‘Food desert’ vs. ‘food apartheid’: Which term best describes disparities in food access?
In recent years, there has been some debate on whether the term “food desert” or “food apartheid” is more accurate when discussing disparities in access to nutritious food across socioeconomic backgrounds. Food desert is commonly used to describe areas lacking access to affordable and healthful foods. Language can be a powerful tool in advocacy and social change; thus, we must use our words wisely. When you hear the term food desert, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Like many, when I hear “food desert,” I think of a desert ecosystem with a vast, arid landscape and little to no vegetation. The physical conditions creating a desert ecosystem are natural, whereas food deserts result from historical injustices that have perpetuated inequities within our food system. So why is the term food desert adequate to describe the disparities in access to affordable and healthful food in low-income communities and communities of color?
What is a Food Desert?
The Food Empowerment Project defines food deserts as “geographic areas where residents’ access to affordable, healthy food options (especially fresh fruits and vegetables) is restricted or nonexistent due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient traveling distance.”
Food desert maps, such as the Food Access Research Atlas, have been used to measure the distance to a grocery store from a particular geographic area along with transit lines to address accessibility. A blog posted by the University of Texas Austin Campus Environmental Center points out that solutions to food deserts tend to focus on increasing transit access or establishing “pop-up” markets, which reduce the lack of food to a problem of access or inaccessibility. However, the problem goes deeper than mere accessibility, and real solutions must focus on social, economic, and restorative justice.
Some have found the term food desert inaccurate due to its oversimplification, attributing food insecurity to the mere accessibility of supermarkets and its failure to acknowledge the intersectional inequalities, such as race and income, that lead to inequitable food systems. For example, studies have shown that as poverty rates increase, supermarket availability decreases, and the availability of small convenience stores and fast-food options with limited healthful food options increase (Bower et al., 2013). Furthermore, when comparing communities with equal levels of poverty, Black and Latinx communities had the least number of supermarkets, while white communities had the most (Bower et al., 2013; Myers & McCormick, 2017). Consequently, limited access to supermarkets impedes accessibility to healthy foods, leading to racial and ethnic disparities in the rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes (Bower et al., 2013).
In addition, research has shown that discriminatory planning and policies have mapped the patterns of food insecurity in the United States. A study conducted by Shaker et al. (2022) examined the connection between redlining and food access today in the U.S. They found that after nearly a century of disinvestment, historically redlined neighborhoods had limited food access, suggesting that systemic inequalities based on racism, housing discrimination, and displacement may lead to disparities in food security in the U.S.
Moreover, conceptualizing food insecurity as a problem of access in a particular geographic area fails to address economic injustices within our food system. Caroline George and Adie Tomer touch on this in their article, “Beyond ‘food deserts’: America needs a new approach to mapping food insecurity,” stating that “even with perfect, universal access to food retailers, millions of Americans would not be able to afford enough food, or enough of the kinds of food, to meet their household’s needs.” In addition, George and Tomer emphasize that low-income households spend less than a third of what high-income households spend on food each year, but food expenditures account for a disproportionate share of their disposable income. This leads to communities being burdened with deciding whether to spend money on food or other essential expenses such as heating and cooling (George & Tomer, 2021).
Furthermore, critics maintain that the term food desert is harmful. Karen Washington emphasizes that it is an “outsider term” that makes us think of an “empty, absolutely desolate place…but there is so much life, vibrancy, and potential in these communities.” Ashanté M. Reese touches on this as well in her book “Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-reliance, and Food Access in Washington D.C.,” emphasizing that the term food desert “frames residents’ lack of knowledge or will to access or eat healthier foods rather than locating the deficiencies in the ways white supremacy has shaped neighborhood food spaces.” The term food desert may also unintentionally stigmatize communities as lacking without acknowledging community resilience and agency.
While the term food desert has garnered much attention and activism toward equitable food access, it fails to address the underlying systemic causes of inequities within our food system. Because of this, many food justice scholars and activists are encouraging us to ditch the term food desert.
What is Food Apartheid?
Many activists argue that food apartheid better reflects the structural injustices and disparities in food access faced by low-income communities and communities of color. The term apartheid refers to racial segregation that was enforced by law in South Africa from 1948 to 1994, and its use underscores that similar systems of oppression are responsible for food insecurity. Karen Washington, food justice advocate, organizer, and author, first coined the term food apartheid to draw attention to the “root causes of inequity in our food system based on race, class, and geography.” Washington emphasizes that “healthy, fresh food is accessible in wealthy neighborhoods while unhealthy food abounds in poor neighborhoods… Food apartheid underscores that this results from decades of discriminatory planning and policy decisions.” By applying this term to inequitable food access, it draws attention to the intentional actions and policies that have created and continue to perpetuate inequities. It also emphasizes that food insecurity isn’t just a result of geographic location but instead, it is deeply entrenched in historical, political, social, and economic systems. By understanding that food apartheid (not deserts) results from systemic injustices, we can better develop long-lasting solutions.
As stated at the beginning of this post, language can be a powerful tool in resistance and social change. Therefore, it is critical that we are intentional with the words we use. Many contemporary food justice scholars, advocates, and communities find the term food desert inaccurate, misleading, and harmful. Instead, they advocate for the use of food apartheid because of its ability to address the underlying systems of oppression that have led to the disparities in food security. Whether you add food apartheid to your vocabulary is entirely up to you. However, I urge you to reflect on the context in which you may use the term food desert and the weight that it carries.