No Myths Here: Food Stamps, Food Deserts, and Food Scarcity

By Erika Nicole Kendall, cross-posted from A Black Girl’s Guide to Weight Loss

When I was about 5 or so, I used to go to my grandmother’s house during the day while my Mother went to work. I remember catching the bus and sleeping across my Mom’s lap until we got there, and then her hugging me and heading off to do whatever it was she did all day. (I was five. Clearly, I had no idea.)

Grandma was cool, but there was always a bajillion people at her house. She lived in the projects*, and spent a big portion of her day being “Mama”to everyone even though she was well into her 50s.

I remember, as a kid, how the big thing was for us to run across the street to the convenient store and get a Big Red pop and a bag of chips. All for $0.50. I mean, it was how we spent every afternoon. Because Grandma’s house was full of people, it was never hard for me to get a hold of two quarters – ahhh, two shiny, glorious quarters – so that I could be like the rest of the kids and sit in the middle of the grass and eat my funyuns or my munchos and my Big Red pop.

(I’m from the Midwest. We say pop, thank you very much.)

It wasn’t that I was Grandma’s favorite, but…. well, I was Grandma’s favorite. She invested a lot of time and effort into me. She taught me to read – she’d hand me the newspaper and make me read every page out loud – and she taught me how to be a little lady. She taught me how to love, as a young girl, because outside of that typical adoration that a young girl has for her mother, you learn that that thing that binds you to Grandma emotionally and you understand it even more so once she’s gone. That made her valuable.

However, I must admit. If there’s one thing I don’t remember, it’s going to a grocery store with Grandma. We just.. we never went together. At least, we didn’t go to a grocery store as I know a grocery store to be today. The only store I ever saw her go to was the convenient store across the street.

And now that I think about it, there’s a lot of things I don’t remember about that time with Grandma.

I don’t remember a lot of cooking going on. I don’t even know that I remember any fresh vegetables there. I mean, I remember my Great Grandma – my Grandma’s mother – having that gorgeous garden in her fenced-off backyard, but Grandma didn’t have that kind of backyard. The soil didn’t even have grass on it. It was just hard dirt. I know. I fell on it and scraped myself up a few times.

I guess that’s to be expected. It’s not like it was quality, “prime” real estate or anything. It’s not even like anyone cares to maintain the area. I guess.

I remember running to one particular house in the building in the back of the projects where the free lunch was given out. Bologna, milk, cheese, bread, and little mustard packets to dress the makeshift sandwiches. All the kids used to make a mad dash back there because they were always limited in how much they had and how many kids would be able to sit in there, and if you were last, you went hungry.

As a different woman today, I can acknowledge that that housing project community was a food desert. That even though Grandma was doing all she could to make sure I never went hungry, there was rarely a vegetable on the plate. Even though she meant very well and did the best that she could, I know I picked up a lot of bad habits from that time in my life.

In fact, it sounds a lot like this paragraph from the NYTimes blog:

Poor urban neighborhoods in America are often food deserts — places where it is difficult to find fresh food.   There are few grocery stores; people may do all their shopping at bodegas, where the only available produce and meat are canned peaches and Spam.  If they want fruits and vegetables and chicken and fish, they have to take a bus to a grocery store.   The lack of fresh food creates a vicious cycle; children grow up never seeing it or acquiring a taste for it.  It is one reason that the poor are likelier to be obese than the rich. [source]

When I hear people complain about the cost of fresh food and use this as an excuse to not eat it, it makes me think about those projects where so many people who were, actually, given money by the government to eat couldn’t even access the healthy food. My Grandma, while she might’ve been able to catch a bus to hit the grocery store, might’ve had difficulty doing this since she was the family babysitter. Her, four kids (one of them facing a mental disability), and countless bags with enough food to feed the numerous people that’d be in and out of her house to eat? On the bus? You’re joking, right?

Back to the point. All that food stamp money in the projects, and no fresh food in the area to spend it on.

Whenever we talk about problems with our food system, we often talk about access… and yeah, we might toss around the phrase “food desert,” but is that ever quantified? Are the ramifications of growing up in a food desert ever discussed? Do places like the Morris Brown projects ever come up for discussion? Or are they never mentioned because it’s assumed they don’t matter?

A while back, I wrote the following:

I can specifically remember a time when I lived in a food desert, and the only food store nearby was a gas station. My daughter was on formula at the time, and I used to purchase that in bulk and have that shipped. For myself, though, it was whatever I could get at the store. A bag of chips for breakfast, a bag of chips for lunch, a bowl of ice cream for dinner. If I wanted to go to the grocery, I had to either beg one of my girls to take me or call a taxi. I eventually called the taxi and cut back on groceries so that I could afford the ride, but… it was a lonnng time before I came to that realization.

