Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Rejecting the 'food desert' concept

In response to FLAVOR MAGAZINE, June/July 2009 article titled Not Quite What I Was Looking For under the page header 'in the food desert." 


Paul Ryan's description of his personal journey from home gardener to community gardener was timely.  It was good to follow one man's path to urban farming. 

It is the header "in the food desert" I find problematical. Food justice is among the most troublesome in the modern repetory of social issues.  The communities of which Ryan speaks are not 'deserts.' They are neighborhoods full of people, with desires, ambitions, energy, and, yes, poverty.  But they are not the empty wasteland implied by the word 'desert.'  They are deserts only in the lack of enough grocery stores, too many fast food joints, and disgusting school food furnished via putatively 'free lunch systems."   It is only a desert in that folks outside the community tend not to see the residents within; and having made their pronouncements can then feel generous, or not, as the mood strikes them, while ignoring the grassroots efforts of the inhabitants of that 'desert.'  It is a desert because Food Lion or Giant, or Kroger can't be persuaded or shamed to build there even though there are often small Mom and Pop establishments carrying the full weight of the whole community's needs.   It is a desert because the zoning restrictions often put insurmountable barriers to alternative uses of empty lots or other abandoned spaces perfect for gardens or community gathering places.  In these 'deserts' most of the residents are working poor and lower middle class people of color.

Nothing about Ryan's article describes finding a desert; his first search for a community garden finds one quickly but it is one with a long waiting list - evidence of interest, I'd say.  He didn't invent the 7th Street Garden; there they were, waiting for him to join them.  Poor inner-city folks aren't sitting waiting for the foodies to come save them.  They are already organizing to take back their city spaces and use them for the good of their elders, their youth, and their families.  Not a desert at all.  Ryan's experience with an activist community garden could be replicated all over the country; in Charlottesville, Virginia with the Quality Community Council or with Chicago's Graffetti and Grits urban food cooperative/garden initiative, just to name two.  

So I would suggest we seek to find a more humane vocabulary; perhaps the header could have been "seeking food justice"  or "finding an inner-city food community."