Over the last few years, I’ve seen people claim that veganism is difficult, because having a plant-based diet is hard to do in a “food desert” and use this as an excuse for not going vegan. Issues of class and race are raised as barriers to veganism, and “food deserts” are brought up in this context. Some people ( in coloured and low income communities) are said to live in “food deserts”, and the lack of food availability raised as reasons why a plant-based diet is difficult for the poor, and for people of colour. While the rationale for this difficulty is generally ineveganxplicit, my understanding is that it is based primarily on the situation in the urban US. When queried, someone who frequently brings up “food deserts”, and the barrier of race and class, suggested those who question go to this site: http://www.foodispower.org/food-deserts/ for explanations.
Before I go on, I’ll remind people that veganism is not a diet, it is an ethical position regarding the treatment of animals as property, objects, or resources. When food, and limits around food, are discussed, the discussion is not about the ethical understanding that it is wrong to use other non-human animals, it is about the pros, cons, and “difficulty” of a plant-based diet. The “food desert” issue is basically claiming that people cannot make that ethical commitment (or that it is especially difficult) because it is hard for people in “food deserts” to adopt a plant-based diet.
While “food deserts” certainly sound dramatic, I believe it is worthwhile looking at what, exactly, constitutes a “food desert” and the context in which the idea of “food deserts” arose. I’ve heard the term originated in the UK (around 1995), but the discussions seems to mainly be very US-centric. It is about government policy, and mainly relates to human health, and is a way to try and explain why people eat fast food and become obese. It focuses on obesity-related heath costs, and reducing those costs to the government. It makes some assumptions:
- That it is poor people who become obese. (Never seen any fat rich people?)
- That it is coloured (especially “black”) people who become obese. (No fat poor white folks?)
- That obesity occurs through eating fast food and junk food. (Remembering “Roseanne” and the macaroni-and-cheese or meatloaf for nearly all meals)
- That people eat fast food and junk food because they can’t get “good” food.
- That “good” food comes from supermarkets, the bigger the better (Transnational corporate supermarkets provide the best food).
These assumptions are not particularly good. There are statistics that show correlation between poor urban neighbourhoods and obesity. They also show correlation to high levels of ethnic minorities, and correlation to fewer supermarkets and lower car ownership. I’m sure if you looked, it would also show correlation of “food deserts” to higher crime rates, higher levels of single parent families, higher levels of conviction for drug use, lower levels of education, and higher levels of immigration. …Which goes to show correlation does not imply causality. Some points to look at would be:
- How many people have multiple poorly-paid jobs, and so turn to fast food as an easy option to feed their family.
- How many people live in flats with poor (or no) cooking facilities, and so junk food or takeaway is a non-cooking option?
- How many people spend a lot of time away from home, on the street or at work, so turn to convenience food as a pre-prepared option?
The notion of a “food desert” today is mainly seen today as part of US food policy. It is an aspect of US health policy, designed to look at tools to reduce obesity-related illness and the massive economic costs of poor diet in the US. It is also part of ongoing reviews of welfare and the food stamp (now SNAP) policies.
What is a Food Desert
So, what is a “Food Desert”? Instinctively, we think of areas where food is not available, e.g. real deserts, the Sahara, the Gobi, the Australian Central Desert, or in vegan terms, inhospitable areas where there is little vegetation edible to humans, like the Arctic. We generally don’t immediately think of US cities. But it is primarily US urban areas that are meant.
Here is a reference to food deserts from the Food Empowerment Project (FEP) site:
Food deserts can be described as geographic areas where residents’ access to affordable, healthy food options (especially fresh fruits and vegetables) is restricted or nonexistent due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient travelling distance. For instance, according to a report prepared for Congress by the Economic Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture, about 2.3 million people (or 2.2 percent of all US households) live more than one mile away from a supermarket and do not own a car.