It made perfect sense, though, that the grocery stores would be on the other side of town from me. The area where I lived was wholly college students living on that good ol’ beer and pizza diet… as evidenced by the abundance of pizza joints, sub shops and drive-thru liquor stores. The stores that a young Mom like me needed… were at least two miles away. With no car, that was quite the struggle.

But if you think about it, isn’t that how Capitalism works? When there is a demand, the promise of profit guarantees that there will always be someone willing and able to jump in and fulfill that need, right? In my neighborhood, there was a high demand for pizza joints and liquor stores. That’s what the college kids wanted. I was the random weird outlier with an infant in a college apartment complex.

The reason that food deserts exist is because it is assumed that the people in those geographic locations cannot afford the products that a fresh food-selling store would provide. This is also an automatic assumption of the projects, because the implication is “if these people had any money, they wouldn’t be living in the projects after all.”

That’s just how Capitalism works. Big C. Supply goes where the demand is located. If there’s no money, then clearly there’s no demand off which the investor can profit.

My question, really, is what do we gain from denying the realities of food deserts? How do we benefit from silencing the voices of the un-privileged? If we can identify that fresh food is expensive, why wouldn’t we want to hear from the people most affected by that? If we deny the fact that food deserts exist, you silence the input of those of us who have been affected by this problem the most. Those of us who have been on government assistance and live in still-impoverished areas offer up the critique of the system that says that the government is giving away money to be spent on the very things making us ill and preventing us from healing ourselves.

We also shoot ourselves in our collective feet when we decide to downplay food deserts because it prevents us from ever finding a solution to the problem. What about offering incentives to investors – franchise, corporate and otherwise – who build in food deserts? Why can’t we do that? Why not offer incentives up the chain – tax incentives for security measures (since a lot of these places fear theft and property damage), incentives for the space of the store dedicated solely to fresh produce? We can’t do that because we’re too busy debating their existence. Y’all know I have a problem with that.

So, it saddens me to know that the big politicians that I vote for to get the big checks are not offering up the answers that we need to solve this problem in particular, especially since they’re never walking through (or helicoptering through, even) the projects (or a trailer park, or a low-income community in general) to see what struggles people like this face. Realistically speaking, they’re facing the same struggles that “middle-class” Americans are facing. Middle-class America , for the most part, just knows how to hide it better. If anything would’ve taught us that, it would be the up-spring of foreclosure signs in our very nice, quaint neighborhoods.

Photo/Image Credits: Caitlin Quade, Tulane University; Slow Food USA

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  • Gregory A. Butler

    There’s another side to the food desert issue. The fact that, for many poor and working class people, cooking meals at home from fresh ingredients isn’t necessarily the most practical and easiest way for them to eat. The reasons range from time to lack of storage space to the fact that fresh fruit and vegetables go bad fairly quickly, but there is a material economic reason why those folks don’t cook at home,and why bodegas and fast food joints flourish in the ghettoes while farmers markets only exist thanks to heavy subsidies.

    Perhaps we should talk about making fast food more nutritious instead of pushing fresh vegetables on folks who have rejected them for a reason.

  • Anonymous

    Good post, Erika. To your question about what people get from denying the expense of fresh food and the existence of food deserts: if people can deny that expensive food = good food, they can continue to operate from the myth that poor/low-income people don’t eat well because they are dysfunctional & therefore, they are without hope. Blaming pathology is more abstract and requires less agency then realizing that while you’re pointing the finger, you’re also not doing anything to give everyone access to the same kinds of food that you can afford to buy. 

  • Jordan A.

    Thank you so much for sharing this. After moving to NYC for college, I was struck by the idea of a food desert – I hadn’t known one existed before moving there. Although in our college area, there are a plethora of markets and such, just up the street in certain areas of Harlem and the Bronx, you can’t find anything but convenience stores and fast food chains for blocks and blocks. And after learning more about this trend in LA (who has since banned the creation of fast food chains in certain areas because of their high density that pushes grocery stores out), I wanted to share that reality with other people.
    But, in trying to make them understand the problem, often they just rejected it – I’ve had friends who tell me that everyone can eat healthy if they just try harder. Or, why don’t they just go to their local store? They don’t comprehend that there may not be a local store or that people are too far or too busy to be able to get down to where there is a grocer.
    This article is so valuable because you express the problem in a way that gets through people’s mental block. I think when people are cushioned by the idea of what is considered “basic” in some areas, they don’t often see the hardship of others for whom that “basic” level is not met.

