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Outpost's Board of Directors will use this blog to discuss issues the board is exploring as it envisions Outpost's future. Can't make it to a meeting? Check here frequently to read what the Board is up to. Your current Outpost Board of...
Your Board

What's Really in a Food Desert?

Board Beet
By Your Board on October 2, 2014

Early in September, I had the pleasure of presenting the closing keynote at the National Association of Farmers’ Market Nutrition Programs conference that took place at the Hilton City Center Hotel in Milwaukee. The morning keynote was given by Young Kim, the executive director of Fondy Food Center and Outpost Owner of the year in 2013.

While we didn’t plan it, our presentations could not have been better coordinated.

In his morning keynote, Young talked about how the rich food traditions and culinary skills in the neighborhoods that surround Fondy Market were revealed to him through the many years of working in the community.

My presentation was about how societal narratives provide shortcuts for us to understand the world and even well-meaning attempts to advance a social good may groove negative narratives.

For example, we all know the story about how low-income neighborhoods are food deserts, which suggest that they are barren wastelands of fresh, good, or any food and that they require outside organizations to come in and help with education.

But the reality is that in many of these so-called “food deserts,” food itself and culinary traditions are a community asset. You don’t need to teach food preservation to people who are buying collard greens by the garbage bag at Fondy Farmers Market and having parties to clean, blanch, and freeze them so that they have fresh greens through the winter. You don’t have to teach cooking classes to community members who have world class barbecue recipes.

Yes, many of these communities may not have a full-service supermarket but just because they lack a market doesn’t mean that the families that live there don’t have a rich food culture. Similarly, just building a supermarket in a low-income community doesn’t solve the raft of social-economic issues and systemic barriers to opportunity that many low-income communities face.

As a term, “food desert” has captured the imagination and snuck into the vernacular because it describes a complex societal problem simply but applied broadly, it disregards the many positive aspects of food culture in these communities. Overall, this has a disempowering effect. As Young shared in his presentation, he has stopped using the term.

In my work, I’ve stopped using words like “hungry,” “vulnerable,” or “struggling” to describe the people who need food assistance. Not only do these terms create social separation, they’re also not particularly accurate since many of the families I’ve met are not “vulnerable,” but rather extremely resilient in the face of persistent challenges like having to work multiple low-wage jobs, living with health issues while not having insurance, and not having the time or resources to cook the healthy meals they know their families need. 

The stories we tell and the words we use to tell them are important as they affect how we think about the people and the communities in which they live.

I am proud that Outpost is taking the time to continue to learn about food access issues in the central city from community partners like Walnut Way and Fondy Food Center. This process will provide us with the community-driven insights and perspectives that will help us understand what the community wants rather than what we think the community needs.

David Lee

Outpost Board Director


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