War & Peas: What do food deserts really mean?

Baltimore says 25 percent of the city is a food desert. But what does that mean?

When Greg Vetter's company hosted a free pop-up farmers market in Chicago earlier this year, a little boy, probably 4 or 5 years old, came up to him and said, "This apple tastes like chips!" Confused, Vetter said, "Like chips?" As Vetter recalls, the boy responded, "Yeah, it's really crunchy like chips. Usually the apples we taste are completely mushy and don't taste good."

"And you're just like, oh my, oh my god, this kid is fiveyears old and he's never had a crisp apple before? Are you kidding me?" Vetter said.

Vetter told me this story as we were discussing Crop Circles, an initiative from Tessemae's All Natural, his condiments company based in Essex, to help populations that live in food deserts by giving them free produce. The idea that children in these areas had never had fresh fruit before is for Vetter, "numero uno, it's like, let's show them what really great produce tastes like," he said. Food deserts are geographical areas that don't have healthy food, such as fruits and vegetables, available for purchase. Various studies show that food deserts tend to be located in areas with high African-American populations, and, according to a June 2015 report by Johns Hopkins University, the Baltimore food deserts have "higher rates of diseases linked to unhealthy diets, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes."

After my conversation with Vetter about Crop Circles, I went in search of some research on food deserts, but it's surprisingly difficult to pin down what the precise definition of a food desert is and what the effects of it are. Different studies use different distances and metrics to decide how far is too far for impoverished populations to travel for fresh food. This summer, Baltimore City and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future released a report on food deserts in the city, using its own special criteria for defining a food desert: an area where a supermarket (or alternative, such as Lexington Market) was more than a quarter-mile away, where the median income is well below the poverty level, where more than a third of households don't have a car, and where the overall score of healthy food availability is low. Using those criteria, the report said that 25 percent of the city population, and 34 percent of the city's African-American residents, live in a food desert.

But it's still unclear what living in a food desert actually means. A 2005 study found that there's no statistically significant correlation between living in a food desert and the amount of fruits and vegetables that someone eats. As I mentioned above, areas that are considered food deserts have higher rates of diseases that doctors link to diets, but that doesn't mean that there's a causal link between having a grocery store around the corner and the likelihood that you'll get diabetes. There are plenty of other factors in play—environmental factors, the stress of living in high-poverty, high-crime areas, or the sheer economics of having the time and money to purchase and prepare a whole bunch of vegetables for dinner. Celery might be cheap, but you need to buy a whole lot more than just celery to have a meal and invest time into preparing that food, whereas you can get a cheap meal from Hip Hop Fish & Chicken and eat it the second you buy it, no food prep necessary.

Plus, as a 2010 paper in the Journal of Applied Social Science argues, geographic distance isn't the only factor that plays into shopping habits. There might be a supermarket that's farther away but that's easily accessible by bus or light rail, for instance, or people might go to a store that's far away because they like it more than the stores that are located near them.

While ensuring access to fresh food is a just cause, the focus on food deserts can often lead to questionable policies. Last year, Vann R. Newkirk II wrote an article for Gawker about the squishy rhetoric around "food justice" in Washington, D.C. and argued that the push for better corporate grocery stores in neighborhoods often meant making food unaffordable for the low-income people who lived in those neighborhoods. He quotes Betsy Breyer, a researcher from Portland State University, as saying, "I don't think the [food deserts] idea captures the full spectrum of food access possibilities and problems in poor communities." Here in Baltimore, the planned overhaul for Lexington Market involves pushing out prepared-food vendors in favor of more fresh foods—but there's already affordable produce available in Lexington Market, and the decision to force out less-healthy prepared-food stands has an implied undertone of controlling what food poor people can eat by taking away their options, instead of addressing the economic or social factors that are causing them to prefer high-calorie, unhealthy foods.

But while the big-picture policies around food deserts are being sorted out, some advocates are stepping into the vacuum with immediate action. Crop Circles held an event on Nov. 21 at New Hope Academy where an estimated 5,000 people showed up, and Tessemae's All Natural and its partners gave away about 25,000 pounds of free produce. In the days ahead, Vetter plans to develop more long-term models for food access through partnerships with the affected communities. For now, drawing attention to the problem, exploring solutions, and offering a kid a fresh apple are good starting points for a grander vision.

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