Brandy Brooks of The Food Project just tweeted that she is “officially over the term ‘food desert.’ It prioritizes large corporate grocers and fails to value assets in low-income communities.”
As she did all weekend at the Food and the City conference, Brooks made me think. Like many in the food awareness, innovation, and justice space, I latch onto jargon willingly. In fact, I look for it as it’s often the passcode to getting a chair in certain conversations – to proving that you’re up to speed on the new, new news.
But the more I hear the words food desert, the more I grimace when uttering them. It’s an uncomfortable term. Why? Because ‘desert’ implies a place barren, unfertile, helpless, hopeless – in many senses, dead. This is not the sort of lens or attitude that any of us – least of all people living in food access challenged areas – need to be adopting.
Reflecting on Brooks’s assertion sent me back to an encounter I had in the Cheltenham ShopRite last month. Cheryl Kiser, Executive Director of the Lewis Institute for Social Innovation at Babson College, and I were visiting Babson alum and grocer-pioneer Jeffrey Brown and team to see his radical, abundant retail model for serving low-income, multicultural communities.
We were standing by the chicken chops case. (Brown invented the ‘chicken chop’ as a leaner, more affordable alternative to the pork chop. Brown has invented many things. It is not going too far to say that his stores are miracles.) Just as Brown was explaining their rapid ‘chicken chop’ adoption rate, a shopper excused herself to break through our herd and grab herself a pack.
“These are really good,” she informed us, and then launched into an explanation of several ways that you can cook them, and which ways her family prefers.
As Kiser likes to say “never underestimate the power of a good conversation.” This conversation was brief, but spoke volumes.
Often unintended, but no less harmful, is the notion pervading much of the ‘food desert’ conversation and planning: that “those people” who live in “those places” don’t know or care about good food. That they don’t want variety and abundance and choice and health and the cultural and familial connections that come through the cooking and sharing of meals. This line of thinking is offensive, degrading, and patently untrue.
Insiders (community members, community organizers, some food access non-profits) know that. Outsiders have major catching up to do. If they fail to challenge this assumption, they block the very objective they are seeking to achieve.
You can say my sample size is lacking – that I can’t draw any real conclusions from it. But when addressing problems embedded within complex systems, every piece of reliable data starts with a specific case – a specific person and/or set of circumstances in a specific context.
Many of our ‘market sensing’ misfires stem from lumping disparate data points together as uniform. In a complex challenge space like urban food access, there isn’t one variable and a handful of constants. Every factor is a variable.
What’s required is specificity – not generality. Talking about ‘food deserts’ in aggregate presumes that there’s a single answer across the board – and implies that this one-size-fits-all heroic solution will come from outside.
Realized or not, this line of thinking is the antithesis of empowerment. It suggests, “You guys don’t know what you need or want. I’ve done the research. Listen to me.”
Jeffrey Brown understands this. Each of his eleven ShopRite stores has its own unique taste profile – one that reflects the preferences and needs of the customers using that particular store. How does Brown design a taste profile? He talks to his customers. Every day, all day. Imagine that!
“What Jeff has been able to create is not an oasis in a desert,” Kiser reflected on our experience at Cheltenham. “But a place of abundance in an area otherwise limited by forced and pre-determined choices. He blew open faulty notions of what low-income communities want.”
Jeff Brown is the exception. Looking across a landscape of financial bubbles, political stalemates, and revolutions, I can’t help but wonder if some of our points-of-view aren’t painfully outdated.
We remain a tribal species- largely preferring to stick to our packs – to the people who see things ‘our way.’ However, if we really want to influence change, the bravest, most useful thing any of us can do is crack open our thinking:
As Amory Lovins coaches, Wonder in the Bewilderness.
As Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods advises, “Travel.”
As Paul McManus of Boston University’s Sustainable Neighborhood Lab recommends: “Listen first. Then take action. The talking part comes last.”
We must invite others to call us on our blind spots. They may ask us to return the favor.
Food desert is a disspiriting descriptor. It presumes that the Other has less food intelligence, desire, and conviction than We.
This is rude.
It’s also wrong.