food deserts defined and examined

What exactly is a food desert?

The term food desert was first coined in the 1990s in Scotland.  It is used to describe locations where there is little or no access to healthy foods. This is often due to a lack of “normal” and “safe” food sources (i.e. supermarkets). When residents do not have regular access to healthy foods, they become classified as food insecure.

food mart

The term food desert has come to be the embodiment of urban decay. In America, approximately 10% of the population lives in a food desert. For an area to be considered a food desert, at least 20% of inhabitants must be below the poverty line and 33% of the population must live more than a mile from a supermarket in urban areas or 10 miles in rural locations. In food deserts, individuals must expend greater resources to reach normal food sources and these are the areas that often have the fewest resources to use.  The most significant limitations include financial restraints, physical ailments and a lack of transportation.

Who is affected by food deserts?

The negative effects of food deserts disproportionately affect locations primarily populated by the elderly and the poor with age, income and educational levels being the factors that are most strongly related to food insecurity levels.  It is theorized that this has been caused by the consolidation of food retailers which has driven smaller retailers from these locations at a greater rate.This trend can be seen in both urban and rural locations.

no car no supermarket

Why are some areas more dramatically affected?

This is a difficult question to answer, but it can likely be attributed to the cycle of poverty that restricts the quality of life in many poor areas. However, there are other factors that need to be more thoroughly examined and the question, “Is the issue of food deserts a problem of supply or demand?” needs to be addressed.

There may be in fact little or no demand for healthier options which stems from varying sociocultural views on food, rather than food access. Additionally, simply providing healthy food options does not change consumer behavior. Some people just do not care about their dietary health. These factors are typically influenced by age and gender.

cost difference

Furthermore, it may not be that there is a lack of access, but the lack of necessary funds needed to purchase healthy foods (it is estimated that fruits and vegetables cost up to 36% more than the national average in food deserts). There is also the issue of not having the necessary skills or knowledge to prepare many fruits and vegetables after several generations of dependency on fast and convenience foods.

Are there other food sources that can help alleviate problems caused by food deserts?

There are three major categories of food sources:

  1. Normal sources: retailers
  2. Government food assistance: WIC, school lunch programs, nutrition assistance for the elderly
  3. Alternative food sources: gifts, private charity

What are some possible solutions for addressing the issue of food deserts?

In the past, many of the solutions have been solely focused on the number of calories that receivers of assistance consume, rather than the quality of food they are consuming.  In order for solutions to be long-term and “worth” the investment this perspective must change.

Among the variety of options, the most viable solution that will be the most broadly beneficial is strengthening the social infrastructure of a given area.  This is accomplished by encouraging social connections between families, friends and neighbors as studies have shown that increases in social capital decrease the likelihood that members of the community will have hunger issues.

The most common methods for developing social infrastructures are traditional options which include opening low-cost/free food pantries (often associated with religious institutions), visiting farmers markets and offering senior meal programs.

Other options include:

  • Building up support for local retailers: shopping at Wal-Mart may seem like it is cheaper, but the real cost of dependency on businesses with little empathy for the community is more often than not detrimental in the long-run.
  • Developing transportation networks: beneficial not only to those using the service but to the environmental, too.
  • Encouraging the retail sale of locally produced food: the revenue stays in the community where it is really needed
  • Establishing gardens to plant enough food to share: produces local (and often organic) food and provides an opportunity for social interaction.
  • Expanding civic organizations (ex. VFW, churches, rotary club): these types of organizations were once pillars of communities and provided opportunities for social networking.
  • Investing in living wage industries: should anyone really be working full-time and not have the ability to buy food?
  • Volunteering time at local farms in exchange for access to meat or other goods produced: the average age of farmers is increasing while interest in farming wanes.  Renewing the connection between communities and their food sources may help to reduce the centralization of the food system and redistribute consumer power.

Those solutions sound great, but what type of problems might be encountered when applying them to real-life situations?

