A recent article on the front page of the Oakland Tribune questioned the criteria under which certain areas are categorized as food deserts by the United States Department of Agriculture. According to the USDA’s online interactive map, there are 25 food deserts in the Bay area, although, as the article points out, many of those neighborhoods are serviced by corner supermarkets which offer a variety of fresh, healthy (sometimes local) food. Written by Contra Costa Times reporter Hannah Dreier, the piece used the example of Oakland residents’ various methods of obtaining healthy food to challenge the USDA’s assumptions regarding how people shop and eat.
The map, a product of an Interagency Working Group from the Treasury
Department, Health and Human Services and the USDA’s Economic Research
Service (ERS), was created as a first step in the Healthy Food Financing
Initiative (HFFI), a core component of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move!
campaign to end childhood obesity. The HFFI used census tracts as their
geographical unit of analysis. A census tract is described as “a
small, relatively permanent subdivision of a county that generally
contains between 1,000 to 8,000 people, with an optimum size of 4,000
people.” They defined a food desert as “a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.” (Their definition of low income and low access communities can be found here.)
The point of Dreir’s article was that we have to acknowledge the
variety of avenues in which people access food, not just large scale
supermarket chains; the metrics the USDA used missed important
family-owned businesses which were serving their communities. Dreier
makes an important point and while I think it is useful to start
somewhere, and sometimes that starting point is broad, my concern is the
implication in terms of interpretation and resolution. The
problem with using this particular system to determine access is that
it could lead to focusing on broad-scale corporate solutions rather than
localized community actions. The problem with using this
particular system to determine access is that it could lead to focusing
on broad-scale corporate solutions rather than localized community
actions. Indeed, Michelle Obama’s recent announcement of national
commitments from three major chains, SUPERVALU, Walgreens, and Walmart,
to open or expand “over
1,500 stores to serve communities throughout the country that currently
do not have access to fresh produce and other healthy foods,”
almost completely overshadowed similar commitments and initiatives from
smaller, regional markets. (Granted, half of those smaller grocers are
part of the ShopRite chain, but they are family-owned and at least
somewhat more localized.)
Despite this seeming reliance on large-scale solutions, Dreier notes
the inability of USDA research to find causal evidence that bringing
large-chain grocery stores actually decreases obesity rates in poorer
neighborhoods, which is the primary focus of the HFFI. It would seem
that this issue is ripe for anthropological research on consumption and
health- why, as Drier reports on USDA research, do people who use food
stamps choose to shop at stores farther from their homes? What else is
informing their consumer behavior?
In The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America’s Underground Food Movements
(2005), Sandor Ellix Katz describes West Oakland as a “community of
twenty-five thousand people served by thirty-six convenience stores and
only one supermarket. These stores give residents easy access to
overprocessed, overpriced junk food, but few choices for produce and
other healthy foods.” Katz discusses various community responses which
attempted to answer the dearth of healthy food, including creating
community gardens, youth programs and mobile grocery stores which helped
disseminate the food amongst the community.
In last month’s column, we began discussing the concept of food
justice and ways in which anthropologists can analyze, discuss and apply
our expertise towards the equitable distribution of resources. In terms
of HFFI’s overarching goal of getting people to eat healthy food, there
are two major needs for anthropological analysis. First, as
anthropologists, we are specifically poised to assist with definitions
and solutions to food deserts. The issue of who defines a food desert
shouldn’t overshadow the need to define one in order to begin
the difficult process of addressing nutritional inequalities. Dreier
includes a quote from Shelly Ver Ploeg, the creator of the map,
acknowledging the limitations of the study but still urging policy
makers and community organizations to use it as a starting point to
identify areas in need. “We know there are smaller stores that carry
healthy food that are not included in this list, and that is a weakness
of the data and food desert measure,” Ver Ploeg said. However, as we
continue to look towards resolutions, Drier and community food activists
concerns about the creating local, community based solutions must be at
At the end of Dreier’s article, she writes that a better term to use
to describe Oakland’s food situation might be “’ food swamps’ —
neighborhoods in which a flood of convenience stores and fast-food
outlets drown out grocery store offerings.” She quotes Hannah Laurison
of Public Health Law & Policy in Oakland as saying that what policy
makers should be focusing on is the “overall balance of the
neighborhood.” In Oakland, anthropologists can help document and analyze
various food sources and solutions to scarcity, better understanding
the myriad and multiple ways people consume and connect.
