Friday, July 22, 2011

"Food Deserts": A boon for the corporate food system?

Big Retailers Make Pledge of Stores for ‘Food Deserts’By SEAN COLLINS WALSH
WASHINGTON — Executives from Wal-Mart, Walgreens, SuperValu and other stores joined Michelle Obama at the White House on Wednesday to announce a pledge to open or expand a combined 1,500 stores in communities that have limited access to nutritious food and are designated as “food deserts.” 
With the pledges, secured by the Partnership for a Healthier America, which is part of Mrs. Obama’s campaign to reduce childhood obesity, the stores aim to reach 9.5 million of the 23.5 million Americans who live in areas where finding affordable healthy foods can be difficult. In those areas, many people turn to fast food restaurants or convenience stores. 
“The commitments that you all are making today have the potential to be a game changer,” Mrs. Obama said at the event. “When these stores succeed, they can serve as anchors in our communities.” 
The Department of Agriculture defines “food deserts” as low-income areas where more than 500 people or 33 percent of the population lives more than one mile from an affordable food store. In rural towns, the distance is 10 miles. 
Walgreens, the Illinois-based retailer with more than 7,000 stores, pledged to reach 4.8 million people in such areas by turning 1,000 of its locations into “food oasis stores” that will sell fruit, vegetables and other groceries that they do not typically stock. 
Wal-Mart said it would open or expand food sections in 275 to 300 stores by 2016, employing an estimated 40,000 people. SuperValu, which owns many regional grocery chains like Jewel-Osco and ACME, will open 250 new Save-A-Lot stores in five years. 
Childhood obesity is a signature cause adopted by Mrs. Obama. One of every three American children is overweight or obese, leading some scientists to predict that today’s youth could become the first generation to have shorter lives than the previous generation, according to the White House. 
Mrs. Obama said that food deserts, where 6.5 million American children live, contribute to the phenomenon. The government and the private sector need to work together to eliminate food deserts, she said. 
“With your commitments today, you all are showing us what’s possible,” Mrs. Obama said. “This isn’t some mysterious issue that we can’t address. We know the answer. It is right there.”
The Obama administration’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative, begun by Mrs. Obama in February 2010, aims to financially assist stores that open in food deserts. 
The initiative received a $35 million budget this year, well short of the hundreds of millions requested by President Obama. The administration asked for more than $300 million to be approved for it in the next budget. 
In 2009, New York started its Food Retail Expansion to Support Health, or Fresh program, a joint state-city effort that offers incentives to stores to open in underserved communities. Fresh is credited with being one of the largest efforts to combat food deserts at a state or local level.

I find it interesting that whenever I see the term "food desert," it is in quotes. It seems appropriate because the existence of food deserts is not a settled issue, nor is the idea that a lack/presence of grocery stores actually has an impact on diets (and here's the actual study).  Nevertheless, the government has committed funds and has come up with a plan to remedy them.

USDA defines a food desert  as "a low-income census tract where either a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. 'Low income' tracts are defined as those where at least 20 percent of the people have income at or below the federal poverty levels for family size, or where median family income for the tract is at or below 80 percent of the surrounding area's median family income. Tracts qualify as "low access" tracts if at least 500 persons or 33 percent of their population live more than a mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (for rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles)."  Obviously, food deserts aren’t ‘real.’ They are constructed. They didn’t exist before the term brought them into being. There’s a lot behind that definition and it tends to flatten out diversity and variation by applying a few standardized numbers to widely divergent situations. As I understand it, smaller grocers and mom and pop stores are not included in the definition of ‘grocery stores’ and are therefore not counted. They may offer good food but don’t figure into the determination of whether or not there is a food desert there.

On another tangent, will those small businesses be undermined by the introduction of these huge distributors, whose scales of efficiency preclude them from working with small, independent farmers? Seems to me that if you wanted to get good food into a place, you work with and seek to strengthen the existing structures…e.g. connecting those mom and pops to small farmers.