The very definition of food deserts can cause problems when working towards long-term, positive solutions. This is due to the fact that the USDA excludes farmers markets, small farms, smaller retailers and road stands from its definition of a food desert. This means that solutions are being developed without access to all of the pertinent information which can spur resentment from the existing infrastructure. Such an issue is particularly pertinent when attempting to develop decentralized and locally beneficial options (why couldn’t small corner store serve as viable replacements for traditional grocery stores?).

Then the fact that only about 15% of people shop for food in their census area.  It is hard to estimate whether consumers will change their habits if new infrastructure is developed. The type of infrastructure also plays a role as many individuals in food deserts resent alternative food systems as they represent the idea that where they live is not good enough for a conventional supermarket. This issue is often amplified by the romanticized “if they only knew” logic which does not typically reflect the values of those being affected. Often organic, farm-fresh or vegetarian is considered less than palatable and even dirty or disgusting.

When discussing social factors that could hinder efforts, the racial and cultural relationship between various groups throughout the country need to be considered. For example, in areas primarily populated by minorities (in this case Blacks), there is the notion that the efforts being made are an attempt to inject white food values into the community and are the embodiment of white privilege (alternative food options tend to be perpetuated by Whites). Issues of former land stewardship make the idea of growing their own food unpleasant and does not appeal to this demographic. This group also seems to prefer the anonymity of grocery stores and resents the eugenic nature of “knowing where your food comes from”. Furthermore, the mere definition of a food desert can also be considered disrespectful as it invokes images of a location beyond repair (see: Bringing Good Food to Others).

Finally, there is the issue of governmental priorities.  Should people be fed or should tax breaks be given? Is a new truck for the sheriff or a community garden more important? Voter apathy allows a very small percentage of residents to make that decision.

If there are so many problems and people resent the type of help offered, why bother caring?

The simplest answer is because we are all humans in a time of great uncertainty and inequality.  If thoughtful measures are not made now, problems with food access will only continue to grow. As the insecurity grows, it will affect more and more people. It will also balloon into problems in other areas of life (ex. riots in the Middle East).

Moreover, there are economic incentives. It is estimated that a $1 of investment in grocery stores equals $1.50 in returns which means that such an investment has the potential to benefit several different groups simultaneously. As an added bonus, it creates a way to bridge private and public interests.


Barker, ME., Campell, MJ., Pearson, T., Russel J., Oct 2005. Do food deserts influence fruit and vegetable consumption? — a cross-sectional study. Appetite. 45(2) 195-197.

Gordon, S. 2011. Urbanites cry foul on USDA definition of food deserts. Earth Eats.

Guthman, J. 2008. Bringing good food to others: investigating the subjects of alternative food practice. Cultural Geographies, 4, 431-447.

If you build it, they may not come. 2011. Economist.

Wright, M. L., Bitto, E. A., Oakland, M. J., Sand, M. 2005. Solving the problems of Iowa food deserts: food Insecurity and civic structure. Rural Sociology, 70, 94-112.

community gardens discussed and analyzed

“The greatest fine art of the future will be the making of a comfortable living from a small piece of land.”

– Abraham Lincoln

Agriculture is defined as the science, art, and business of cultivating soil, producing crops and raising cattle. It is more commonly referred to as farming. Without it, society as we know it would not exist. It has enabled people to put down roots which provided the means for the world’s population to expand. Unfortunately, it has also been transformed by industrialization into a widely abused system that is dependent on government subsidies and environmentally unsound practices in order to produce food products with less nutritional value and poorer taste. Furthermore, the existing agriculture system is controlled by an increasingly small number of international firms.

However, grassroots efforts and individuals are choosing to look at food in a different way, a way that seems to be able to co-exist with ecosystems. A viable option that has been employed in the past, but since forgotten, is the community garden.

