in protest of the term food deserts

a few years ago chicago researcher marigallagher did work analyzing the detroit food system.  based on the fact that many neighborhoods have little access to full service grocery stores, or other markets that allow them to assemble a healthy meal from scratch – but have access to “fringe” markets – such as liquor store and fast food chains – she labeled it a food desert, a term i have taken issue with.  the first time i heard her present on this topic i felt this little twinge of discomfort that i couldn’t quite place.  and at this particular presentation i found others i deeply respect and care for using this term.  because of this i found myself wanting to embrace it as well.  but i was still left with much discomfort and questions.  over the years i’ve been pondering why it bothers me and i’ve been trying to figure out how to express it – below is my best attempt.

i want to start by saying i have nothing against mari gallagher or her research or for the accuracy of its information.  her analysis was for the most part very accurate and telling – nothing that the average detroiter didn’t already know since they were living it, but for number loving policy makers and foundation funders perhaps it was relevent.  it does however paint an overly simplistic view-point of the city, and fails to point out the complexity of the situation.  it makes it seem as though the solution is simply to have more large full service grocery stores.

but detroit does have a quite a few full service grocery stores, and to add one of these to each neighborhood would hardly address the inadequacies in the food system.  currently out of all of the detroit grocery stores only two are owned by black people to my knowledge, that out of a population of at least 600,000 black folks.  the great majority of the cities grocery stores – as well as the liquor/corner stores are owned by folks that don’t live in the city or identify with the majority black populace.  those that own businesses in a community need to care about a community and identify with the people they are serving – to see them as providing a public good, or else they act as little more than parasites sucking the life and capital out of a community.  in order for food stores to be responsive and concerned they need to be owned by those that live in the community that they serve.

to make matters more complex is that there is a huge river of food flowing though detroit, it comes in via eastern market and the produce terminal but swiftly flows out to the suburbs giving none in the city the chance to partake.   the city is not devoid of food, it is just that residents are not allowed access.  and there has been little interest shown to make this available to residents.

but galleger can’t be blamed for not including these issues in her report, she only has so much time and needs to stay focused and funders don’t want to hear about racial injustice in the food system – they just can’t be bothered with that.

but getting back to the actual troubling phase of food deserts though, lets take some time to break it down. some might say i’m nitpicking that i’m being too sensitive, or thinking to deeply – but words are a powerful thing and what they say – and what they insinuate have great impact.

starting with food

food is of course life, and food i would argue is one of the great pillars of culture.  with assimilation (by force or choice) into  “american culture” folks give up there national dress quite quickly, learn to speak english, accept out “value systems”, often in the span of a generation or two.  but food lives on, people hold on to food much much longer, for generations.  food is what people most deeply connect their cultural heritage.  food is symbolic and ritualistic and precious.  a place devoid of food is a place devoid of culture.

and a place devoid of culture can easily have other cultures imposed on it.

and continuing on with the work desert

usually associations – dusty, dry, hot, bleak, devoid of life, sparsely populated if at all, wide open.  my ecologist friends would argue that the desert is a richly complex ecosystem full of all kinds of amazing adapted life, and i’m agreeing with them – but i’m thinking more of the popular culture definition.  think warner brother cartoons with road runner and wile e. coyote.

so when we combine these two together we end up with an open wasteland, sparsely populated, devoid of culture.  and that is where my real problem lies.  this is just inviting people to come in and take over – because there is nothing in the city – it an empty and open wasteland.

it invites corporations to take over huge tracts of land to do whatever they want, with little regard to the populace that is already there.  it does not require anyone to participate in the process, because it is empty – devoid of people or culture.  there is no one to worry about if your factory causes pollution because nobody lives there anyway.

but it also invites individuals, of all sorts – from outside the city who see it as a blank slate – for them to express their desires on.  to treat the city as their playground, free to do with whatever they want with little regard to the desires of the  current residents.  and since the city has no culture they can feel free to impose their culture and values on it.  often times the ideas that people want to enact are quite good and well intended – but the devil is in the details – and it’s the “how” of these project that bother me – not the “what”.  it’s the paternal attitudes that are so often expressed.

simply linking the phase food desserts to outside takeover the city seems a little extreme.  i’m in no way suggesting that this phase is responsible, just representative of the portrayal of detroit as helpless victim unable to care for its self – that is played out in so many ways over and over again.  this phase is more of an example of how we, residents of the city, portray the city, and what it invites, and how it leads to the oppression of its people.  and it’s important to me that the people of detroit not invite the solutions of those that created the very system which oppresses them.  they need their solutions –  ones sensitive to the needs, skills, talents and values of those who make up this great city.


