me I didn’t live in the best neighborhood growing up as a young black man. Decades have passed, but I still vividly remember the days of emptying my piggy bank and walking 15 minutes to McDonald’s for my regular $1 McChicken lunch. When food was scarce at home and my single mom was working her weekend shift, this was my standard practice. The second closest place to get any food or snacks was the corner liquor store, but a 13-year-old was discouraged from entering.
Getting to grocery stores for what my family called “good food” wasn’t impossible, but given the distance, those trips were sporadic. So what groceries made get were meant to last as long as possible, which means plenty of packaged, shelf-stable food. On days when the supply was running low, well, McChickens were plentiful.
I never really knew this situation was abnormal, and I certainly didn’t know it had a name, until I started my undergraduate degree in nutrition and dietetics. It was just then that I learned that I had spent my childhood living in what is commonly known as a “food desert.” As I have learned more about the racial and social climate of the United States (especially in recent years), I have come to believe that a name change is sorely needed. These are not food deserts, these are American apartheids.
What is a food desert?
Before we launch into the field of a change in the way we label these areas, let’s briefly cover what a food desert currently means. “As a dietitian, I was taught to define a ‘food desert’ as any area that did not have easy access to a grocery store, usually within a defined range such as ‘within two miles’ or ‘along a transportation route. public,'” says Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, LD, of Street Smart Nutrition. Basically, for people who live in these areas without access to transportation, getting fresh food or viable groceries is a challenge, almost like being deserted.
You may have also heard of the term “food swamps.” Its meaning is similar in the sense that there is access to some food, but can be much lower in nutritional quality compared to what you find in a supermarket. “Food swamps speak to neighborhoods with more convenience stores or bodegas than full-service supermarkets,” says Harbstreet.
Harbstreet’s point brings me to the demographic factor: Areas known as food deserts and food swamps are overwhelmingly occupied by minority groups, particularly African Americans, of low socioeconomic status. In households with little money and easy access to food that is usually fast food or any energy snack that can be found at the nearest gas station, it is not surprising that the nutritional status of this population is poor.
Hopefully, what’s more Not surprisingly, telling these people to “try harder” or “put their health first” does little to remedy the problem. “If someone has two or more jobs, we can’t just tell them to travel to get food,” says Shana Minei Spence, MS, RDN, CDN, an anti-diet and weight-inclusive dietitian who works in public health. “If someone is already struggling to put food on the table, the fact that traveling costs money will be the most important thing.”
Why “food apartheid” is the most accurate term
These unrealistic “just work harder” suggestions probably sound familiar to many minority communities, who are repeatedly told to get their act together if they want equality, not only in access to fresh food and water, but also in housing, social image and income. This is another form of oppression towards these marginalized groups, and that is why “food apartheids”, instead of “food deserts”, is a phrase that sounds more like justice.
Unlike actual deserts in Nevada or swamps in Florida, the phenomena we call “food deserts” and “food swamps” do not occur naturally.
After the Great Depression, the New Deal was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to “restore prosperity to Americans.” Well, those Americans didn’t seem to include black Americans. That’s because the New Deal made housing more affordable than ever, but almost all the houses were being built in the all-white suburbs. Additionally, home loans became notoriously difficult for black Americans to obtain compared to white Americans. Thus, the red line practice of refusing to insure mortgages in and around black neighborhoods was in full effect. The Red Line was so named because actual red lines would be drawn on maps to mark African-American neighborhoods as “dangerous.”
As a result, most minority groups were banished to less attractive parts of the city and in poor housing, making major supermarket chains unattractive to build their locations in these areas. Why poor neighborhoods are rich in liquor and corner stores is unclear, with many activists believing they were planted there to deliberately poison specific ethnic populations with alcohol, processed snacks, and low-quality food. However, the discriminatory practices of how neighborhoods have been historically structured are likely to blame. In fact, the prevalence of liquor stores in minority and low-income neighborhoods cannot be explained by supply and demand, as African American and Latinx communities report lower rates of alcohol consumption than whites. Studies have found that these stores tend to be located in areas with low retail rents that are also areas inhabited by poorer minority residents. These different land values can be easily explained by the aforementioned red line practices.