A community garden is any vacant land that is used for growing food and is accessible to community members. Not only do these gardens provide healthy food to demographics that many not otherwise have access, but it improves the overall quality of life in the community by reducing crime, encouraging exercise, and encourages people to have pride in their neighborhood. However, the benefits of community gardens are not limited to the community. Instead, the effects impact the whole ecosystem.

Many community gardens have strict rules about the methods members can employ, and choose to model organic farming methods. Those rules include limiting or banning synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Some community gardens also ban certain species of plants that have been proven to attract pests or have no predators to limit spreading.

Community gardens limit non-organic pesticides and fertilizers, because of the effects that they can have on human, animal, and environmental health which allows for the natural qualities of soil and the ecosystem to shine.


Soil is an essential part of the growing environment and without healthy soil, one would not be able to produce healthy plants. Ideal soil for plants is composed of 25% air, 45% minerals, 25% water and 5% organic material. This mix allows for plant roots to efficiently breathe and absorb nutrients and water. However, different plants prefer different mixes of minerals and will tolerate varying degrees of acidity and moisture.

To create ideal soil that is rich in nutrients, well-aerated, and free from disease, many community gardens employ composting methods. Compost is the process of breaking down organic material. The result is a very dark, rich addition to any garden.

Compost is created by putting Nitrogen rich items (greens-vegetable scraps, lawn cuttings, and coffee grounds) and Carbon-rich items (browns-shredded cardboard, sawdust, and leaves) together into a well-ventilated space and mixing with water. The ideal ratio of Carbon to Nitrogen is 25-30:1. This mixture can heat up to 150 degrees from the work of macro and micro-organisms. The increased heat speeds up the breakdown process, and when coupled with Red Wiggler Worms, can reduce the decomposition time to only a few weeks.

Finished compost helps to reduce water use because it is will hold 6X’s more water than traditional soil. It also provides nutrients that would not otherwise be available to plants. This reduces and/or eliminates the need for any non-organic fertilizers, reducing cost and environmental impact while gardeners enjoy similar, if not better results.

Another benefit of compost is that it creates stronger plants, and can help to eliminate the need for pesticides. Pesticides include anything designed to destroy fungus, weed, insect or disease. These synthetic killers are non-discriminatory in their effects, and could just as easily kill family pets as insects. This harm could come from direct consumption, water-run off or from residual traces of chemicals in the soil.

compost 101

To further reduce the needs for pesticides, community gardens encourage and use “beneficial” pests. These are insects that are carnivorous and indigenous to the area. The most popular versions of these bugs are Praying Mantises, spiders, Ladybugs and Lacewings. It must also be noted that one should not introduce too many of one species or too many in general in order to maintain a balance.

When gardens choose not to introduce beneficial pests into the garden, they often choose to use other methods to protect their plants. Covering plants in light-weight netting can deter all insects but does not allow for pollination.

Another option is companion planting, such as putting onions or garlic with almost any plant, or celery with plants in the cabbage family. By planting certain plants together, the smells naturally detract invasive species. Marigolds, nasturtiums, and rosemary are also very pungent smelling and deter many pests.

As in any scenario, some problems arise with community gardens, including issues with existing soil, cultural sensitivities, unfavorable weather and the question of sustainability.

Since community gardens use whatever space is available, and the modern version originated in urban areas where the environmental impact of humans is greater than in rural areas. One of the biggest problems community gardens find is the presence of lead in the soil. Lead is devastating to life and is not easy to remove from soil.

Cultural sensitivities are also difficult to deal with, as they are generally historically rooted. In cities such as Chicago and Detroit, some groups are associating community gardening with slavery. This is difficult to deal with because community gardens are dependent on community involvement.

Weather can also impact the effectiveness of community gardens, especially in cooler climates. To deal with weather problems, community gardens use cold frames and wind tunnels. These structures help to regulate temperature and keep out harsh winds and snows. Sometimes, community gardens will couple these methods with cold hardy plants to lengthen the growing season.