So often, policies seek to ‘fix’ a problem (poor eating) by identifying the most obvious, intuitive proximate cause (lack of grocery stores), when in actuality, there’s a whole bunch of other not-so-obvious stuff going on that has created the problem. IMO, the industrial food system is at the root of the problem. Introducing Walmarts and Walgreens (purveyors of the industrial food system) into an area treats the problem with the problem itself. There’s got to be a name for such a philosophical trap.

I also think there is a real danger here in not acknowledging the role of individual choice. Seems like government programs continue to victimize people by insisting that they aren’t responsible for their own poor eating habits.  The same crappy food will be available whether or not there is a corporate grocery store. The same crappy food, because of subsidies, will still be cheaper. It remains to be seen what people will actually buy, though I have my suspicions.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Paths to Sustainable Food Sovereignty


You can read the whole article at the above link.  Below, I've copied and pasted a few passages (well, more than a few, I guess) that caught my attention.

“Wars are fought over food in the future”
Global Paradigms and the future of agriculture 
The industrial agriculture production system reduces farmers (and pastoralists alike) to money seekers through food and agricultural commodity production. This has led to large mono-cultures, high levels of technical specialization and intensive use of chemicals. Its negative impacts on human health, social economical structures and on the environment were and sometimes still are not accounted for and therefore not acknowledged. 
...meeting the dual challenge of achieving food security and other developmental benefits, on the one hand, and mitigating and adapting to climate change, on the other hand, requires political commitment at the highest level. 
Hoffmann agrees with IAASTD that a shift towards the preservation of the multifunctional character of farming should be the aim. This will result in a knowledge-intensive sustainable way of farming. Important examples of this kind of farming are organic and low external input farming. ...Hoffmann proves to be a realistic man as he states: “There are no quick fixes possible. The key task is to transform the uniform, high-external-input-dependent model of industrial agriculture into a flexible approach of sustainable (regenerative) agricultural systems that continuously recreate the resources they use and achieve higher productivity and profitability of the system with minimal external inputs. (…) A key challenge is to considerably lift the productivity of small-scale farmers by mobilizing and empowering them to use modern methods of regenerative agriculture”[3]
Hoffmann stressed the importance of the development of an autonomous future perspective by national governments based on the economic strengths and weaknesses of their countries. He warns that if a lack of international support for this mosaic of regenerative agricultural systems should discourage national governments of developing countries, industrial agricultural systems will take over and the negative effects that those systems produce in the developed world in terms of climate change, poverty, food security will even increase. 
Sustainability needs a pro-active agenda with a clear concept and a plan that would be much more successful. “Africa has listened too long to the World Bank”, says Hoffmann, “and now the levels of production are lower than a few decades ago. All developing countries need to focus on national food security. Vietnam for example did a really good job... These successful cases depend on a government with a comprehensive strategy and the guts to choose long lasting solutions.” 
Small scale farming lobby
Talking about the heartfelt necessity for change and the rather grim perspective of disaster transition management Hoffmann stresses the importance of a professional lobby. The shift from a technical, chemical and capital intensive agro-industrial system to a sustainable multifunctional agricultural system is one that will evoke a lot of resistance from the vested interests. These interests are thriving because of the perverse financial mechanisms that support it. 
Just like Olivier de Schutter[5], Ulrich Hoffmann stresses the importance of organizations of small-scale family farmers and their advocates, like Via Campesina and the AgriCultures Network. “The fact that sustainable family farming organizations have not got a string and institutionalized lobby behind them, marginalizes them in national and international debates...." 
The downward spiral can be stopped when developing countries take the lead. They should no longer look at the international community but should start developing pockets of restructuring in their own countries. Hoffmann thinks these pockets should concentrate on creating an enabling environment. This asks for investments not in international value chains but in education, infrastructure (to get products to the markets), electricity (to get manufacturing up and going) and e.g. micro credit to facilitate multi-functional agriculture. While the international debate continues and blueprints are developed and re-developed, the economically sound and resilient pockets will grow and shape an independent future for the countries concerned.