The site is has good and interesting treatment of food inequality, as part of general social inequality in the US, and racial inequality in specific. The same page continues:
The other defining characteristic of food deserts is socio-economic: that is, they are most commonly found in communities of color and low-income areas (where many people don’t have cars),
Although the FEP site is vegan, and promotes ethical veganism, in terms of arguments about veganism, it is worth pointing out that the central issue with food deserts in most of the literature is not whether food is animal-based, or plant-based, but whether nutritious food is available. This is also the case on the FEP “food desert” page, though it re-phrases the focus to the availability of healthy food, and specifically fruit and vegetables. Absence of vegetables and fruit affect both vegans and non-vegans. But access to fresh seasonal fruit and vegetables is a complex issue. It should be noted that “seasonal fruit” may be available in late spring through autumn, but is generally unavailable the rest of the year, and traditional societies stored or preserved fruit for later consumption. Likewise, many vegetables have fairly short seasons, and must be preserved or stored for later consumption. Modern supermarkets ship “fresh” produce from global sources, but there are issues of storage that lead to picking produce unripe and gas-ripening, breeding and genetic engineering for “storability”, as well as environmental impacts of long transport lines. There are issues of diminished nutritional quality in modern produce distribution. One result of this is that fruit and vegetables in supermarkets are rarely fresh, and availability has no relation to local season. Instead, we get tasteless products that lack food value, imported from the other side of the world, and stored, often for considerable time, before being artificially ripened. So “healthy” and “access to supermarket produce” are not necessarily equivalent.
The nutrient value of “fresh” vs canned, frozen, or preserved food is also not necessarily greater. Globally many people eat plant-based diets with minimal fresh vegetables and fruit, which are often luxuries, seasonal, and eaten through the year as dried foods or preserves. An example of preserved food use is the ristra of chillies often seen in Hispanic homes, kimchi and other pickles common in Asian cooking, chutneys in Indian food, things like dried mushrooms in Chinese cooking, and tomato preserves, including tomato paste, sauces, and pickles in Italian cuisine. Fresh seasonal local vegetables are wonderful, but people dependant on local agriculture make do without them much of the year.
While access to “healthy” fresh fruit and vegetables is background to the “food desert” issue used by the FEP, it is interesting to actually look at the USDA Economic Research Service report, Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food: Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences, (June 2009) referred to by on the FEP site. It is one of the primary sources for “food desert” policy and research.
The purpose of the paper is given as:
Increases in obesity and diet-related diseases are major public health problems. These problems may be worse in some U.S. communities because access to affordable and nutritious foods is difficult. Previous studies suggest that some areas and households have easier access to fast food restaurants and convenience stores but limited access to supermarkets. Limited access to nutritious food and relatively easier access to less nutritious food may be linked to poor diets and, ultimately, to obesity and diet-related diseases.
In other words, it is related to reducing obesity and diet-related disease, and linking those conditions to fast and junk food.
Then we get to the definition of the ambit of concern:
Access to a supermarket or large grocery store is a problem for a small percentage of households. Results indicate that some consumers are constrained in their ability to access affordable nutritious food because they live far from a supermarket or large grocery store and do not have easy access to transportation. Three pieces of evidence corroborate this conclusion:
- Of all households in the United States, 2.3 million, or 2.2 percent, live more than a mile from a supermarket and do not have access to a vehicle. An additional 3.4 million households, or 3.2 percent of all households, live between one-half to 1 mile and do not have access to a vehicle.
- Area-based measures of access show that 23.5 million people live in low-income areas (areas where more than 40 percent of the population has income at or below 200 percent of Federal poverty thresholds) that are more than 1 mile from a supermarket or large grocery store. However, not all of these 23.5 million people have low income. If estimates are restricted to consider only low-income people in low-income areas, then 11.5 million people, or 4.1 percent of the total U.S. population, live in low-income areas more than 1 mile from a supermarket.
- Data on time use and travel mode show that people living in low-income areas with limited access spend significantly more time (19.5 minutes) traveling (sic) to a grocery store than the national average (15 minutes). However, 93 percent of those who live in low-income areas with limited access traveled (sic) to the grocery store in a vehicle they or another household member drove. These distance and time-based measures are national estimates that do not consider differences between rural and urban areas in terms of distance, travel patterns, and retail market coverage.
