Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and Green Grocer have historically used the term ‘food desert’ to describe communities that lack access to fresh foods and grocery stores. While this term is widely used and has been previously accepted, it is important to continue learning about what this language can mean to the people who live in those communities.
The USDA defines a food desert as “neighborhoods that lack healthy food sources”. This can be measured by distance to a store or by the number of stores in an area, accessibility, income level and/or availability of public transportation. These neighborhoods may have corner and convenience stores, but the shelves are stocked with foods of lower nutritional quality—foods high in sugar and fat—leading to high rates of heart disease, diabetes and other diet-related diseases.
The T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies, however, points out that the word ‘desert’ creates thoughts of ‘a barren landscape devoid of life, vibrancy and abundance’ (Lu, 2020). We know that this is not true of any communities we serve, including the now 20 neighborhoods that Green Grocer visits each week. Malik Yakini, a Detroit food activist, notes that the individuals who live in so-called food deserts likely would never refer to their communities in this way, as it is a term “imposed by outsiders”. He adds that the term could, intentionally or not, ignore the successes and history of a community and only focus on what it does not have.
So, what should we call neighborhoods that lack access to fresh foods and grocery stores, to no fault of their own? A food apartheid is more than the lack of grocery stores and other healthy food options in non-white and/or low-income communities. Food apartheid also points to the discrimination of communities of color when it comes to economic opportunities. The T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies notes that solutions must address economic disparities. Putting grocery stores in these communities cannot be the only solution. It must start with equity across the board – job creation, education and other opportunities in areas that have traditionally been ignored.
Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank is continuing its Food Justice is Social Justice initiative, and food access is a large part of this. We will continue to educate ourselves on the language we use around food security and the effect it can have on our neighbors. We look forward to creating more access to food, especially in underserved communities, through Green Grocer and other food distribution efforts.
Lu, Isabel. “Food Apartheid: What Does Food Access Mean In America?” Center for Nutrition Studies, 14 Dec. 2020, nutritionstudies.org/food-apartheid-what-does-food-access-mean-in-america/.