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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Food Deserts: A Mirage or Reality?

Air Date: Week of
Most corner convenience stores sell few fresh fruits and vegetables. (Photo: Flickr CC/bitchcakesny)

A recent article questions whether food deserts - areas with minimal access to fresh fruits and vegetables - are as pervasive as some policymakers claimed. We recap a 2009 story about an area of Brooklyn where locals grow their own vegetables due to a lack of supermarkets, then host Bruce Gellerman updates talks with food writer and activist Mark Winne to update that story.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman. The term food desert is a popular, convenient way to describe a place that lacks access to fresh fruits and vegetables. But some say the term is too convenient and inaccurate and therein lies a controversy. We’ll have more on that in a bit, but first…

Three years ago we reported on a food desert in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Living on Earth’s Jessica Ilyse Kurn went there to find residents were taking matters and pitchforks into their own hands on a community farm.


KURN: The farm run by the non-profit group Added Value, was literally built from the ground up. Soil was brought in to cover an old abandoned ball field. If you look closely on the outskirts of the rows of onions, lettuce and beets you can still see home plate and the faint white lines that mark the field’s boundaries.

This farm has not only increased the community’s access to fresh and affordable fruits and vegetables, but also has helped change the neighborhood. Before the farm started, residents went through a lot to get fresh food.

KATE: I took two buses or a car service to get food back to Red Hook. Like - you couldn’t even get a quart of milk, or vegetables.

Early growing season at Red Hook Community Farm. (Photo: Jessica Ilyse Kurn)

KURN: Kate and many other Red Hook residents who buy their produce from the farm understand that fresh fruit and vegetables are important for their health. William Lewis is a longtime resident who didn’t like what he found in the neighborhood before the farm.

LEWIS: Well, it was dull, there was nothing you could buy. Not fresh anyway - just regular stores, you know. When the farm came, I just started coming here because I know it’s fresh food, and I like fresh, it’s better for me, it’s better for everyone as a matter of fact, you know?


GELLERMAN: Well, that was the situation in Red Hook Brooklyn, NY in 2009. But a recent front-page article in the New York Times questions whether food deserts are as pervasive a problem as some claim, citing two studies as evidence. But food activist and writer, Mark Winne, is among those who say that food deserts are a very real problem that began in the 1960’s. In our story three years ago he told us that’s when supermarkets and upwardly mobile families left cities for the suburbs.

WINNE: They simply began to walk away from urban America, and these were communities that needed those stores more than others. They were communities that were being challenged by poverty. If you look at the landscape, we see almost no supermarkets, and you’ll also see another characteristic of a food desert, which is a tremendous number of fast food joints.

GELLERMAN: That was food activist Mark Winne in 2009. Now, with the New York Times questioning the extent of food deserts, we called him up for a response. Good to talk to you again, Mr. Winne.

WINNE: Thank you Bruce.

GELLERMAN: So, back in our 2009 story, you say that supermarkets basically walked away from urban America. But in the New York Times article, they cite two studies that say - well no, there are plenty of stores and supermarkets in urban America.

WINNE: Well, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it, for now! And they did walk away from urban America. However, the good news story is that they are walking back. Some of the places that we would easily have categorized as food deserts ten years ago look like they have been restored, in the sense that there are a number of very good, viable retail food outlets.

GELLERMAN: So, in Dr. Helen Lee’s study, which is cited in the New York Times, Dr. Lee found that they had nearly twice as many fast food restaurants and convenience stories as wealthy ones and they had twice as many corner stores per square mile. But they also found that they had nearly twice as many supermarkets and large-scale grocers per square mile. So you don’t disagree with that?

WINNE: No, I don’t. A lot of my work 25 years ago was in the city of Hartford, Connecticut. And during that time I saw every single supermarket leave the city, and at the same time, we saw this incredible influx of fast food places and convenience stores. So what was a food desert was now becoming a food swamp that I know was one of the terms used in that study.

A food swamp is this environment where it’s very easy to get every manner of fast food - high in fat, high in salt, high in sugar; convenience stores that offer mostly unhealthy foods and, you know, that I think is what the obesity story is at least in part about. It’s not so much about the loss of supermarkets, but the opposite, which is that we have very easy access to so much unhealthy food.

Compare an urban area to a higher end, affluent, suburban area; you will not find the same quantity and the same density of unhealthy food outlets, such as fast food places.