The biggest concern that surrounds community gardens is their capacity to feed a large number of people since the population is not getting smaller and everyone needs to eat. There is a large amount of unused space in cities throughout America, but it is unclear if people are willing to utilize it for food production and put forth the effort needed to transform dilapidated neighborhoods.

While the concept of community gardens is not a new idea, society is in a unique situation that could revitalize their presence in towns and city throughout the country. This revival could help improve ecosystems everywhere, redistribute wealth and resources, encourage and the American agricultural system as a whole, or at least I think so!

For more information, check out this website about the steps needed to start a community garden:


Environmental Working Group. (n.d.) Farming: Farm Subsidies. Retrieved from

Pidwirny, Michael. (2013). Soil. Retrieved from

Runk, David. (2010). Lead, other chemicals taint some urban gardens. Times Union

Smith, Edward C. The Vegetable Gardener’s Container Bible. North Adams: Storey, 2010.

the influence of social involvment, neighborhood aesthetics, and community garden participation on fruit and vegetable conspumption

“I feel like I’m a co-creator in the world with my garden, helping bring forth life, nurturance. It nurtures me as much as I nurture it. And it gives me hope.”

The objective of this article was to examine the relationship between the fruit and vegetable consumption by urban adults and several selected social and psychological processes, beneficial aesthetic experiences and community garden participation. They state that their purpose for doing it is because evidence has shown that community gardens represent a promising approach to fostering healthy behaviors. The gardens are said to represent everyday landscapes that connect people with nature, require active and sustained involvement by participants and enable participants to engage with others directly and indirectly, thereby gaining knowledge about ecological systems, the growing and preparing of food and more broadly, about health and wellness.

“Reasons for shifting dietary patterns and concomitant health risks are complex, involving an array of factors that span individual lifestyles, cultural, social, ecological and environmental conditions as well as the range of structures, services and amenities within our communities. Undermining the US diet and healthy food choices and practices is the growing physical divide between people and the places where food is grown. This division has resulted in a loss of experience with fundamental processes associated with growing food; limited access to alternative, viable and affordable food sources and changes in food choices.”

Three very important terms were defined and described:

Environmental aesthetics: the ways we respond to and give back to our surroundings, including the social and physical environments in which we are immersed; has been shown to influence the adoption of health behaviors, such as walking, in adults and obesity levels of inner city inhabitants.

Neighborhood attachment: one’s emotional bonds to neighborhoods and may influence one’s access to and use of everyday places; shaped by features of the built environment and perceptions of that environment; has been shown to promote stability, involvement and investment in the physical and social characteristics of the neighborhood and in turn produce neighborhood-level benefits.

Social involvement: enables access to social resources and opportunities for social learning and it helps to define and reinforce social roles.

According to the authors, aesthetic experiences coupled with processes, such as neighborhood attachment and social involvement, shape one’s understanding and appreciation of the social, physical, cultural and natural landscapes and the range of interactions within these settings. Such appreciation and interactions promote individual feelings of security, which may inform an individual’s willingness to venture outdoors and take advantage of neighborhood resources. When this occurs, higher levels of social involvement and more positive perceptions of neighborhood aesthetics are reported which was shown to correlate with higher consumption of fruits and vegetables.

The authors then state that the success of community gardens is largely dependent on strong neighborhood leadership, outreach, and volunteerism – all attributes that reflect higher levels of social involvement. They conclude that the intrinsic qualities of community gardens make them a unique intervention that can narrow the divide between people and places where food is grown and increase opportunities to eat better.  However, it was reported that fruit and vegetable consumption was statistically higher among respondents with at least a college degree, residents who reported higher levels of physical activity,  a BMI of <25 and rated their health as good or excellent.  This could indicate that the presence of community gardens simply allows already normal behavioral patterns to be perpetuated in a new form, rather than creating new opportunities.

