I wanted to post to the blog some clarification regarding the CUT critique of the term "food desert". First I want to make it clear to everyone that our critique is not a personal attack on the person responsible for bring the term into popular usage in the United States, Mari Gallagher. In fact Mari seems to be interested in and works hard on food access and food system issues. Perhaps there could be potential collaborations were she to show the propensity to work on behalf of community based ownership and social enterprise development models in the communities she has deemed "food deserts" rather than working to attract corporate interests that are only going to practice extractive capitalism.
Our critique is indeed an effort to expand the dialog, program development opportunities and policy considerations regarding food and health. Hopefully, our critique will strengthen the work and understanding of Mari and other working on food access, food security and local and regional food system issues particularly as it relates to communities of people of African descent.
The term is important with respect to the fact that it has raised the awareness of many people about the issues of food access and food security and for that reason as my mother would say I give credit where credit is due. The term is an important one in that it allows dialog to proceed around food and public health outcomes.
My critique is instead based upon the following points:
- The community food environment (see the concept paper written about 5 years ago, The
Community Food Environment on the CUT web site www.cutchicago.org) found in communities of predominately people of African descent are poor food environments for complex historical reasons related to a legacy of slavery and oppression. As a friend and colleague in the food system movement states these communities have been "redlined" in terms of access to capital and have been exploited historically by those outside of the community as a route to economic advancement. The trend continues in contemporary times and can be seen in the preponderance of Arab and South Asian merchants. There is currently no Black owner of any grocery store in Chicago that we know of and only a very small percentage of corner stores are Black owned. Opportunities for wealth creation and the building of a strong local and regional economy are available if the local and regional food system that is emerging is based upon economic and social justice principles. Organizations such as Civic Economics (http://www.civiceconomics.com/) have done extensive research about the importance of the local economy as a way to strengthen communities and local and regional communities.
- Another element of our critique is that human health is a four pronged endeavor that includes food, fitness/exercise, stress reduction and access to various integrative and complementary prevention and treatment modalities. The food part of the health formula is in effect the low hanging fruit. What needs to be included in the advancement of healthy communities is vastly increased access to fitness and exercise instruction and venues; instruction in and access to stress reduction modalities such as meditation, yoga, qigong and tai chi and increased awareness and access to various integrative health care modalities such as acupuncture/traditional Chinese medicine, chiropractic medicine, therapeutic massage as well as allopathic medical practices. Personally, I have to travel to the north side for acupuncture and qigong treatment and instruction. There is limited access to various modalities on the south side but those venues are often found in predominately White communities such as Hyde Park and Beverly. The access to the range of health promoting activities described here is very obvious if one spends anytime in communities on the north side of Chicago and suburban areas with a plethora of options available in those communities while they are virtually nonexistent in south and west side communities. Access to these practices must increase but so does the level of awareness and education for these communities must increase as well so that people can begin to take advantage of health promoting practices to which they have been denied. There is definitely some awareness of many of these opportunities but just like accessing food can be difficult for many in the community access to all of the options available is difficult as well.
- The destruction of cooking as a cultural constant is related in large part but not totally, to the lack of access to fresh produce in communities. Other contributing factors include (in every community) the overwhelming availability of highly processed foods, the availability of highly processed foods in the range of food retail operations from corner stores to full service grocery stores; nutritionally deficient fast foods (not all "fast food" is bad; more on that in an upcoming blog posting) and such modern conveniences such as the microwave. The cultural piece can't be ignored or minimized one only needs to witness the vibrant food and food shopping cultures that exist in many "immigrant" communities where many households still cook. Take a trip to Chinatown, the Latino communities such as Little Village or the South Asian community and shops on Devon Avenue to see what I'm talking about. I was in the Pete's Market on 47th Street and Kedzie Avenue this past weekend and I am still amazed at how crowded the store is and the level of fresh produce, fish and meat that I observe in the carts of fellow shoppers often in sharp contrast to my observations in stores where shoppers are largely African American. There is a cultural pattern that remains; although we know that many ethnic communities drift away from their food culture and heritage towards the American diet but we need to reengage a food culture that is based upon fresh produce, healthier patterns of meat consumption, prepared rather than highly processed foods and healthy food preparation practices and techniques.
- A cultural renaissance and resurgence around cooking needs to be initiated and the cornerstone of that effort is cooking and nutritional instruction that occurs at the community level. I noticed on a trip to a Whole Foods Market (WFM) today the marketing of a "Basic Cooking Class". Venues such as WFM offer a range of classes ranging from cooking to exercise classes. Other examples and best practices exist as discovered through the CUT research and analysis of entities such as WFM and food coops around the country. The CUT is working on a concept, soon to be unveiled, that integrates these best practices into community based retail operations.
- Finally there has been a historic lack of resources available to Black communities. One need look no further than the woeful state of public education and the disparity in funding for African American students versus that available in many White communities. Within that system the physical facilities are in a state of disrepair that is so critical that it undermines the capacity of children and teachers to thrive. We can note similar disparities in virtually all aspects of community life be it education, access to health care, libraries, adequate housing, etc. All of these examples and the issues emanating from them are really part and parcel of the apartheid system (see the Algebra Project web site http://www.algebra.org/ an organization founded and operated by Bob Moses who talks about the state of public education as educational apartheid) that sadly continues to exist in the United States and throughout the Americas.
I can go on but I think you can begin to see where I'm coming from. The term "food desert" is just the beginning of the conversations, program development and policy initiatives that need to occur. Also a range of social enterprises devoted to food, fitness and health need to be supported via philanthropic and government agencies. Sources of venture capital need to be created that make capital available to food, fitness and health care providers ranging from farmers (urban and rural), health care providers to wholesale and retail entrepreneurs.
In a later post the CUT will present a concept related to the "susu" which is a system of savings and loans rooted in African cultures as a mechanism for creating pools of capital for the development of small and medium sized social enterprises from farm to table. See http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1365/is_n10_v27/ai_19340478/ and http://www.ehow.com/how_4891565_start-susu.html for an overview of the concept.
Also look for postings related to the renaissance of African American foodways and a refreshing look at "soul food" focused on the core ingredients of the cuisine such as a variety of greens, cabbage, sweet potatoes, okra, beans, grains, etc and evolving the cooking practices and techniques so that the core ingredients are prepared in a healthy way creating a pathway to new foodways.
If you have recipes for healthy approaches to cooking and fresh ingredients pass them on for possible posting.
May 4, 2010