Friday, October 28, 2011

USDA “Food Desert” Demarcation is a Starting Point for Localized Research and Resolutions

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 the foreground.

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. 

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