Litt, Jill S., et al. “The influence of social involvement, neighborhood aesthetics, and community garden participation on fruit and vegetable consumption.” American Journal of Public Health 8.8 (2011). April 2013.

review and analysis of of the benefits, purposes and motivations associated with community gardens in the united states

“The varied purposes and benefits of community gardening make it an ideal interventional strategy for community-based practitioners because myriad goals may be addressed through this approach.”

Community gardening emerged in the United States in the 1890s as, “a means to address urban congestion caused by immigration, economic instability and environmental degradation”. Immigrants, children and the poor were the original targets for the efforts, but economic strife caused by war and the Great Depression resulted in nearly universal participation until later in the century when the industrialization of agriculture resulted in the emergence of convenience foods. It was not until the recession in 2009 that community gardens enjoyed a resurgence (19% increase). This suggests that participation in community gardening activities is correlated with the socio-economic conditions of the time.

Beyond necessity, the five main purpose/concerns that relate to community gardens are:

  • Engaging Youth;
  • Health Benefits (dietary, mental, and physical);
  • Gardener vs. Land Holder Conflicts;
  • Social Capital;
  • Participant Motivations and Perspectives.

Positive outcomes are related to socializing opportunities and experiences. This includes social connections that are formed from accessing resources and developing collaborative efforts with outside organizations like universities, youth programs and health centers. Furthermore, multiple social processes (ex. reciprocity) formed during activities related to community gardening transfer to situations outside of the garden. This strengthens a widespread sense of community. This finding emphasizes that social interactions are imperative to the success and perpetuation of community gardens.

Community gardens have also been identified as a mechanism for individuals and communities to preserve, express and affirm culture. This is accomplished by growing specific foods, designing the gardens to reflect cultural heritage and providing a venue for cultural expression with dances, musical performances and festivals.

Participant motivations include access to fresh and better tasting food, enjoyment of nature, health benefits, opportunities to socialize, to beautify and give back to the community and to support the conservation of green space. Some participate in community gardens as a leisure and/or recreation activity. Others see community gardens as a means for neighborhood beautification and believe that they can serve as a way to revitalize distressed areas. Still, others anecdotally report that community gardens are correlated with a reduction in crime once the garden becomes established. This occurs when garden spaces become identified as safe places for individuals and families – especially those who otherwise lack access to open spaces – come together.

The fight for the right to public land use has given participants an opportunity to participate in local politics for the first time. This often occurred when there was an issue of land-use rights. In many of these cases, this conflict served as a means for instigating organization and mobilization of community members. Oftentimes, these individuals would not otherwise interact.

Finally, it was found that in many areas gardeners choose to donate a portion of their produce, typically to senior citizens, the homeless or poor individuals and families which works to improve food access networks for the community as a whole. This indicates that when people create something, they want to share it with the world.

Draper, C., & Freedman, D. (2010). Review and Analysis of the Benefits, Purposes, and Motivations Associated with Community Gardening in the United States. Journal Of Community Practice, 18(4), 458-492.

bringing good food to others: investigating the subjects of alternative food practices

“Watsonville is a largely Latino community, where many farm workers live – and several students […] have gone there with the intention of teaching Latino youth how to grow food, apparently with nary a trace of irony shown.”

Julie Guthman, a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz in the Department of Community Studies (it is noted that Santa Cruz is often considered “ground zero” of the US alternative food movement) runs a program that provides students with an opportunity to work in a variety of food scarce locations in an alternative food program. Based on the work of the students and her personal research, she is able to inform readers that there is a great discrepancy between the goals and intentions of the student participants and those of the communities that they are attempting to serve. Below is a more in-depth summary of her findings:

Alternative food institutions have tended to cater to relatively well-off consumers, in part because organic food has been positioned as a niche product – even obtaining the moniker of “yuppie chow”. Furthermore, farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) tend to locate or distribute to areas of relative wealth. These places are also generally white spaces in terms of both the demographic that frequent them and the cultural codings that are performed at such markets. The same can be said of schools that attempt to incorporate farm-to-table programs unless they are heavily subsidized by private foundations or the public sectors.