Second, understanding the role that culture plays in our consumption
patterns is integral to fighting obesity and equalizing physical health.
In 1899, Thornstein Veblen wrote The Theory of the Leisure Class,
in which he talked about the ways in which commodities and consumption
connotes social class. He called the excessive consuming in order to
show others your status “conspicuous consumption.” (He also had some
critical things to say about conspicuous leisure, as well.) In the early
1900s, there was a shift, away from the moral attributes of thrift and
towards the social status of consumption of new things. The concept of
conspicuous consumption is especially helpful in understanding the
reliance on large, corporate grocery chains to herald in the era of
equalized access to healthy food, even though research data shows
otherwise. Consumption is a cultural phenomenon and thus a change in
food access doesn’t necessarily mean there will be changes in consumer
behavior and overall health.
Food justice is a nuanced concept which acknowledges disparities of
food and nutritional access due to a variety of cultural factors. The
Let’s Move! campaign is concerned with food justice and thus increasing
policy makers’ understanding of how cultural values impact our consumer
practices is extremely important. The USDA research is just a starting
point. In many ways, it might be helpful to view the HFFI as a
development project. The concerns about displacement due to
modernization can also be applied to local food solutions being ignored
or replaced by corporate grocery chains. As we obtain more nuanced and
localized data, anthropologists can help ensure that our understanding
of food politics is contextualized in order to create successful,
healthy community-based solutions.
This column also appears in the online edition of Anthropology News, the official newspaper of the American Anthropological Association.
Friday, October 28, 2011
Friday, October 14, 2011
I've been reading a lot of online media (Cutting Through The Visual Dissonance of Occupy Wall Street; Occupy Wall Street --Faces of the Revolution) and Facebook posts regarding the problems some people have with the carnival nature of many Occupy Wall Street activists. "This isn't Halloween/I can't take anyone in a drum circle seriously"... The line of reasoning appears to be that if activists aren't dressed in a serious nature then they can't be taken seriously.
In order to legitimize the movement, reporters are pointing out that "everyday people," retired teachers, military vets, business owners, are also part of the protest. Dissecting a photo of a protest in San Francisco, author Queena Kim writes: "There’s the tie-dyed clad man with the white beard (hippie), there’s the woman with multiple-piercings around her mouth wearing thongs in the rain (street kid?) and then there’s Beverly Best." Standing amongst the stereotypical activists, Best, a 60 year old unemployed white woman "who is really upset about the way this country is going," serves to authenticate the concerns of the movement.
I found a similar phenomenon when doing my dissertation work with New York City freegans. Many people I spoke with wanted to compare freegan dumpster divers with "legitimate" homeless people. Diving food was at best virtuous for homeless individuals and at worst an unfortunate survival mechanism. For freegans though, the stigma of choosing to root through garbage to make a political and environmental point rubbed many people the wrong way. I found that often this tactic of de-legitimizing freegan activists based on the (false) theory that most of them were privileged white kids on a lark, helped distance the politics behind what the freegans were doing and hoped to accomplish.
In anthropological terms, this process of "othering," creating oppositional distinctions between “us” and “them" and using those distinctions to create or maintain a power dynamic, has been used between and among nations for centuries. (Edward Said wrote a classic book, Orientalism, which looks at the process of othering the "Orient" and the social and political implications.) Othering of activists by people who don't, or are looking for a reason not to, take the protest seriously, allows the focus to remain on stereotypes and differences. This makes it difficult to find commonality and begin a conversation.
In the next blog, we’ll discuss another highly criticized aspect of the protest, the seeming lack of a unified message, and how the plurality of causes is an integral aspect of postmodern political activism.