For the most part, I agree with what is being said here, and I do think government has a role to play...but, in my opinion, it is particularly important that farmers take the lead in creating sustainability, not governments.  The role of government should be to enable citizens to act in their own best interest, rather than trying to legislate the sustainable system into existence. Sustainable systems will differ according to place and people. Government needs to, more or less, stand by and let it happen. The role of aid organization should be similar, i.e. not to transfer any particular system, or to set goals based on some static notion of 'sustainability,' but to support development of the system from the ground up.

Furthermore, governments need to stop supporting industry and a globalized food system that is led by profit. If profit is the goal, then that is the measure of success, not whether or not people get fed. Communities, on the other hand, have a fundamental interest in keeping everyone fed. That there are cases where the ability to do this has been undermined is unavoidable, of course, but those sorts of things need to be understood on a case-by-case basis.

Lastly, in developing countries, I think so much of what farmers need is access to information. My recent experience in Senegal with urban farmers tells me they are hungry for should be up to them how they use that information to improve their production in ways most relevant to their social and economic situations.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Food System Reform

At present, the majority of my mental power is (or, at least, should be) on urban farming in Senegal.  But, because I’d like my eventual career trajectory to concern the US food system and how we can make it more sustainable, I try to keep my attention focused, if only marginally, on US food system dynamics.  There’s so much going on that it’s hard to keep up, but I try.

I first started getting interested in food systems when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal (1992-96).  When I came home, I got my Master’s in Agroecology and Sustainable Systems.  At the time, in the late 90’s, it seemed like there was a quickly growing awareness of how sick our food system had become.  If I remember right, ‘organic’ was still not a mainstream term, and spring salad mix was considered weird.  Back in those days, a ‘salad’ in a lot of places was still mostly iceberg lettuce. 

Things have changed a lot in the last ten years.  I’ve been reading various blogs and various organizational positions.  Most of the people who feel strongly about the food system seem to take a position that more regulation will be needed to fix it.  I am not in that camp, however, and tend to think that too much regulation and government intervention is what has created such a sick food system, which I’ve discussed in another blog entry.  This article is the latest thing I’ve read on food system reform, and contends that reform isn’t even possible because people have to work too much.  Eh.  I’m not convinced. 

First off, I disagree with the basic premise of the article that food system reform isn’t happening.  Despite the government’s advocacy of the agri-industrial complex, I think we are in the midst of a major food system reform.  That these changes are taking place is not because industry and government are willing to change the terms, but because people are actually taking the food system back.  People everywhere seem to be taking a greater interest in where their food comes from.  Community Supported Agriculture, for example, is still growing according to Local Harvest.  There are more and more young people who are choosing farming as a career, and the number of farmers’ markets continues to grow throughout the US.

Secondly, blaming poor eating habits on a lack of time is a cop out.  I'm a single mom who works and is writing a dissertation. I plan menus and find recipes that are quick, easy, inexpensive and which use actual primary ingredients, i.e. food, rather than food-like industrial products.  It is a matter of priorities.

Lastly, if it isn't already screamingly obvious, no one should wait for the government to implement a 'better' food system.  We all used to be more responsible for our food system and for feeding ourselves. Then, government policies and programs effectively transferred control of the food system to industry. It seems to me that the continuing growth of CSAs, homegardens, and farmers' markets means that people are taking it back. What we have to be careful of is government trying to put the kibosh on it.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Food Sovereignty Fail, Take Two

I've been listening to my interviews with Senegalese urban farmers and one of the recurring themes is that they associate their food production practices with independence and self-determination. Throughout Senegal, in almost every household, whether rural or urban, people are engaged in some form of primary production.  At a societal level, I suggest that this translates into a sort of broad, generalized support for food self-sufficiency, or food sovereignty. Indeed, I've started to think of it as a civic activity, i.e. people take on the responsibility of feeding themselves and their communities. Furthermore, as a civic process, people draw on and leverage different relationships so that food production and exchange provide a forum for building and maintaining social cohesion.