Food deserts are then defined as urban (or rural) environments where few if any venues provide an array of healthful fruits, vegetables, meats and grain products. However, there are some issues with this definition. The quote:

 “To a lesser degree they situate the food desert phenomenon with the neoliberal restructuring of urban space more broadly which through disinvestment and endemic unemployment have relegated the inhabitants of some cities to intense poverty,”

summarizes the issue with this explanation of the current issues with food production in poor, minority communities. She goes on to explain that Blacks who are the target of these efforts appear to reject them (the efforts) because they believe they replicate the very phenomenon being addressed – the effects of white desire to enroll black people in a particular set of food practices.

However, despite historical precedents, the same feelings were not expressed in Latino or more recently Asian communities. It is theorized that this is due to many members of this demographic being undocumented, so they have limited access to government programs.

It is then explained that the origin of the word organic (which is often touted as a championing quality of urban agriculture) is controversial in nature because of its historical roots in use by Nazis influenced by the works of Rudolph Steiner and the nationalist foundations of the British Soil Association. Community gardens are also often associated with the term localism which in itself is considered to be xenophobic in nature and contradicts the black community’s desire to be a part of American modernity and technology. Additionally, many of the catchphrases such as “Dirt First” associated with gardening contradict efforts by many Black Nationalist groups to dissociate the Black community with idioms of dirt and filth. There is also the issue of getting one’s hands dirty and the presumption that everyone is interested in tending the land. This historically contradicts many of the non-white norms in the USA because land was given away to whites at the same time that reconstruction failed in the south, Native lands were seized and Natives killed and the Chinese and Japanese were excluded from land ownership. When coupled with the persistent injustice of white land being tended by non-white workers, the agrarian ideal does not resonate with many non-white groups. Furthermore, for some newly arrived immigrants the concept of community gardens can be considered eugenic in nature because they appear to mirror efforts to reform foodways by the United States. Finally, the mere definition of food desert often elicits the image of many of the impoverished neighborhoods as being beyond repair which has been suggested as containing colonial codings.

The issue of the term teaching kids how to eat has also garnered resentment because it is perceived as trying to instill a particular (white) ideology about eating. It was also found that many kids do not like to garden – they did not like getting their hands, clothes and shoes dirty.  The following quotes were taken from student’s notes from a community study students about their experiences working in Black communities. They summarize many of the feelings about the alternative food efforts:

The person laughed and said she did not know how to cook any of the things we planted.”

Often times girls show up with Jack in the Box for breakfast, eating it while working.  The youths were asked to say what they thought organic means, many used the terms disgusting, gross or dirty.

  • On why a neighborhood resident chooses not to purchase food that has been locally produced:

Because they don’t sell no food! All they got is birdseed…Who the hell are they to tell me how to eat? It’s not food. I need to be able to feed my family.

  • One of the students drew the conclusion that

Insistence on alternatives may well reinforce a sense of exclusion and stigmatization – as if residents of food deserts are not even deserving of what others taken for granted: a Safeway.

To deal with these issues, some alternative markets are adopting different monikers, such as Mandela’s farmers’ market and Growing Power, emphasizing black cuisine and culture to interest the local community, and imploring community members to rectify the historical issue of landholding inequalities and highlighting issues like the toxic nature of many conventional foods. However, it is noted that it often takes selling foods at below market prices or people literally becoming sickened by industrial food for the target market to adopt these food options.

The author concludes that there is a disjunction between what alternative food activists do and what food desert residents seem to want. In order to deal with this, she suggests shifting the focus of activism away from food qualities (local, organic, etc.) and onto injustices that underlie disparities, for example, addressing issues such as urban renewal, living wages, the expansion of entitlement programs and environmental preservation.

Guthman, J. 2008. Bringing good food to others: investigating the subjects of alternative food practice. Cultural Geographies, 4, 431-447.