problem is the correlation of food desert areas to obesity. We could debate the nature of the correlation, because it is certainly complex, but we do know that food deserts are largely found in lower-class urban and rural areas of America. By and large, these are areas that have few traditional grocery stores, but instead have access to fast food chains, corner markets and convenience stores.

An entire non-profit advocacy sector has rapidly grown up to tackle this massive social problem, with pop culture celebrity figureheads that include Michelle Obama, Alice Waters and Jamie Oliver, among others. Their messages are largely two-fold. First, people need to eat better. And second, everyone, but especially lower-class people, need better access to a wider range of foods.

This is one site, among many, where I believe that a more complex and nuanced portrait of how retail environments work can help us work through some thorny issues. In other words, I’m suggesting that simply throwing apples and broccoli inside of inner city markets and rural convenience stores is not nearly as simple as it seems, for a wide range of reasons. And while I recognize that this may seem like a directly application-driven use of ethnography, I think it also speaks to a larger purpose of continually problematizing how business, consumerism and capitalism operate in relationship to culture, more generally. One thing, among many, that anthropology does well is problematizing seemingly straightforward issues. I was just reminded this the other day while re-reading part of Kim Fortun’s ethnography Advocacy After Bhopal. Regular people don’t analyze events with nearly the depth and complexity as anthropologists on a common basis. They should.

While the food desert issue is a big one that requires more space than I’ll grant it here, let me try to break down some of the intersecting and contradictory levels of this problem. I’ll talk mainly about convenience stores as a kind of proxy for the type of stores that exist in food deserts, both because they are ubiquitous and because I know this industry pretty well.

On a corporate level, where we buy our food is big business, and many powerful organizations hold influence over this. One issue that the food deserts campaign will need to keep in mind is that these companies are not going to willingly cede territory inside of stores without a fight. In other words, if stores inside food deserts are going to convincingly and successfully merchandise produce to shoppers on a large scale, they will need a retail strategy that helps shoppers “think” about the new (in that retail format) products. For example, we simply don’t expect to see produce inside of a convenience store. Changing expectations is challenging work, and it needs to include an element of changing store design—especially after we understand that retail is good to think with. Additionally, this campaign will have to be prepared for push back. Wallets are finite. A lot of companies with a lot at stake have a more than compelling interest in selling everything from Flaming Hot Cheetos to Marlboros inside of convenience stores.

Big tobacco is one of several interesting industries to consider in this equation. Pushed out of most retail channels because of its negative perception and demonization, nonetheless smoking percentages have plateaued at around 25% of the American population (ironically, many of the anti-smoking non-profits are now having budgets slashed because their funding sources have started to give charity dollars instead to anti-obesity campaigns). I need not remind you that that selling cigarettes to tends of millions of people adds up to a boatload of money. So, which retail channels do cigarettes get sold in nowadays? Convenience stores, more than anyone else.

Why do I think this is relevant? Because grocery stores and drug stores stopped selling cigarettes not because it wasn’t profitable—it is very profitable, though not a growth industry—but because it wasn’t good for their brands, collectively. You can’t sell healthy food to healthy families on one hand, then push “cancer sticks” on them at the checkout aisle. If convenience stores in food deserts start trying to communicate a more healthy image and identity message in their store, tobacco might be pushed into the background. Now, consider also that tobacco companies are not allowed to advertise on television and only in limited ways in print and in public due to legal restrictions. Where do all of their advertising dollars go? They market in-store. How much sense does it make to have a giant Camel ad next to zucchini and pears? This creates a kind of cultural dissonance that is problematic….”

Read it all on Savage Minds.

Illustration from the foodmapper.wordpress.com blog

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