Background image of This mural, in North Portland's Village Market, was painted by neighbors and community organizers who collaborated on the plans and vision for a vibrant small-scale grocery store offering healthy foods to an underserved neighborhood. It sits above a vegetable case full of fresh produce. The image shows three flowers in bloom.


Say good-bye to “food deserts”

Originally published in the winter issue of Edible Portland as a companion piece to a story on the revival of a rural grocery store, this sidebar stirred up a heated exchange about the term "Food Desert" among local food systems advocates through a Tufts University-based listserv. It's clear that the local food movement isn't on the same page on the topic, and the debate continues to simmer.


Well-meaning food system advocates are interested in healthy, fresh, affordable food for the people who need it most.

Increasingly, they use the term “food deserts” to describe the places that are low in grocery stores but often high in fast-food restaurants and convenience stores. But while this catchy term has certainly raised the profile of the issue, it has also, perhaps unintentionally, distracted us from the real solution.

Specifically, the term has been wielded by the U.S. government to help subsidize corporate grocery chains in low-income neighborhoods by easing permit requirements or offering tax breaks. In 2011, First Lady Michelle Obama, flanked by executives from Walmart, Supervalu and Walgreens, pledged to open or expand 1,500 megastores in food deserts as part of her Let’s Move! campaign.

LaDonna Redmond, a community organizer based in Minneapolis who recently launched the Campaign for Food Justice Now, points out the danger of the food desert philosophy: It obscures the underlying problems of poverty and hunger.

“The term masks the real harm of the U.S. corporate-controlled food system by suppressing the ability of community entrepreneurs to develop and finance scalable community solutions,” Redmond says.

According to the White House, opening grocery megastores would result in both increased food access and new jobs. But research, specifically in urban areas, has shown that Walmart has not created a net job gain or a net wage gain.

And to date, the promise Obama and food executives made has been largely unfulfilled. There aren’t 1,500 new megastores in marginalized communities, because even with steep subsidies, it doesn’t pencil.

Redmond has witnessed through her own work building community grocery stores and gardens on Chicago’s South Side that collaborations that encourage and leverage community resources have the greatest potential to create long-lasting food security and economic vitality. And addressing the entangled issues of race, class, poverty and health is key to creating real opportunity for people.

Currently, Multnomah County is giving grants to convenience stores that sell fresh produce; the Portland Development Commission is helping launch the Portland Mercado, a Latino-themed public market at Southeast 72nd Avenue and Foster Road; and the city is exploring ways to support neighborhood farmers’ markets, buying clubs and pop-up groceries. It’s a more piecemeal approach, but it could have more cultural fluency and plant seeds that grow into solid, community-owned businesses.

“The trouble with the term ‘food deserts’ is that it describes lack in a way that indicates that the solution is outside of the community,” Redmond adds. The people who need the most support, but also have the most commitment, are the ones who live in the neighborhood.

READ MORE about community-based solutions in underserved neighborhoods and communities in the Winter Issue of Edible Portland:

Cornering the Market
The Buck Stops in Lostine
My Street Grocery: Portland’s Mobile Market
More stories in the Winter issue