The Myth of The Food Desert: Where The Root Went Wrong

The Myth of The Food Desert: Where The Root Went Wrong

For the life of me, I cannot understand this.

Let me back track. John McWhorter, described by almost everyone I asked as “a conservative,” wrote the following for The Root:

Specifically, we are taught to think that the black obesity problem is in large part a matter of societal injustice. The story goes that the rise in obesity among the poor is due to a paucity of supermarkets in inner-city areas. This factoid has quite a hold on the general conversation about health issues and the poor, for two reasons. One is that it sits easily in the memory. The other is that it corresponds to our sense that poor people’s problems are not their fault — which quite often they are not — and that reversing the problem will require undoing said injustice.

The trouble is that it is impossible to truly see a causal relationship between inner-city obesity and the distance of the supermarket when you live, for example, in New York.

Fairway has been thriving in West Harlem for 15 years, with gorgeous, accessibly priced produce practically spilling out onto the sidewalk. Plenty of local black people shop in it. It’s a walk away for many, and for others, there is even a shuttle service. It is not inaccessible to poor blacks and Latinos in any way.

Yet obesity is still rife in West Harlem, including among teenagers raised on food bought there, in a way that it is not in Greenwich Village. Throughout the city, there are supermarkets amply stocked with fresh produce priced modestly, in struggling neighborhoods where the average weight of people is distinctly higher than on the Upper East Side.

Another example: It was one thing to read four years ago about the Healthy Bodegas Initiative, which stocked bodegas in Harlem, the Bronx and Brooklyn with fresh produce and low-fat milk. The idea was that people for whom these bodegas are their closest source of food would be healthier if they could buy fresher and less fatty food there. But it was another thing to follow up on the results (pdf). After two years, only one in four stores reported people buying more vegetables, and one in three reported people buying more fruit.

The no-supermarket paradigm discourages us from considering that human beings acquire — through childhood experience, cultural preferences and economics — a palate. Note that the economy is part of the equation: The cheapness of sugary drinks is notorious, thanks to the popularity and influence of the muckraking 2008 documentary Food, Inc. and Eric Schlosser’s best-selling book Fast Food Nation, which was made into a movie in 2006.

Culture, too, creates a palate — and to point that out is not to find “fault.” Example: Slavery and sharecropping didn’t make healthy eating easy for black people back in the day. Salt and grease were what they had, and Southern blacks brought their culinary tastes North (Zora Neale Hurston used to bless her friend Langston Hughes with fried-chicken dinners). Fried food, such as fried chicken, was also easy to transport for blacks traveling in the days of Jim Crow, when bringing your own food on the road was a wise decision.

But that did help create what has lived on as a palate even after the circumstances that created it have changed. That happens with all human beings, as with CDs, designed to be round like LPs. Someone raised on fruity drinks and fried food is as likely to prefer them permanently — even if Fairway is down the street — as someone raised on pita bread and hummus will eat that way forever. I was raised on a cuisine stamped by, if not centered on, the salty realm, and I alternate eternally between resisting and parsimoniously indulging that taste for grease.

All of which is to say that our take on the obesity issue at hand cannot be that sugary and high-fat food is always the only food that is available to poor people within walking distance. It simply isn’t true. If we assume that the next step from the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act will be to make sure all poor people live three blocks or fewer from a supermarket, we will see a problem continue.

Rather, there are habits that people of all walks of life develop for any number of reasons, on which they can be persuaded to pull back. We should focus more attention on getting the word out in struggling communities about ways to make tasty food that doesn’t kill you. With this book, for instance, you don’t miss real flavor — pass it on.

But let’s not fall for the idea that for poor black people and only poor black people, kale and apples being sold four blocks away are out of reach.

First and foremost, New Yorkers… I know y’all forget that there are like 50 other states to pay attention to (because y’all seem to forget that the rest of New York state is, in fact, New York State), but… we exist. And using one location – or even twenty locations – to define the causation of obesity and proclaim the “food desert” as a myth is gross negligence of the facts. (Just kidding, I love you guys. Don’t curse me out… please. My Southern sensibilities cannot take it.)

What is, in fact, a food desert?

The CDC defines a food desert as “areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet.”

I can specifically remember a time when I lived in a food desert, and the only food store nearby was a gas station. My daughter was on formula at the time, and I used to purchase that in bulk and have that shipped. For myself, though, it was whatever I could get at the store. A bag of chips for breakfast, a bag of chips for lunch, a bowl of ice cream for dinner. If I wanted to go to the grocery, I had to either beg one of my girls to take me or call a taxi. I eventually called the taxi and cut back on groceries so that I could afford the ride, but… it was a lonnng time before I came to that realization.