So, a “food desert” seems to be any low-income area where the closest large grocery store is over a mile away. The time required to go to a grocery store is on average 4.5 minutes longer than for most people. Particularly at issue are those without cars. The point of the paper is access to nutritious food. Still, this definition looks solely at large grocery stores and chain supermarkets. It does not look at small grocers, local produce shops, or other food sources on the assumption that these will be more expensive, and the primary concern is for cheap food with reasonable variety,. A further assumption is that availability will translate into buying practice, and when confronted with all the choice, good and bad, of a supermarket, more nutritious food will be purchased. It does not look at the quality of supermarket food, on the assumption that the diversity available will mean there is some nutritious food. The report is explicit on some limitations of this approach:
Supermarkets are not the only sources of healthy and affordable foods. Many smaller scale sources may be used by those who are underserved by supermarkets. However, a complete assessment of the food environment of every area in the United States is an enormous task that is beyond the scope of this study.
But focusing only on supermarkets and larger grocery stores is likely to underestimate the availability of healthy foods since some of these foods are also available at small grocery stores, convenience stores, There is also some evidence of substitutability in stores—that is, areas without large chain supermarkets are often served with independent, and often smaller, grocery stores (Neckerman et al., 2009; Powell, 2009). These smaller stores may have adequate and affordable food choices, so that in ignoring them, researchers may underestimate the food that is available in those areas.
The report also mentions the limitation of using distance from home as a measure:
Distance is almost always measured as distance from a residential area to a store, assuming home-to-store travel is the way most people access supermarkets. But people do not just travel from home to store. They travel to work, school, church, and beyond and often purchase food on the way. Using an access measure that only considers distance from home is likely to underestimate the options available for food shopping.
It does not look at cultural factors that lead people to eat fast food meals, instead of making a meal from ingredients. It does, however, note this.
Easy access to all food, rather than lack of access to specific healthy foods, may be a more important factor in explaining increases in obesity. Many studies find a correlation between limited food access and lower intake of nutritious foods. Data and methods used in these studies, however, are not sufficiently robust to establish a causal link between access and nutritional outcomes. That is, other explanations cannot be eliminated as the cause of lower intake. A few studies have examined food intake before and after healthy food options become available (either within existing stores or because new stores opened). The findings are mixed—some show a small but positive increase in consumption of fruits and vegetables, while others show no effect.
The causal pathways linking limited access to nutritious food to measures of overweight like Body Mass Index (BMI) and obesity are not well understood. Several studies find that proximity of fast food restaurants and supermarkets are correlated with BMI and obesity. But increased consumption of such healthy foods as fruits and vegetables, low-fat milk, or whole grains does not necessarily lead to lower BMI. Consumers may not substitute away from less healthy foods when they increase their consumption of healthy foods. Easy access to all food, rather than lack of access to specific healthy foods, may be a more important factor in explaining increases in BMI and obesity.
In other words, access to more food does not translate into better eating, “The findings are mixed—some show a small but positive increase in consumption of fruits and vegetables, while others show no effect.” While availability is a factor, consumer habit and preference are dominant.
Potential access shows where consumers could possibly shop, while realized access shows where consumers actually shop. A consumer that does not care to eat at fast food restaurants or convenience stores may have high access to these stores but may pass by them on the way to a supermarket that is farther away. And even if the concentration of convenience stores is higher in some neighborhoods, most of the food shopping could be conducted at larger supermarkets. For example, Broda et al. (forthcoming) find that compared with higher income families, low-income families spend slightly more of their food budget at convenience stores, which offer prices that are, on average, greater than those in traditional grocery stores. However, the study also found that compared with higher income families, low-income families spend a greater share of total expenditures at supercenters, where lower prices almost completely offset the higher prices at convenience stores. To further illustrate this point, data show that, on average, SNAP participants lived 1.8 miles from the nearest supermarket but traveled 4.9 miles to the foodstore they most often used (Cole, 1997).