6 responses to “in protest of the term food deserts

  1. patrick – i couldn’t agree more with your analysis of the situation. we have a similar problem out in Oakland, CA. it could easily extend to any and every predominately black urban area of the U.S….it’s what happens to a people and community chronically lacking capital (financial, political, social, etc.). you (i should say WE since i’m from these folks) are easy marks and can be preyed upon with little significant, meaningful resistance.

    i met you back in April with a small group who took a tour of Earthworks (Jeremy Kenward was on that tour, too – that’s a good dude). anyway, i kept saying to myself that you told the group everything i was hoping to convey to them. i want to thank you again for offering your time and your thoughts.

    btw – we had talked about composting brew waste and you mentioned that it had been stinking really badly – Greg Willerer had been giving you a hard time about it (or vice versa). it didn’t occur to me until i left Earthworks, but have you tried spreading the pile to increase the surface area, THEN using a gang of shreaded leaves for your carbon?

    for all i know, you may have cracked the puzzle.

    stay up,

  2. rhamis,

    i meet several folks from oakland while they were at the social forum about a month ago – and while i realize oakland is an altogether different beast it seems there were some major parallels. i want to try to get out to oakland sometime soon and checkout all the projects going on out there, seemed like very good stuff. and actually one of the main reasons for writing this – and i should have included the link was an article about walmart coming into chicago to “cure” its food deserts.

    and yes i do remember you – a tall black man talking about permaculture and linking it to social issues, isn’t exactly cast from the same mold as i’ve come to associate those teaching pdc course. this is a good thing. many of the issue i have with permaculture would be addressed if we added some real diversity to the voices and method for promoting these ideas. and yes i couldn’t agree more jeremy is a good one. and i’m glad i could be helpful for the tour.

    i’ve been thinking more and more about how to use permculture as design tool that stays away from systems design around food or water systems but more around economics and social structures for greater democracy and equity in our communities. of course food and water come into this but from a very different perspective. this is mainly because i spend a lot more time doing organizing, and economic development in the food system than designing gardens – and also because when are looking at how permacultures can actually be useful in the my community, most of the big black book is useless pretty useless- any recommendations of resources would be helpful – but i fear i may be going into mostly uncharted waters.

    and as for the brew waste – i think i was making fun of greg – but then reflecting it back to me as i had given him a hard time but now that we have been collecting it in bulk have realized what an annoying substance it is to work with.

    the solutions you propose are basicly the ones we have ended up doing, spreading it in thin layers and then adding lots of shredded leaves, which seems to be working pretty well. but most important – at least when you have neighbors you like has been to just let it sit and cook and not mess with it.

  3. it’s funny – i just spoke at a college in the UK about my time in Detroit and what i saw:

    they video taped it. when the link is available, i’ll pass it along. i showed the Urban Roots movie trailer and made sure to mention you, Greg, Malik, Mark Covington over at GSCC, Dan Carmody and Jeremy. everyone who came (it was packed) was really engaged and had little idea how bad things were in the city – but i made sure to let them know that it wasn’t all doom and gloom. i told them people were “on the case” and deserved to be supported and referred to when looking for ways to deal with this post-industrial transformation we seem to be undergoing in a number of places.

    as far as sugestions from “the black book”, i would think that Bill gives some pretty good clues in the “Strategies For An Alternative Nation (Ch. 14) of the Designer’s Manual, specifically the Bioregional Organization section. it might not be a perfect fit for everything happening in The D, but i would consider it a pretty good start.

    and i totally co-sign the “just letting it sit” approach…the whole point is to slow that joint down, fo’ sho.

    stay in touch,

  4. patrick,

    did you look that stuff up i suggested in the Designer’s Manual (Ch.14 – Bioregional Organizations)?

    did anything click or has it turned up a great big donut?


  5. designer’s manual got pulled out – and made it to the stacks of book beside my bed, but that’s as far as i’ve made it. it’s under some pretty heavy reading that is taking me a while to get though, so i may not get to it until the season starts slowing down in the late fall, but i really do appreciate the recommendation.


  6. Pingback: Bed-Stuy Bounty is Just One Link in the Good Food Chain | Bed-Stuy Bounty

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