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.