What Academics Focused on Improving Americans’ Diets Got Wrong

This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.

When it comes to political concepts, the term “food desert” has come a long way, but it’s time to think bigger. The fight for healthier options has never been just about food.

Just ten years ago, many in the university community thought we had it all figured out when it comes to geography and health. The researchers speculated that the higher number of nearby and inexpensive fast food restaurants must be the cause of higher rates of obesity, diabetes and hypertension in poor urban neighborhoods. Food-focused think tanks were convinced that an abundance of nearby convenience stores and relatively few grocery stores meant people were turned away from existing nutritious options.

In 2011, the Obama administration launched an ambitious program “Healthy Food Funding Initiative” which has since distributed hundreds of millions of dollars to improve access to healthy food in underserved areas of the country. Subsidizing supermarkets was seen as the biggest solution, but smaller options like farmers’ markets, community gardens and urban farms were also being funded.

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But now we know that distance does not determine people’s diets the way we thought. A number of people got it wrong. I was one of them.

When I started researching the topic, I was so obsessed with bringing healthy, local, organic food to poor neighborhoods that I also lost sight of the bigger issue. The reason why the installation of new grocery stores did not change people’s diets was that the inhabitants of “food deserts” did not ask for help to change the way they ate. What they wanted was an investment in their communities.

To figure out how I got it so wrong, I sat down and talked with 100 people in Greenville, SC about how they buy food. After spending time in their kitchens and on their porches, I have come to see the concept of the food desert as inextricably flawed; living away from a grocery store is just one of many barriers to healthy eating.

It took me a while, but eventually I realized how the “healthy food” framing of the issue distracted us from the bigger issue. Although focusing on the public health dimensions of this debate was a quick way to get politically minded foodies join the fight, this strategy was short-sighted. While these new white and middle-class allies brought a lot of political capital to the cause, spending so much time talking about fruits and vegetables was also a way to avoid tougher conversations about racism and poverty.

The geographic distribution of high quality retail in America is not random. The movement of retail out of the urban core began in the 1960s and 1970s when the US government embarked on what is now called “urban renewal” style revitalization.

Today, community organizers have begun moving to the term “food apartheid” to highlight how the American food landscape was created by the institutionally racist public policies of the past. And they are right. But that terminology doesn’t go far enough either. Because the problem is bigger than the food and always has been. It is about all forms of commerce. It’s about retail inequality.

The geographic distribution of high quality retail in America is not random. The movement of retail out of the urban core began in the 1960s and 1970s when the US government embarked on what is now called “urban renewal” style revitalization. At the time, post-World War II urban infrastructure had deteriorated significantly across the country. Well-paying manufacturing jobs had begun to disappear, and the housing stock in many cities had fallen into disrepair. Rather than reinvesting in crumbling neighborhoods, the government chose the mass demolition of entire city blocks. Instead of rebuilding neighborhoods, state and federal agencies divided them with freeways that paved the way to the suburbs. Households with the means to leave – often white – saw the writing on the wall and started leaving in droves, sparking a era of white flight away from city centers. Retailers, too, saw where the money was going and started to raise the stakes.

This racialized movement of wealth and population from the urban core has left segregated and concentrated poverty in its wake. The predominantly black population left behind with no means of escape was, in many cases, crammed by city officials into dense public housing and left to fend for themselves. Disused and depleted, these neighborhoods struggled to sustain the familiar convenience stores that had served their needs for generations. The few family businesses that held out were eventually crushed by the emergence of big-box stores that moved out of town.

As a nation, we have decided that it is morally appropriate to subsidize the retail sale of healthy foods in areas that are still struggling to rebuild from that time. It is for this purpose that the Healthy Foods Funding Initiative was designed. But we must not stop there. Eligibility for the grants, loans, and tax breaks we provide to build grocery stores and support farmers’ markets should be extended to a wider range of retail offerings. Local businesses operated by and for neighboring communities are a necessary public good.

Supermarkets are important, but sustainable communities need affordable hardware stores, credit unions and family restaurants. But without sufficient population density and disposable income in the area, businesses in poorer postcodes cannot compete with national chain stores that stick to high-traffic roads out of town. In this vacuum, these communities are flooded with “bad retail” that too often exploits the vulnerable (liquor stores and payday lenders top the list). These neighborhoods are tired of being dumping grounds for this kind of window dressing. They just want to have a say in what can be bought and sold in their communities.

It’s time to think bigger than the Healthy Foods Funding Initiative. The fight for local food options is nothing new and it was always about more than food anyway. Let’s go back to an earlier battle over access to food: the lunch counter sit-ins of the civil rights movement. These protests were not about what was on the menu. They were talking about justice and equality.

These communities need a neighborhood retail funding initiative that can level the playing field. For better or worse, in our consumer society, local retail serves as a symbol of the value of a community for the outside world. Exclusive retail, whether prohibitively expensive or culturally deaf, sends the message that nearby residents don’t matter. They deserve better. They deserve a retail business built around their wants and needs.

By investing in these communities now, we can evolve into a reality where they can support quality retail on their own terms. Until then, a neighborhood retail finance initiative can fill the gap. We’ve funded efforts to improve access to healthy food, now we need to take the next step and expand those efforts to include more diverse forms of retail. Through such an initiative, urban communities could be repurposed and we can begin to end decades of retail inequality.

Kenneth Kolb is a professor of sociology at Furman University. He is the author of Retail inequality: reframing the food desert debate.