What's in a Name?

Contributor:  Dania Baraka

If you are a frequent reader of the Food Disparities blog here at MedEq, you most likely have realized a consistent pattern in our posts and our outside endeavors: “How do we tackle the ‘food desert’ that is Detroit?” I put ‘food desert’ in quotations because it seems that there has been talks about the validity of food deserts. Are they overhyped? Do they even exist? While most academic researchers will tell you that food deserts are very much a real obstacle for many urban areas, there are some out there saying that the term has been over used. A New York Times article, “Studies Question the Pairing of Food Deserts and Obesity,” written by Gina Kolata, refutes the term ‘Food Desert’, citing multiple studies that in fact, there is no problem when it comes to lower income communities having access to fresh produce. In turn, these studies are having experts wonder if the solution to obesity rates in urban setting can actually be improved through providing more access to fresh produce. In short, the fresh produce is out there and it exists, but people are not rushing to buy this produce. There have been numerous national campaigns and programs advocating this issue, but there seems to be no change in these obesity rates. So what gives?

Advocating for grocery stores is easy, but just because you can lead a horse to water you can’t make it drink. The article, in my opinion, seemed to only solely take into account that because there are resources for urban communities to buy fresh produce, obesity rates should be skyrocket high compared to the suburbs. But inside these grocery stores, what was the status of the produce? If the produce is not being bought, surely that means it will be on the shelves longer and may not look or even be fit for consumption by people (fresh produce is basic human right). A more important factor is the prices of produce in the stores. What’s cheaper at the end of a day for a family who struggles to get by: two bags of chips for the price of one or an apple? Certainly the tally of how many grocers are in an area isn’t an adequate way to debunk the ‘food desert’ actuality. However, a combination of access, innovation, and education is the key to getting to the root of obesity problems, and in those areas, urban settings just do not compare with suburban superiority. Affordable food, education, and promotion should all be taken into account when questioning the validity of food deserts.

 So, how does our fair city of Detroit stack up? It’s hard to say. Assessing the food desert claim is more than just seeing how grocers are on a map, but rather that perceptions and education of our community. UM School of Public Health reported that Detroit was a food desert based on research of “chain” supermarkets and their proximity to large numbers of residents, but this is hardly a fair representative of the food system of Detroit. While big box stores are largely lacking, there are many independent stores with full access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Likewise, just because there are many independent ‘grocers’ doesn’t always mean that they each serve the same low priced, fresh produce – so the amount of grocery stores and their proximity to people cannot be the sole way to determine whether a city should be called a Food Desert, and more access definitely is the not the only solution to the obesity crisis here. Even more, Detroit is a city with a huge emphasis on community gardens and urban agriculture, which is an excellent way to educate and provide access to fresh produce to residents. Such initiatives are largely ignored when factoring in whether a city can be called a food desert or not.

Can Detroit be called a food desert? Alex B. Hill, of alexbhill.org, set out to do his own investigations into the claims of Detroit and its food deserts:

Just because a grocery store is close by doesn’t mean that it has a huge fresh foods section or many healthy options. New research has noted that distance to healthy food may be psychological. This is where greater education on healthy food is necessary to create a more direct connection between people and healthy eating. I have been using the Nutrition Environment Measures Survey (NEMS) in order to attempt to get a more accurate picture of access to healthy foods. NEMS criteria focuses on comparing availability, price, and quality of foods between healthy food options and less healthy food options. Access is more than just distance and can include issues with the stores not stocking healthier food options, the quality of healthy foods available, and most importantly the price (2).

His findings were contrary to the label. Most grocers had a fresh produce section, and while the variety and size differed from store to store, fresh produce was largely available and fresh. However, in many of these stores, price was definitely seen as a hindrance, and more than likely deterred families from purchasing fresh produce. My thoughts on the term of food desert and whether Detroit qualifies as one are such: for a majority, the lack of fresh produce is not the problem, rather the financial access and the education and awareness of such resources to local inner city families. A combination of all three must be a part of the solution in order to adequately address the problem. In the meanwhile: if the term ‘food desert’ is going to cause an increase in the amount of community gardens, initiatives in education on healthy nutrition, and competition between grocery stores on who has the lowest prices in produce as a response to what some might call a community scare, well I guess I cannot really complain about its label on Detroit as we progress onwards to a healthier state. 


1. Kolata, Gina. "Studies Question the Pairing of Food Deserts and Obesity." The New York Times. NYT, 17 Apr. 2012. Web. 29 Feb. 2016.

2. Hill, Alex B. "The History and Conflict of Food Access in Detroit." Alex B. Hill. N.p., 2 May 2012. Web. 29 Feb. 2016.