This indicates that people in the “food deserts” studies do travel. Poverty is not a complete determinant of behaviour though it may limit choices, but in general, people, particularly poorer people, will do what they must to maximise their options. Greater travel time, rather than eating fast food, is often the outcome of the need to save money. The major determinant of whether people eat a healthy diet or become obese is nutritional habits. It is not the fact that they are 4 minutes further from a supermarket. If poverty has an impact, it may be that pasta, and other inexpensive, filling foods, are fattening and lack some of the aspects of good nutrition. Buying it cheaper at supermarkets doesn’t make it better for a person.
In July 2011, the JAMA Internal Medicine published research on the issue, “Fast Food Restaurants and Food Stores: Longitudinal Associations With Diet in Young to Middle-aged Adults: The CARDIA Study”. This concluded that increasing availability of fast-food outlets increased fast food eating for low-income men. Women were not affected by that increasing availability. Increasing availability of supermarkets made no difference in diet for either sex.
Again, a final note: the purpose of “food desert” studies are to investigation of factors in obesity in the US. They are mainly focused on availability of “healthy” food as opposed to “fast” food, and they often tie into issues of race, since US cities often have race-based neighbourhoods, and often these have lower income levels. They are intended as tools for government policy to determine whether ensuring there are more supermarkets will decrease obesity-related illness.
It is hypothesized that the relative lack of access to full-service grocery stores and the easier access to fast and convenience foods may be linked to poor diets and, ultimately, to obesity and other diet-related diseases.
It was this concern that led Congress, in the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, (hereafter referred to as the 2008 Farm Bill) to direct the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to conduct a 1-year study of areas with limited access to affordable and nutritious food.
One conclusion we cannot draw from studies of food deserts is that veganism, an ethical position, is more difficult for people of colour as some people claim. There are not even statements that a plant-based diet is difficult for people of colour. The issue of “food deserts” does not impact on either a plant-based diet, or the ethical position that is veganism.
The studies focus on proximity of home to supermarkets. They do not look at proximity to grains and pulses, the basis of a plant-based diet. Since a plant-based diet is often an inexpensive diet, and a plant-baed diet, even though poor in fresh produce, is available, “food deserts” are not relevant to most potential vegans, particularly since rice, oatmeal, bread, beans and lentils are found in almost any grocery of any size. In fact, for many people of colour, local stores are more likely to have plant-based elements: tortillas, chapatis, falafels, a wider variety of rices, beans and lentils, and corn products than are found in vanilla supermarkets. We should remember that African-Americans are not the only people of colour.
As an Australian, I look at the definition of “food deserts” and go, “What?” Many areas here have little or no access to local seasonal fruits and vegetables, although most urban centres have access to “fresh” fruit and vegies (from California, Brazil, Israel, etc, and some from around Australia). However, I’ve lived in the Kimberleys, where in spite of the fact that Kununurra is a major vegetable growing area, one can easily be in a town (Fitzroy Crossing) that is hundreds of miles from a major supermarket, and many older people and Aboriginal people have no cars. Not only that, the food that is produced regionally is shipped to Perth, and pathetic specimens comes back to the supermarket cling-wrapped on Styrofoam. Yet there are vegans there.
More recently, I lived in the NE of Tasmania, where there are many dying small towns. In ours, many people are older, and don’t drive. There is only one bus out, 5 days a week, and one in. The nearest chain supermarket is a 40 minute drive at 90kph, and the nearest general store (with a very few fresh veg,) is 5 miles away. There is no local market, in spite of the fact that Tasmania produces a lot of food. Most goes to Melbourne, across the Bass Straight, and comes back a few months later. Yet we were vegan. The notion of “food deserts” as a special problem seems very US-centric.
People work around things. We travelled about once a week, and bought a lot of tinned or dried food, beans, lentils, diced tomatoes, tomato paste, tinned corn, dried mushrooms, rice, potatoes, oatmeal, pasta. We bought what we could from the pathetic selection of vegetables (don’t talk to me about supermarket “fresh” food), and supplemented with a garden. People buy like that. We whinge about the difficulty of getting good food, but not about the difficulty of being vegan. It isn’t really harder. Fresh food and food choice was the difficulty. In the Kimberleys, and in Tasmania, people got rides with people with cars. Finding good affordable food might sometimes be difficult, but “vegan food” is just, generally, the cheaper part of ordinary food.
