In the course of figuring out what’s going on with food deserts, several answers have been proposed at various times and diverse places — all of which seem to have some flaw. Sometimes they indicate an incomplete grasp of the problem, which can result from not asking the right questions or listening to the right people.
When the amount of available food is limited or perceived to be limited; or when the available food is nutritionally inadequate or even unsafe; or if people don’t have the opportunity to acquire a sufficient and dependable quantity of decent food, a food desert can be said to exist. Certain parameters are built in.
It doesn’t matter how much food might be available if people can’t afford to buy it. If they don’t have a way to bring the food from where it is to their homes, both availability and affordability are moot. A food desert condition might exist in several different ways.
In an urban center, there might be a sufficiency of pizza, while a pound of grass-fed beef is as rare as a unicorn. There could be several places in a single block to obtain gourmet cupcakes, with nary a carrot nor a grapefruit in sight. For a market to offer a bunch of grapes priced at more than someone’s entire monthly food stamp allotment is entirely within the realm of possibility.
In a complicated environment like the downtown area of a large city, there are a lot of moving parts, and a lot of ways to get the wrong impression. Superficial assessments won’t do.
But the city has buses and/or subways, right? People can get themselves to a store one way or another? Well, some can. As we established in a former post, there are plenty of exceptions.
Once the discussion turns to public transport, the question immediately arises: How do customers get to the bus stop, and how do they bring their heavy and awkward burdens back home? Is it worthwhile to call a cab? What if the taxicab company went out of business, and you don’t have a fancy phone with an app on it to call Uber or Lyft?
The experts concerned with such matters discuss a concept called the price-distance relationship. As “Redefining the Food Desert” article published in the Agriculture and Human Values journal explains:
As the distance to a food outlet rises, the total cost in terms of transportation and lost time rises also. The neighborhood bodega or fast-food outlet is likely to offer high-priced, low-nutrition foods, but the overall “price” is the same or lower than that offered by a distant supermarket that involves public transportation and a significant commitment of time…
Consequently, although nearby food retailers may be expensive and offer poor choices, residents may make the rational choice to secure food locally rather than devote scarce time and resources to the task of traveling to a supermarket outside their neighborhood.
Or, like the Spanish-speaking mothers of a Portland neighborhood, they might decide that saving close to 30 percent on food was worth the hassle of traveling. The economically disadvantaged expend a lot of energy weighing pros and cons. An hour on public transportation, or an extra $10 added to the grocery bill? People with adequate incomes tend to think that poor people’s time is not important, but it is to the individuals concerned, especially if they spend a lot of it in the freezing cold or the blazing sun waiting for buses.
That’s why gathering information on a human-to-human basis is crucial. Researchers can crunch elaborate streams of data and generate clever maps, but no amount of two-dimensional intellectualizing can depict the true situation on the ground. The report said, with dry understatement, that its analysis spotlighted “some challenges to the established means of identifying food deserts”:
More importantly, it is argued that the most straight-forward means by which city governments address food access issues — through the expanded availability of public transportation — may do little to solve the problem, as the opportunity cost to urban consumers of obtaining far away food remains too high.
What is the upshot of all this? The realization that, as “Redefining the Food Desert” states, “the monetary underpinnings of the food desert problem are not necessarily solvable through public transportation.” The conclusion drawn by the intellects behind this report was that “food must be brought back closer to residents of low-income neighborhoods if there is any expectation of a general improvement in diet and health.”
And that’s what the whole project is about — giving people the means and opportunity to buy, prepare, and eat fresh, wholesome food that will do their bodies more good than harm.
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