It made perfect sense, though, that the grocery stores would be on the other side of town from me. The area where I lived was wholly college students living on that good ol’ beer and pizza diet… as evidenced by the abundance of pizza joints, sub shops and drive-thru liquor stores. The stores that a young Mom like me needed… were at least two miles away. With no car, that was quite the struggle.

But if you think about it, isn’t that how Capitalism works? When there is a demand, the promise of profit guarantees that there will always be someone willing and able to jump in and fulfill that need, right? In my neighborhood, there was a high demand for pizza joints and liquor stores. That’s what the college kids wanted. I was the random weird outlier with an infant in a college apartment complex.

McWhorter says the following:

Culture, too, creates a palate — and to point that out is not to find “fault.” Example: Slavery and sharecropping didn’t make healthy eating easy for black people back in the day. Salt and grease were what they had, and Southern blacks brought their culinary tastes North (Zora Neale Hurston used to bless her friend Langston Hughes with fried-chicken dinners). Fried food, such as fried chicken, was also easy to transport for blacks traveling in the days of Jim Crow, when bringing your own food on the road was a wise decision.

Never mind the fact that I believe he pulled a vast percentage of that paragraph out of the sky… never mind the fact that I believe he doesn’t sees the irony in what he’s proffering. Let’s talk about the idea that he proposes, here. He’s saying that our culture creates a palate that, in essence, is devoid of fresh vegetables and healthy food. Our collective nutritional desires are just… something else.

So…. if you look at my example above with the college kids and the liquor/pizza stores… swap out “college kids” and put “Blacks,” swap out “liquor and pizza” and add in “soul food,” swap out “pizza joints and liquor stores” and add in “grocery stores”… how is it not the same damn thing? How does McWhorter’s rant not, in fact, justify the existence of food deserts by the virtues of Capitalism 101?

If the product is not desired in the community, who on Earth would bring it to the community anyway, knowing that a very large portion of their daily perishable products would go to waste? Who continues to offer a product that wouldn’t be purchased? What entrepreneur would refuse to sell a product that people want – read: junk food – just off of principle?

Could you imagine asking a store manager “Why don’t you have flaming hot ice cream?” and being told “I’m not selling that garbage in my store!” You might – might – be impressed by the resolve, but what else are you thinking? “Welp, gotta go take my business somewhere that sells what I want.” Every entrepreneur knows that. Sell what is wanted. Don’t waste money on what is not.

The very nature of Capitalism suggests that, by McWhorter’s definition, food deserts would have to exist because if a “hereditary slave palate” (my words, not his) controls the desires of the community, then the community is displaying an outward expression of what they do not want. That would place food deserts directly in the inner-city and any other Black epi-center by his definition. Ever notice how Whole Foods just happens to know where their business is wanted? Think about that for a minute.

McWhorter also says the following:

Another example: It was one thing to read four years ago about the Healthy Bodegas Initiative, which stocked bodegas in Harlem, the Bronx and Brooklyn with fresh produce and low-fat milk. The idea was that people for whom these bodegas are their closest source of food would be healthier if they could buy fresher and less fatty food there. But it was another thing to follow up on the results (pdf). After two years, only one in four stores reported people buying more vegetables, and one in three reported people buying more fruit.

I’m not surprised. Why? Because as myself and a bajillion other people with even an iota’s worth of insight into the real problem know… when healthier eating is not a priority, no change will occur. If you increase access without information… you’re basically still failing to instill a value system into people that encourages them to list “healthy eating” as a priority. You know how often I talk about the “Come to Fitness Moment?” That. That moment when you realize that you have to live this way if you want to live. Period. If a person doesn’t have that moment where their priorities and understanding of healthy living can shift, it doesn’t matter whether or not you increase their access to healthier food. They’re still not going to see any value in it. Teach the people why they should want this for themselves and a combination of curiosity, concern and peer pressure will handle the rest. (Perhaps not immediately, but indefinitely.)

…which brings me to my last point. The following:

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act appeals to us because its logic seems so clear: To make kids healthier, we change what is available for them to eat. However, we can’t help but wonder: What about what children eat when they’re not at school? Conventional wisdom has it that changing kids’ evening and weekend eating habits will also be a matter of changing their environment.

Providing these children with access to healthier food in conjunction with teaching them about vegetables ensures that the fruits and vegetables are not a foreign substance to them. It ensures that they don’t go their entire lives not knowing what a radish looks like. It ensures that they can, at the bare minimum, develop a palate that doesn’t completely shut out veggies because they’re not sweet, or fruits because they’re “too hard to eat.” (Read: “they’re harder to open than just pulling open a foil bag.)