  • Wiley Sherer

    I recently moved into a public housing building, and it’s an interesting example of the trickiness of defining a food desert. For people with cars or bikes, there are plenty of grocery stores. I’m an avid couponer and cyclist, and I’ve worked out a ten mile loop that gets me to about half a dozen different grocery stores, five of which carry produce. On the other hand, getting to even a single grocery store requires at least two buses or a two mile walk if you don’t have some sort of vehicle. It’s a heavily hispanic neighborhood, and there are several carnicerias within easy walking distance of the building that carry produce, but a lot of my neighbors in the building (predominently single whites who are seniors/disabled) don’t feel comfortable shopping there because they don’t recognize the brands and they don’t speak Spanish. So they shop at Family Dollar across the street, which has incredibly high prices, low quality, and no fresh food. (Incidentally, the way that chains like Family Dollar exploit residents of working-class neighborhoods who don’t have other convenient options might make a good next post. The one near here charges at least 50% more for most items than the Target a few miles away, and also adds fees like $1 to get cash back with a debit card that I’ve never seen anywhere else.)

    The fascinating thing to me is that I moved here from a fairly well-off suburban neighborhood that no one would classify as a food desert, but when I sit down with a map, the grocery stores were actually further away and harder to get to without a car. The difference was simply that everyone did have a car, so going five miles to the Safeway or fifteen miles to the Costco wasn’t seen as an imposition.

  • miga

    This essay makes me think back to when I was a little kid,  and to why when I was an older kid I used to have such an aversion to hotdogs, popcorn, and bologna sandwiches.  
    We had them all the time when I was little–I later found out it was all we could afford, and I rarely saw my parents eat because they often went hungry.  Getting grapes was a big deal, getting iceburg lettuce with a carrot was really really rare, and I don’t think we had that till I was quite a bit older. 
    At least we had an Aldi’s close by.  Did you know that Aldi’s is run by the same people as Trader Joe’s?  It makes me angry that Trader Joe’s can stand for all this high quality, healthy, socially and environmentally responsible stuff and yet the same company drops all that simply because its other customers can’t afford expensive things.

    • BuyingForFive

      So is Trader Joe’s, via Aldi, supposed to sell healthy products that they’ve learned from experience won’t sell and nobody can afford, just to be socially and environmentally responsible?  How is letting healthier, organic products rot on shelves to get tossed out more socially and environmentally responsible, exactly?

      Even if there’s some cheap brand of organic bread or apples or lettuce on sale, I’ve found out, from experience, the expensive version stuffed full of preservatives is a better buy for us. Organic = starts turning moldy within 2-3 days, which means I have to spend more money and time I don’t have to return to a supermarket yet again. Cheap and unhealthy means I can stretch a loaf of bread two weeks, or apples three.

    • Britta

      Aldi’s is the German version of Walmart and they are all over Europe. They were not invented by the Trader Joe’s company. If TJs bought the rights to run the Aldi US, they are merely operating the US versions like the European ones, which they may very well be contractually obligated to do. 

    • Britta

      Not to be too tetchy in my last comment, but Aldi’s is the only large chain grocery store that is full service and low cost willing to service the Southside of Chicago. Unlike places like Family Dollar or gas stations, they don’t rip you off for the basics. I don’t live in a food desert in Chicago (though living in a food oasis means that places still rip you off, because they know you can’t easily go elsewhere, though it’s not too bad here), and when I can get access to a car I shop at Aldi’s (cans of tomatoes for 30 cents vs. $1.70 at my local store). Look, I love TJs and would like one close to me, but they are not full-service (much of what they sell is junk food) and are cheap relative to Whole Foods but not that cheap. 

  • Scullars

    One other factor that goes into whether a store decides to move into a food desert or not is the belief that low-income areas are crime-ridden. Fair or not, store owners don’t like the thought that their bottom lines will be cut into with theft and the need for increased security. Also, they consider the safety of their employees b/c of the perception of violent crimes (ie, armed robberies).

  • Alex

    Yes! I’ve lived in the suburbs and the city in the last year, and I am seeing how this is affecting families. There has been an increase in families going to food pantries for food. Ive gone to the food pantry myself and seen people from all walks of life. In the suburbs, there is an increase in demand for food pantries, soup kitchens, and food stamps, as well as decreased priced food such as those sold by Angel Food Ministries. This recession is bringing to the forefront the impact on families as the cost of food goes up and as more families lose access to grocery stores when they are living in areas that require a car to get to a grocery store. Families are losing their cars and homes. Major impact. I appreciate your article.