Essay On Food Deserts

People are likely to eat what is convenient and affordable to them. For many U.S citizens, that means a quick drive to the nearest major grocer, which provides an abundance of fresh produce from all corners of the world at a reasonable price. For others, it means a leisurely walk down the block to a local market where they can stock up on fresh, local produce like apples, potatoes and healthy greens. However, for many unfortunate people the only accessible markets are small corner stores, liquor shops, and convenience stores that predominantly sell processed, fringe- foods that offer insufficient nutrients, and sell little-to-no fresh produce or dairy products. These areas that are void of fresh produce are often called “food deserts.”

A food desert is described as a geographical area where fresh produce is hard to obtain, particularly for those who do not have access to transportation. Because many of the people who live in food deserts commonly have unreliable transportation, they are forced to shop at convenient stores or eat at nearby fast-food restaurants due to their limited mobility and other options. Food deserts in this sense can often be attributed to lack of thought and design by urban planning agencies. “City planning agencies’ interest in food systems tends to be expressed fairly narrowly as a concern with the location of food services or their design. Planners have not paid much attention to food security as a social movement. (Wekerle, 379)

Food deserts are most often found in predominately minority and poverty stricken, urban neighborhoods. According to, “more than 23.5 million people live in a food desert.” They also touch on the fact that even though the statistic of 23.5 million people is frighteningly high, that number may be understated because the North American Industry Classification System categorizes small markets and convenience stores in the same class as major grocers even though the small stores predominantly sell packaged foods. Food Deserts Are a Wicked Problem

By definition, a wicked problem is a problem (usually a social or cultural problem) that is seemingly impossible to resolve “because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize.” Adding to the difficulty of solving a wicked problem is that there are often problems embedded inside of problems, intertwining issues, evolving problems, and complex interdependencies arise while attempting to solve the wicked problem that may create even more problems. Due to the embeddedness and interdependencies of wicked problems, there is no sure-fire, absolute way to solve one.

By nature, a food desert is a prime example of a wicked problem. It is a social problem that is difficult to solve because there are so many problems embedded within problems such as: poverty, no access to reliable transportation, poor urban design, and lack of regulation. Food deserts cause other social problems like obesity, diabetes, poor long-term health and crime, and when you try to solve the problem of food deserts you will recognize that there are many other intertwining issues such as: poor education, racism, deficient community support, and lack of social capital. Thomas Macias states that “as people disconnect from active lifestyles, nutritious food and the natural world, they become less healthy and community fabric becomes frayed,” which further extends the embeddedness of problems. (Macias, 1092) Essentially, food deserts cause a landslide effect of other serious dilemmas.

Though there is no, one way to solve the problem of food deserts, but they can be made more manageable by simplifying the problem and addressing its pieces. Collective Impact Many well-intentioned people who want to create social change focus on independent action or pair up with people who are like-minded in their workplace, school, or friendship circle to do so. This is also why they often fall short of reaching their desired goal, because, according to Kania and Kramer, “large scale social change requires broad, cross-sector coordination,” also known as Collective Impact.

By definition, “Collective Impact is the commitment of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem,” (Kania & Kramer, 2) which essentially means a diverse group of people comes together to solve a social problem. Of course people collaborating to solve a problem is not novel or new, but collective impact is a unique because the initiative “involve a centralized infrastructure, a dedicated staff, and a structured process that leads to a common agenda, shared measurement, continuous communication, and mutually reinforcing activities among all participants.” (Kania & Kramer, 2) Most importantly it focuses on bringing in a diverse group of community leaders together such as: local organizations, educators, students, community members, nonprofit organizations and government officials to create change, and they need to abandon their individual behaviors and agendas to do so.

Case Overview In an attempt to tame the wicked problem of food deserts, many citizens, educators, government officials and nonprofit organizations working together to create local food systems that are successfully growing in some of the worst food deserts in the US through community organizations such as: CSA’s, Farmer’s Markets, community gardens, and the opening of locally owned supermarkets, which also happens to bring together communities and build social capital! In what ways does addressing the problem of food deserts simultaneously building social capital within communities?

I plan to examine the wicked problem of food deserts and how they are being tamed by building local food systems in Detroit, while also building social capital, through the theoretical lens of Collective Impact. The Food Revolution of Detroit

Over the past few decades, Detroit’s once thriving automobile industry took a devastating hit due to globalization of the industry, and many of the local auto producers have moved their production jobs out of the city, leaving Detroit in a harsh state of urban decay. The city has been in severe economic decline and finally filed bankruptcy in 2013. Poverty and crime rates have skyrocketed, over 100,000 buildings and homes have been abandoned, and many Detroit citizens have little to no access to fresh food. Detroit has been labeled as one of the largest 10 food deserts in the US.