GELLERMAN: Another study cited in the New York Times story was done by Dr. Ronald Sturm for Rand, and he found no relationship between what type of food students said they ate and what they weighed and the type of food within about a mile and a half of their homes.

WINNE: I think that we have, perhaps, overemphasized the availability of good grocery stores, again, places where you can buy lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. Just because I can, say, relatively easily get to a good grocery store and buy lots of bananas and apples and broccoli and so forth, it doesn’t mean I’m going to shop there, buy those foods and, perhaps most importantly, know what to do with those foods once I buy them.

A well-stocked grocery store. (Photo: Flickr CC/steve loya)

GELLERMAN: So, the notion of food deserts, for reporters, it’s an easy handle - it telegraphs information very quickly, but it may be oversimplifying what’s going on?

WINNE: Yes, it is. I mean we do oversimplify, however, let's keep one other point in mind here. Hold aside the health issues and let's look at what we might call fairness and justice issues. Again, going back not too many years, you would go into a low income, predominantly minority neighborhood and it would be very hard to find any kind of supermarket or decent grocery store.

And to me, that is a fairness issue. I mean, if I live in an affluent suburb or if I live in most kind of outer-ring suburbs, it’s not that difficult to get to a decent grocery store. I also own a car, it’s easy to do that. If I don’t own a car, which is more prevalent in low, income areas, then I’m relying on public transportation. Public transportation still is not necessarily designed to get me to a decent supermarket.

So, put all these things together, put this sort of typical demographic profile in place, and you see that what we have is not just a health issue, we also have a justice and fairness issue.

GELLERMAN: So, is this a matter, and maybe it's not either or, but of social justice and personal responsibility?

WINNE: It is both. Depending on your political persuasion, you tend to lean more toward the social or more toward the personal or individual. I think society has a responsibility to make sure that people do have similar access, more or less, to healthy food.

But at the same time, we have gone so far in the other direction of eating poorly that we now have to correct that with more individual action: including learning how to cook better, learning how to grow some of our own food, and in fact hold city hall, and state legislatures and our Congress accountable for our food system.

GELLERMAN: And yet the scales, literally and figuratively, are tipping in the opposite direction, that is, we’re getting heavier.

WINNE: We are. What is the leading reason for young people to be excluded from military service? It’s now obesity. Now, I’m a big fan of world peace, but I don't believe becoming too fat to fight is the way to achieve world peace. You know, clearly as a nation we are in deep, deep trouble when it comes to obesity.

Between 20 and 25 percent of our children are now obese, the predictions by the Center for Disease Control are that this will be the first generation in the history of this country to not live as long as its parent’s generation because of obesity and diabetes and other related illnesses. So this could be our biggest public health challenge, and we have to face it, four square, in order to really save this generation of young people.

GELELRMAN: You know, in these economic hard times, they’ve been cutting out athletic programs in schools, long ago they were cutting, you know, home ec.- cooking classes where you could really learn to do something with ingredients!

WINNE: You know, I’m of that age where I went to Shop in eighth grade.


WINNE: And my sisters went to home ec. And then we became a little bit more liberalized and then boys and girls both went to shop and boys and girls both went to home ec. Now we’ve gotten rid of all of them, we can’t hold a hammer, but we also can’t hold a whisk.

We’ve gotten to the point of just losing this basic education around life skills, I would call it, and what is more important than teaching a child how to prepare healthy meals. I believe in the idea of food competency.

I think every child graduating from a public high school in America, should be able to demonstrate a degree of food competency, that they could prepare a number of meals from healthy, unprocessed ingredients. And they should understand the relationship between healthy foods and diet and their long-term quality of life.

GELLERMAN: Mark Winne, thank you so much.

WINNE: Thank you Bruce.

GELLERMAN: Mark Winne is a food activist, and writer. His latest book is, "Food Rebels, Guerrilla Gardeners, and Smart Cookin' Mamas."



Listen to Jessica Ilyse Kurn’s piece on Food Deserts from 2009.

Read the New York Times article that spurred the debate.

Read Helen Lee’s research, one of the studies that spurred the New York Times article, though Lee’s paper does not say that food deserts do not exist.

Read researcher Mari Gallagher's response to the NYTimes article.

Visit Mark Winne’s website.

Listen to a 2010 food desert piece produced by our sister show Planet Harmony.


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