Originally introduced by British politicians in the 1990s, the concept of a food desert has been a popular way to approach food insecure regions in the United States for over a decade. It has been embraced by politicians, celebrities, chefs, and other influential leaders. Despite this trend, the term “food desert” and efficacy of the interventions to combat them have been questioned in recent years.
“Most simply, people talk about food deserts as places where it is hard to access healthy and affordable food,” says Richard Sadler, a public health professor at the Flint campus of Michigan State University. Sadler co-authored a paper with Jason Andrew Gilliland and Godwin Arku that explores the theoretical issues surrounding debates around food deserts.
As Sadler explains, it’s the simplicity of the definition that makes it appealing to some and can lead to interventions that are straightforward, like placing a grocery store in an area that is deemed a food desert. He adds that this is what others are critical of--some contend that such a basic definition renders interventions to be one-dimensional and less effective.
Flint, Michigan may be known most for lead and other toxic contaminants in its water system, but the city also suffers from food insecurity and malnutrition. Another study by Sadler, Gilliland, and Arku examined the impact of a retail-based intervention in a socioeconomically disadvantaged area of Flint. Highlighting how malnutrition and food insecurity results from more than geographical access, their research found the introduction of a grocery store in the area did not have a significant impact on fruit and vegetable consumption. Further, there was an increase in the amount of prepared and fast foods consumed during the 17 months the grocery store was open.
Other studies have had similar findings regarding improvement in nutrition. The link between food deserts and obesity has been challenged and the need to consider cost and marketing has also been highlighted.
The use of the term “food desert” has been debated among scholars due to methodological issues and a lack of consensus over its definition. It has also been rejected due to its bleak imagery as well as its potential racial implications. Since the areas aren’t completely absent of food, some believe a more accurate description would be to specify them as "fresh food deserts" or "health food deserts." Some suggest abandoning the use of “desert,” and call them "junk food jungles" or "food swamps" instead. Sadler says he uses “food desert” cautiously, adding, “There is a part that we have to be critical of but I think it can still be a useful rhetorical device because there is a general understanding of what it means.”
Beyond debates over semantics, Sadler thinks it is also important to consider how so-called food deserts are approached. Reflecting on health geography, researchers Robin Kearns and Graham Moon asked, ‘‘Is it more effective to do this through insurgency or collaboration?” Sadler sees this as a relevant question for approaches to food systems.
Following the closure of the Flint grocery store that was open for 17 months, another one has opened in its place. Sadler believes it may be having more success and partially attributes that to their community engagement--their existing presence at the local farmer’s market and other factors has made them more attuned to their clients’ needs. Other measures that actively collaborate with the community, like local food networks including community gardens, and non-commercialized food production have also had more positive outcomes.
Along with more in-depth discussions about the complexity of food deserts and a need to increase smaller scale collaborative interventions, Sadler says previous policies and projects should also be re-evaluated. “Now that we have this key information and continue learn more about what does and doesn’t work, that should also shape the approach to food deserts.”