It broke my heart the other day when I saw a family of four buying their actual groceries at a gas station. The family consisted of a mother who clearly looked overworked and anxious, three little girls and a young boy. While the mother had a very average weight, all of her children were overweight for their age. I can’t help but wonder if their weight is a product of the foods they have access to. Literally, all of their “groceries” consisted of processed and salty foods from a local gas station. This situation, though alarming and saddening, is not unique to this specific family. Due to the extensive lack of access to grocery stores-the definition of a food desert- millions of black families are subjected to the lackluster food options of local corner stores, gas stations, and fast-food restaurants; ultimately suffering the inevitable health problems that follow. I would like to take this time to contextualize this issue and offer insights into effective activism surrounding it.
Please understand that a food desert, in the American context, is not the absence of food in a specific area, rather it is the absence of healthy foods. Data suggest that more than 35 million live in a food desert. This 35 million lacks access to grocery stores and the fresh produce and healthy foods within them. Sadly, blacks are the ones most affected by this severe issue. According to Mari Gallagher, leading researcher and consultant on food deserts, “about 70 percent of the food deserts population is African-American” in Chicago. This fact, however, is applicable to most cities in the U.S.. Cleveland, Detroit, Camden, Atlanta, New York, San Francisco and New Orleans-among others- all have very visible racially and class-specific food deserts. And, naturally, the poor and usually black populations that live in these cities also suffer from diet-related issues like diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and heart disease. It should come as no surprise that these aforementioned heath issues are ones that have historically plagued the black community.
Disturbingly, those who discuss and work to end food deserts do so under the premise that access alone will solve the issue. There are number of organizations whose sole premise is the development of community gardens and urban agriculture. Early this month, activist Ron Finley gained national recognition for his work with community gardens in Los Angeles’ food deserts. Make no mistake, these efforts are valid and appreciated. Nevertheless, this uncomplicated and basic notion of access solely will most certainly not suffice. Food is incontestably cultural. Moreover, food deserts are not a new phenomenon. This means that dietary habits have developed around the lack of access to healthier foods and have grown into a culture of unhealthy eating. In order to end food deserts along with all of its negative consequences, a more whole and culturally aware activist approach should be taken. In addition to tackling the issue of access, activists should also consider adding a component of education to their efforts. It is important to highlight that this education should not attempt to erase the preexisting culture, but instead should teach people how to incorporate healthier foods into accustomed diets.
As I reflect on the aforementioned family, I cannot help but think of the other millions of families in similar situations. Families that, due to lack of access, cannot buy something of simple as fresh fruits and vegetables. More importantly, I cannot help but reflect on this issue’s place in the shadow of more popular topics like prejudice, racism, and gun violence. In order for our country to move forward with this issue, we must first raise the national discourse. And further, within this discourse, we must not pathologize black eating habits and instead consider the structural conditions responsible.