So really, The Root… I’m just not impressed. If you want to be controversial, can you make sure that your writers don’t, in a roundabout way, validate the very concept they’re trying to proclaim as a myth? People like me – who know food deserts are a very real and serious matter, and are working damned hard to try to convince people that they should want healthy food, thereby increasing the demand for it and decreasing the number of food deserts – would greatly appreciate it.

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By | 2017-06-10T11:44:14+00:00 July 1st, 2014|The Op-Eds|15 Comments

About the Author:

The proud leader of the #bgg2wlarmy, Erika Nicole Kendall writes food and fitness, body image and beauty, and more here at #bgg2wl. After losing over 150lbs, Kendall became a personal trainer certified in fitness nutrition, women's fitness, and weight loss by the National Academy of Sports Medicine. She is also certified in sports nutrition by Precision Nutrition. She now lives in New York with her husband and children, and is working on her 6th and 7th certifications because she likes having alphabet soup at the end of her name.

15 Comments

  1. Rebecca December 20, 2010 at 1:33 PM - Reply

    Oh my God, tabernacle.

  2. dstdiva498 December 20, 2010 at 1:35 PM - Reply

    I generally disagree with everything McWhorter says. He is a linguist by training but insists on commenting on issues and topics for which he has no training and expertise. I would probably even disagree with much that he has to say about “Creole” languages because his general disposition is one of a self-hating “Black” man. He is a favorite of conservating, racist Whites and he never disappoints. Sadly, he has positioned himself to be our generations Clarence Thomas. In the vernacular, I would tell him to go sit his ass down somewhere and shut tha fugg up!

  3. leandread December 20, 2010 at 2:03 PM - Reply

    So…I discovered this blog about a week ago and spent the ENTIRE weekend engrossed. And today, I have to comment.
    Read article…
    finished..

    *seated clapping*
    *standing to an ovation*
    Truth is truth is truth.

  4. Inkognegro December 20, 2010 at 2:10 PM - Reply

    This isn’t just about McWhorter, although he has made a living writing about stuff he knows NOTHING ABOUT.

    I have been reading McWhorter for 5 yrs at least and I don’t even know for sure if he KNOWS anything about Linguistics FOR REAL.

    But he STAYS talking about every dadgum thing else.

  5. Sha_sha December 20, 2010 at 3:30 PM - Reply

    “I know y’all forget that there are like 50 other states to pay attention to (because y’all seem to forget that the rest of New York state is, in fact, New York State), but… we exist”

    Is so right! The first thing I learned in my 1st marketing class in college was the fact that NYC is not the U.S. I live in NYC, so I really don’t understand why he would pick a place like Harlem when there really isnt a place like Harlem in say GA, TX and so on. Im not hating on other states. lol Im just saying a place that busy.

    And I know for a fact if I was to walk from someones house in harlem to fairway I would past about 6 bodegas and 3 McDonalds.

  6. Rae @ Rainbows and Dragonflies December 20, 2010 at 3:42 PM - Reply

    Wow, there are NO food deserts, REALLY? I need for dude to step outside of his bubble for like 5 minutes. I currently live outside of DC and it’s a known fact that in Ward 8, one of the poorer areas, there were NO major grocery chains from 1998 to 2007!!!! And honestly the stores are only coming back because of gentrification.

  7. Curlstar December 20, 2010 at 6:07 PM - Reply

    This dude needs to make a visit to Benning Heights and Lincoln Heights in southeast DC…

  8. KT December 21, 2010 at 12:17 PM - Reply

    I just had to stop reading The Root. They are a bunch of imposters – they’re basically TMZ writers posing as black intellectuals.

  9. s December 22, 2010 at 9:38 PM - Reply

    can i just say, YES! i love how you took down mcwhorter’s specious claim about there being no food deserts piece by piece. people need education and most importantly PHYSICAL ACCESS to healthy, fresh food or we are not going to see the health problems borne of solely eating processed foods abate.

    and as a born and bred new yorker, can i just reply, new york ISN’T the entire country? thanks for informing me. ;- ) but i do think, unlike myopic mcwhorter, that it’s the perfect microcosm of the food desert conundrum , when you consider the lack of access to fresh groceries uptown in comparison to the abundance and variety of groceries downtown.

  10. Eva January 7, 2011 at 2:45 PM - Reply

    What the heck is he talking about? There are food deserts IN NYC; look at The Bronx, there are plenty of food deserts there and BTW, you can’t shop in Fairway on 125th street unless you have A CAR.

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