Food Deserts and Veganism
“Food deserts are” not related to veganism, or even a plant-based diet, in any of the literature the vegan academic who pointed to it refers to. The FEP page http://www.foodispower.org/food-deserts/ talks about access to healthy food, not access to “vegan food”. They don’t present veganism as anything particularly more difficult as people who point to “food deserts” as an obstruction claim..
In any case, while racial and sub-racial culture may play a role, poor diet is more than racial. If a person in a “food desert” wants to be vegan, there are usually many options for a plant-based diet in terms of beans, pulses, and grains. Most such food is less expensive than animal products, and generally cheaper than fast food. Can one eat a really healthy diet with limited access to fruit and vegetables? Possibly not, but that is so whether or not a person is vegan. Eating a plant-based diet, even if it is mainly whole grains and pulses, with additions like tomato products, onions, garlic, and chili, is likely to be healthier than eating meatloaf and macaroni and cheese, and much healthier than KFC or McDonalds.
There are three issues effectively covered by the excellent Food Empowerment Project site. The first is education about what is healthy food. This applies in all cultures and at all socio-economic levels. Well-off people who eat a lot of animal products, snack foods, expensive treats, and who don’t like vegetables and fruit, may have major health issues, regardless of their money. Poor Latino families who eat a lot of corn tortillas and beans, with lashings of vegetables and fruit, may have a fairly healthy diet. Certainly there have been other efforts (Jamie Oliver has done a number of programs), to highlight unhealthy eating, not necessarily in US ghettos. Oliver did one focussing on UK public school lunch programs, showing the abysmal eating habits of generally poor white English people. He also did a program in the Appalachians, where the issue was specifically lack of education about food and health. If we are to believe Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, not a vegan book) and others, access to good seasonal vegetables and fruits is not an issue in the area. It is about unhealthy choices
Associated with health is the second issue, whether to eat animal products. Though focusing on health, the FEP includes the ethical vegan position that using animals is wrong. But that it is probably unhealthy is really their point. If they want people to go, and stay, vegan, however, ethics, not health, should be the motive. Eating a fundamentally plant-based diet with minimal animal products is probably not worse in health terms than eating an entirely plant-based diet. The argument for veganism cannot reliably rest on health or environmental factors, although those factors exist. Veganism is more than a diet, and unless a person is vegan for ethical reasons, they have no real anchor for their veganism, and are likely to change their priorities with time.
The third issue is food availability. Availability of food is important, availability taken as both physical availability and economic availability. Clearly, in “food deserts” physical availability of fresh raw vegetables and fruit is an issue. That is an issue for vegan and non-vegan alike. Lets also remember that “food deserts” are defined in terms of access to chain supermarkets, and large grocery stores, not access to vegetables and fruit. Small fruit and vegetable shops do exist in poorer areas. There are measures some people (vegan and non-vegan) have taken, including home gardens (even if only in a windowbox), relying on extended family elsewhere, travel, and bulk buying (economically affected, but often cheaper overall, if the initial outlay can be found), buying in bulk within an extended family, community gardens, and food-buying co-ops (co-operative efforts to bulk-buy and transport). Things like food-buying co-ops can often be organised through, or by, local churches or other community centres. In my experience, there is also some variability of food availability in terms of ethnicity of areas. Hispanic areas tend to have shops /markets selling products for Hispanic foods, particularly corn flour, beans, tomatoes, sweet and hot chilis, and fresh herbs like cilantro. East Asian areas tend to have more fresh vegetables and fruit, and a much greater range of preserved foods. The fundamental thing to remember is that food availability is an issue regardless of vegan/nonvegan status. Most shops that sell food, even small groceries, sell barley, oats, flour, beans, lentils and split peas, potatoes, onions, garlic, and at least tins of baked beans, corn, diced tomatoes, and tomato paste. Good plant-based food can be made from these, generally for less than animal products cost.
