Thursday, April 24, 2008

What are you calling a food desert?

Does a healthy local food environment require a major brand-name supermarket? Does a neighborhood without such a supermarket automatically deserve to be called a "food desert"?

I considered these questions on a long walk here in Boston from my office south of Chinatown through the South End to a meeting in Roxbury last week. The store with the mural reminded me of the local markets I loved growing up in DC. Often Hispanic-owned, they were heavily used by White and African American neighborhood residents also.

The Super 88 Markets here are Asian American owned, but they also market effectively to Haitian and Caribbean immigrant communities.

If a neighborhood can be a "food desert" then this vegetable stall (below) on a back street can be a "food oasis."

A graduate student once asked me for advice on a study he was doing of the supermarket desert in the Northeast Kingdom region of Vermont. I think of the fresh fish and vegetables I bought last Fall at a farmers' market in St. Johnsbury and cooked for old friends who had gathered to go biking in the hilly woods near there. If this part of the country is a supermarket desert, does that mean the remedy is necessarily a supermarket?

It sometimes seems to outrage my students when I ask if the retail environment for low-income communities in the United States is so bad and whether larger stores would improve it. I don't know the answer to my own question. But I do distrust assessments that seem to stack the deck in favor of finding a "desert" by defining too narrowly what type of large retail qualifies as adequate.

1 comment:

Jessie Bennett said...

I just walked past that Super 88 today! I used to live in a Dominican neighborhood in NYC. A Pathmark opened right after we moved there, but it was never as convenient as the fruit market around the corner. Of course, the food at the fruit market was often of "eat it today" quality, so not particularly good for stocking up for the week.

I often thought while we (two American-born white kids) were living there that we'd be far better off if we learned to cook traditional Dominican fare. As it was, to get good quality stuff for our own favorite recipes, we had to take the subway downtown for groceries.