Real Food For Thought

Thinking through ‘food deserts’

By Shelley Brosius, Community Market & Outreach Coordinator

April 23, 2015

MontebelloThis week marked the first week of the 2015 Mobile Farmers Market season – a time of year that never fails to excite me. It’s extremely gratifying to pull up in our mobile market truck to a neighbor’s home and watch that grin spread across their face when they see we’ve got some of their prized curly kale and collards along for the ride. People are happy when they get their fresh fruits and vegetables and it’s extremely rewarding to be part of the team that delivers it to them.

The number of folks who know about the Mobile Farmers Market grows each year. This includes individuals and organizations interested in starting their own ‘mobile market’, so I do a lot of chatting about how our market operates and how we got started. Time and time again, I find myself using a term that has become increasingly common in food access work: the term food desert.

I’m not a fan of the term, despite the fact it’s an easy term to throw out there and have people envision what you mean – a food environment. I wonder – how many people truly understand the complexity wrapped up in such a simplified description?  Our food landscapes are created and shaped by a great many factors, including structural racism and historical disinvestment. As Mari Gallagher points out, the word desert implies a dearth of something, wherein reality there are a good many ‘things’ alive and present in a desert – just perhaps nothing that seems very hospitable to the human body. (Cacti are beautiful, but try climbing on one and I guarantee you a vastly different experience than if you had climbed on a large maple tree!) Our federal government relies on strict qualifying data, such as the distance to a grocery store or median household income, to determine which blocks are designated as food deserts. But dividing neighborhoods based on such impersonal quantitative measures grates against my experiences with our neighbors and customers. We know that people’s personal access to fresh, healthy food is not solely defined by the neighborhood in which they live.  I long to hear our customer’s stories, connect with them as individuals rather than statistics, and get their take on what it means to live in a ‘food desert.’ How do they feel when we use this term to describe their home? How would they describe the food landscape in which they live, and how would they explain it got that way? How would they like to see it change, and in what ways would they keep it the same?

Those of us working to improve food access spend a lot of time talking about how the folks we serve live in a food desert… and maybe the term works despite my reservations. But I recognize that I never use the term ‘food desert’ when speaking to neighborhood residents about how they can utilize the Mobile Farmers Market. I’m encouraged by efforts of The City of Baltimore and the Center for a Livable Future to prepare and release updated food system maps that capture a wider variety of metrics and healthy food availability measures. These maps still depict Baltimore’s food deserts, but they also compare these areas with additional ‘layers’ of food environment descriptors, such as Limited Supermarket Access Areas (as developed by The Reinvestment Fund). These maps illustrate how different data sets paint different pictures and how they interrelate. I can see how personal narratives from folks like our Mobile Farmers Market customers would help fill in the gaps, creating an even more complete story of what the food environment truly looks and feels like from the inside.

About Real Food Farm

Real Food Farm works toward a just and sustainable food system by improving neighborhood access to healthy food, providing experience-based education, and developing an economically viable, environmentally responsible local agriculture sector.

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