It’s maddening that this information isn’t being taught or more widely known, and this lack of awareness feeds into the deep-seated beliefs of some white Americans that minorities who have crappy houses and even crappy diets are that way because of a lack of fortitude. . “It is implied that the responsibility lies with the community and not with established systems. People very incorrectly assume that people in low-income areas, which are mostly communities of color, want the overcrowding of fast food restaurants and want more convenience stores. This is simply not true,” says Spence.
The institutionalized racism that gave rise to food apartheids has produced a health crisis among these communities. As Jesse Lunsford, RDN, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition at Metropolitan State University of Denver, says: “Our food system is directly tied to profits, which necessarily requires companies to drive costs while raising prices. Nowhere in that equation is suitability for human health considered.” Healthy foods, such as fresh produce and dairy products, lean meats, and whole grains, are often too expensive for low-income populations. Even if they manage to get out of their food apartheid to do their shopping, the impossible dream of having a “healthy diet” is still out of reach. The conventional, upper-class way of eating for health is touted as rich in foods like seafood, quinoa, exclusively organic produce, naturally sweetened beverages, and grass-fed meat.
For minority populations who can’t afford to eat this way every day (and whose cultural foods aren’t included in Western conversations about “healthy eating”), it breeds despair of ever achieving a healthy diet. Thus, the easiest option is to eat what is closest and cheapest. “There is nothing about being black that makes someone more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than a white person, yet the rates are higher in black Americans than white Americans,” says Dr. Lunsford. “Race is not really a risk factor, but rather a correlation with systemic outcomes.” Black communities are disproportionately more likely to develop nutrition-related chronic diseases, and given their government-mandated food situation, it’s not difficult see why.
All of this brings us back to why “food apartheid” is a more accurate description of these communities than “food desert.” According to the dictionary definition, an apartheid is “a long-standing policy of political, social and economic segregation and discrimination against the non-white majority in the Republic of South Africa”. But apartheids are not just policies associated with South Africa. The word “apartheid” is more valid because it encompasses everybody of the factors that produced the so-called food deserts: segregation, real estate discrimination and the economic depreciation of the value of land in black neighborhoods. And did any of the above occur naturally, like a desert does? Absolutely not.
Taking steps towards a more equitable future
So what can we do to move towards universal food sovereignty? Well, the aforementioned language shift around “food deserts” is an easy first step. “I think words are important in public health, and maybe ‘apartheid’ is harder to ignore than ‘desert’ or ‘swamp,’” says Dr. Lunsford. That’s exactly the goal: to turn this problem into something you can’t ignore.
Just as food deserts did not simply appear as a natural phenomenon, the marginalized communities that live in them were not placed there, but rather institutionalized racism. Therefore, it is the responsibility of these institutions, not the groups oppressed by them, to improve the situation. “I can’t stress enough that people need to pay attention to what’s going on in their communities with local officials and projects,” says Spence. “We pay attention during most of our federal elections, but it is the local officials who have something to say. in areas and can really make a change.
All Americans must make us aware that these food apartheids much they exist, and they have existed right here in our own communities. However, if you are insulated from the effects of apartheid, it is easy for them to go unnoticed and therefore unaltered.
The impact that poverty and race have on health is the reason I became a dietitian. I saw so many members of my African-American family deteriorate from type 2 diabetes and heart disease due to a lack of nutrition education and other resources to support a healthy lifestyle. It is almost galling to know that these difficulties have been mostly a residual result of policies created by the very agencies that are supposed to protect our freedoms and our lives.
Calling food deserts food apartheids in the future may roll eyes and make others cringe at first. It’s certainly uncomfortable, but we never achieve change in this country by settling into complacency. Discontent, despite being an unavoidable source of social discourse for any change in human rights, is vital for the populations it affects. So let’s start by getting comfortable with the term “food apartheid”, so that we can realize the hopes of ending it.