In claiming “food deserts” prove veganism is not easy for some races, there is a conflation of issues of race and income. (The two are related, but we must be careful where we attribute causality). It is a fact that African-Americans are disproportionately poorer and that is the reason they have more chance of living in “food deserts”. But they are living there because they are poor, not because they are “black”. The people there may be poor in large part because they are “black”, but in this case it is their poverty, not their race, that affects the availability of food. Well-off Afro-Americans live where there are supermarkets and growers markets. Even poorer Afro-Americans who don’t live in food deserts are not disadvantaged in terms of availability of supermarkets.
I’m also not sure how well this issue travels outside the US. My suspicion is that in most of the world, people, even in poor areas, have more access to fresh food, though often far less food choice. I’m almost certain poor minorities would have access to vegetables and fruit in countries like France. The concept of “food deserts” as a cause of poor diet doesn’t really apply in Australian cities, though here (as in the US) rural people, and the urban poor, may have to routinely travel many miles (generally more miles than in the US) to a supermarket. So it seems the situation is specific to the US. It is therefore less appropriate to “take to task” vegan advocates from outside the US, for not considering the impact of entrenched US racism on the socio-economic situation for people in the US.
Going Vegan is Easy?
Regarding whether saying “going vegan is easy” is racist or even classist, one would have to say it is not. Even for African-American (and other) people in the US living in “food deserts”, the issue is how “easy” it is to eat a healthy diet, not how easy it is to eat a plant-based one. Even for them, eating a poor plant-based diet is probably cheaper and easier than eating a poor omnivorous one, and probably healthier as well. It is also my experience that even in fast-food terms, in a pinch, one can get a Subway, burrito, or falafel roll that is vegan, and generally for less than the equivalent product containing animal products.
In my earlier blog, I dealt a bit with the general issue of of whether “going vegan” is easy, and won’t extensively revisit that issue. I think the main point is that in most cases, and definitely in US urban ghettos, food suitable for vegans is available, and cheaper than non-vegan food, whether animal products are in “fast food” or not.
Claiming that “black” people have some special barrier is doing a disservice to the intelligence and will of non-“whites”. (Again, I personally object to the normative use of “black” for all people with a trace of non-Northern-European blood as being essentially an imperialist “otherising” by a racist power elite.)
Also, claiming that “food deserts” particularly affect “black” people neglects Latino, Hispanic, Russian, Indian Sub-continental, East Asian, Eastern European, North African, and Middle-Eastern minorities, all of which are subject to the same economic pressures African-Americans face, and all of whom may live in “food deserts”. If we claim that their cultures are less inclined to fast-food, then we make the issue cultural, and unrelated to distance from a supermarket.
All and all, I don’t believe “food deserts” are really about veganism at all. A plant-based diet is not a special, high-cost diet. It is based on simple, inexpensive, and widely available grains and pulses instead of animal products. It is not elitist. High levels of consumption of animal products traditionally has been the province of elites, especially wealthier people of Northern European ancestry. A predominately plant-based diet is the traditional diet of the poor. If class enters the equation, plant-based food is the diet of the poor and the lower classes. So claiming “veganism is easy” is clearly not classist, or related to economic status. Of course, it isn’t always “easy”, but is virtually always “easier than we think”.
It is, of course, important to eat well. But veganism is an ethical position, not a diet. “Food deserts” are a construct of the a group reporting to the USDA, and of academics associated with that research, in an effort to reduce dietary-related disease. “Food deserts” do not mean food is unavailable, or even difficult to obtain. They mean supermarkets are not accessible from home within (on average) fifteen minutes. They are accessible (on average) only after twenty minutes. Hardly a barrier to a plant-based diet, and certainly no barrier to the ethical position that is veganism.
When people raise the issue of “food deserts” to try and tell vegan activists how difficult it is to become vegan, it should be seen as the excuse it is. It has no more substance than arguments for “cultural relativity” or that humans need meat for health. Veganism is a recognition that we have no ethical right to use other animals as instruments of our pleasure and convenience. They are not “resources”. They are not objects. They are not property. We should not use them for food, clothing, entertainment, or kill them as “pests” when we deem them inconvenient. Whether a supermarket is nearby, or whether there is easy availability of junk food and fast food doesn’t make an iota of difference to this understanding.