“Detroit is a 139 sq. mile city and has 40 sq. miles of vacant land.” (Taylor, Ard, 106) In recent years, Detroit citizens have collectively decided to take matters into their own hands, and have created well-organized operations to put that vacant land to use and begin to create their own, local-food system through large- scale urban farms and gardens, small community gardens, CSA’s, and Farmer’s Markets that have come to be enormously successful. In fact, the urban agriculture movement in Detroit has recently gained such momentum that “Detroit has become a national and international focal point for urban agriculture,” according to James Tolleson. (Tolleson, 45) Thomas Macias, a Detroit resident, adds “we are trying to reverse this cycle; reconnecting people food and nature to preserve natural resources, and create a roadmap to a secure food system and sustainable future.” (Macias, 1092)

Not only has Detroit’s local food revolution brought fresh produce to thousands of locals who were lacking proper nutrition, but also, according to Josh Sbicca, “the food justice movement is a budding social movement.” (Sbicca, 455) Detroit’s now thriving, local food system is bringing its community members together; people are bridging, bonding, and forming networks that are ultimately increasing the human, social capital in the city that was once withering away. Detroit’s Farmers’ Markets

One way Detroit is building its local food system while creating social capital is through Farmers’ Markets. With 20 or more major, functioning Farmers’ Markets scattered throughout the urban landscape, the people of Detroit are feeding each other fresh, local produce, while simultaneously forming relationships with their community members.

Farmers’ Markets are not just a place to grab nutritious, household food items; they have become a social hub that offer cooking demos, fitness classes and more, and are a popular place for other social events for people and families. According to J. O’Brien, author of the website titled Celebrating the Many benefits of Farmers’ Markets, “farmer’s markets have become an integral part of social structures. They provide an opportunity for farmers and neighbors to educate each other in nutrition, cooking and agriculture.” (O’Brien) Unlike a trip to the grocery store where you may only interact with one or two people over the time of your visit, a farmers’ market provides on average provides between 15-20 social interactions per visit. (O’Brien)

Farmer’s Markets provide a venue for neighbors to meet, as well as community members to meet the local farmers who are providing the food. Hinrichs, Gillespie, and Teenstra state “farmers’ markets afford intensive, period opportunities for vendors to interact directly both with their customers and with other vendors. They cultivate and generate knowledge” In Detroit, and many other cities around the world, Farmers’ Markets are providing a culturally rich, educational experience, linking community members, farmers and fresh ingredients while building social capital. Hinrichs, Gillespie, and Teenstra say “farmers’ markets are manifestations of new civic agriculture that sees community well being as attainable through local problem solving (31)

Data sourced from: “Celebrating the Many Benefits of Farmer’s Markets” (O’Brien) Strong social capital within a community is also needed for economic development. It is believed that cooperation is more effective in fostering economic activity than competition, and Farmers’ Markets provide the perfect avenue to create economic activity, as many farmers come together and cooperatively sell their produce at shared venues. (Lyons, 197) Detroit’s Urban Farms and Community Gardens

As mentioned previously, urban blight had previously left the city of Detroit with over 40 square miles of vacant land, but slow and steadily people are taking back the abandoned properties and putting the soil to use. The citizens of Detroit have moved the earth with their bare hands and turned the vacant fields into growing areas that now total 1400 + urban farms and community gardens. (Held) Besides growing the fresh, local produce that supplies the many Farmers’ Markets around the city, “these are places to learn, teach and spend quality time. (Held)

Urban Farms and Community Gardens, like Farmer’s Markets, serve as a gathering place for community members to come together for a purpose: to grow food, but it is also a “gathering place for the meeting of the minds, a place where history lessons and education about all things connected to life are shared.” (Held) By working as a team to grow a garden, members strengthen their social capital by forming networks, and it also provides an opportunity for marginalized community members to become a part of a group effort. This joint effort of growing food and making aesthetic changes to communities gives people a sense of empowerment that results in a sense of pride and care for the community, which leads us to an improved example of what being a part of a community means. “Community is no longer defined by place, but by the perception of connectedness.” (Melborne, Townsend, 527)

The shared enjoyment of the community garden forms close connections when friends partners and spouses work a plot together, which is called bonding, and the community garden also bridges new people together that may have never expected to meet before. “Although bridging and bonding appear to be distinct, they are hard to identify because members identify themselves as being similar in age, class and race, but are bridging because it provides an opportunity to meet people that they normally wouldn’t.” (Melbourne, Townsend, 531) Members of the garden increase social capital by learning about gardening and the natural world, learning about each other’s cultures while working side by side, may learn about new foods and how to prepare them; intergenerational learning may even occur. Community gardens are often managed by its members and “depend on a cohesive social network to organize and manage.” (Hancock, 279)

Urban Farms and Community Gardens in Detroit provide an opportunity for different community members to collectively try to solve the problem of lack of fresh food, while also coming together as a group, forming relationships, creating a more aesthetically pleasing neighborhood, and create a local, sustainable agricultural system.

Data collected from “Working Toward a Just, Equitable, and Local Food System: The Social Impact of Community Based Agriculture (Macias)