Alternately, in the so-called developed world, food production, processing and exchange are mainly industrial activities. I think that most people in a capitalist society would see this as a natural outcome of the market (never mind that this kind of agriculture took shape because of government policies). Food production has come to be seen as just one more industry, driven by the industrial concerns of efficiency and output.  Also characteristic of this kind of agriculture is that it is done mainly in rural areas on large tracts of land.  Over a period of time the food system has moved out of the hands of regular folks and into the hands of industry. 

In Senegal, where the majority of people are producing food, urban gardens are a normalized part of the urban landscape.  In the US, however, growing veggies in your front yard runs counter to the dominant urban aesthetic. There's a chance that if people do decide to do it in their front yards, neighbors may have the grounds to call the code enforcement people, and the code enforcement people might say something like this (from this article ) :
City code says that all unpaved portions of the site shall be planted with grass or ground cover or shrubbery or other suitable live plant material.
And then you might say, as the Basses did, "Well, for us, tomatoes and peppers are suitable."  In which case, the code enforcement person (in this case, Kevin Rulkowski) might say:
“If you look at the dictionary, suitable means common. You can look all throughout the city and you’ll never find another vegetable garden that consumes the entire front yard....If you look at the definition of what suitable is in Webster’s dictionary, it will say common. So, if you look around and you look in any other community, what’s common to a front yard is a nice, grass yard with beautiful trees and bushes and flowers,” 
*Facepalm*  Never mind that 'suitable' does not mean 'common,' though it does mean 'desireable' or 'worthy,' which really is what Mr. Rulkowski is trying to say.  And never mind that lawns are, well, dumb and produce nothing, but receive large quantities of chemical inputs that run off into watersheds and/or are tracked into houses, where they are inhaled and ingested by the people who live there.

In more technologically developed countries, there seems to be a sort of ideology that positions the hot, sweaty, dirty work of coaxing food from the soil as a poor man's travail.  Thus, the more that can be done with machines and technology, the better.  Success is measured by how much can be forced out of the soil and onto the market.

And that is the ideology that underlies international agricultural development today.  Agriculture in that ethos is not seen as the province of everyday citizens. It is seen more as a 'driver of development' than development, in and of itself.  It is, in fact, very often portrayed as drudgery and something that people need to develop away from.  Nor is it seen as the proper use of urban space, so that urban agriculture is interpreted mostly as a stop-gap measure to mitigate poverty in urban areas as countries make their way to the promised land of 'real' (*cough* Western) development, which, I suppose, might include lots of regulations and codes so that places develop and look the way they are 'supposed' to.

At its core, the current approach to agricultural development is circumscribed by neoliberal ideology, though I'm sure that many agricultural development experts will tell you their market-based approach is more 'rational' than 'ideological.'  I disagree because I think the market based approach is fundamentally much so that it continues to drive development even though the proverbial writing is on the proverbial wall: It's not working all that well. I also think this narrow view misses a lot of the ways in which agriculture is important to the people who practice it and the various ways that people use it to improve the quality of their lives.

In the US, it looks like more and more regular people are discovering the many ways in which agriculture can be meaningful, and are seeking to work outside the confines of the industrial food model. For example, there is a trend across the socioeconomic spectrum to grow more of your own food, which will probably challenge silly, constrictive codes like those facing the Basses. I don't think I'd ever advocate for a complete eradication of the industrial food system, but I would like to see stronger parallel food systems which transfer control back into the hands of regular people. It does seem to be happening, not because the government or industry is willing to share, but because regular people, like Julie Bass, are taking it back.  And, thus, the lowly vegetable garden takes a political turn and becomes a site where struggles over ideology and how we see ourselves are waged.