Food Deserts Are Not a Myth.

Part of the Fairway wholesale foods market under the Joe DiMaggio (West Side) Highway in West Harlem, NYC. via gaspi yg, via CC 2.0.

Sigh.  I’ll try and keep this brief, because we could be here for days.

John McWhorter is wrong.

In his piece for the Root, McWhorter argues that food access is not really a problem, and that it is not related with obesity levels.  He picks the West side of Harlem as his proof (emphasis mine):

Specifically, we are taught to think that the black obesity problem is in large part a matter of societal injustice. The story goes that the rise in obesity among the poor is due to a paucity of supermarkets in inner-city areas. This factoid has quite a hold on the general conversation about health issues and the poor, for two reasons. One is that it sits easily in the memory. The other is that it corresponds to our sense that poor people’s problems are not their fault — which quite often they are not — and that reversing the problem will require undoing said injustice.

The trouble is that it is impossible to truly see a causal relationship between inner-city obesity and the distance of the supermarket when you live, for example, in New York.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.  Actually, there’s a lot wrong there, but let’s start with the bolded statement.

While I am delighted that West Harlem has a large and affordable supermarket, that bit of cherrypicking actually refutes McWhorter’s point. (Although affordability is debatable, that particular congressional district, NY-15, has a 21.8% food stamp participation rate, with the average household monthly benefit of $267.54.  But I digress.)

I’ll lay it out for him.  Obesity (along with hunger) is dramatically higher among poor communities.  And guess what?  If you are poor, your access to affordable, nutritious food is more likely to be limited.  In fact, this is such a problem in New York  that the city’s Department of City Planning  even commissioned a study documenting the  extensive lack of supermarkets in New York. The study singles out neighborhoods like Central and East Harlem (hmm, wonder why McWhorter went with West Harlem?) in Manhattan, Bushwick and Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn and almost all of Queens for lack of accessible grocery stores.  And let’s not forget the next congressional district over, NY-16 in the South Bronx.  As I’ve mentioned before, the South Bronx has the distinction of being one of the poorest, most obese, and most food insecure (40% of residents particpate in the food stamp program) communities in New York, and in the country.

There’s also a larger and more disconcerting problem with McWhorter’s argument.  He says:

The no-supermarket paradigm discourages us from considering that human beings acquire — through childhood experience, cultural preferences and economics — a palate. Note that the economy is part of the equation: The cheapness of sugary drinks is notorious, thanks to the popularity and influence of the muckraking 2008 documentary Food, Inc. and Eric Schlosser’s best-selling book Fast Food Nation, which was made into a movie in 2006.

Culture, too, creates a palate — and to point that out is not to find “fault.” Example: Slavery and sharecropping didn’t make healthy eating easy for black people back in the day. Salt and grease were what they had, and Southern blacks brought their culinary tastes North (Zora Neale Hurston used to bless her friend Langston Hughes with fried-chicken dinners). Fried food, such as fried chicken, was also easy to transport for blacks traveling in the days of Jim Crow, when bringing your own food on the road was a wise decision.

As quadmoniker has mentioned before, this country suffers from “a fundamental misunderstanding of what the word culture means and how culture arises“, particularly when it comes to nonwhites, and McWhorter should know better than to use it as justification for acquiring tastes.  Furthermore, science tells us that it’s not just black people that like salty, fatty, sugary foods — we’re all biologically predisposed to go after those foods, a vestige of our days as hunter-gatherers with unstable food sources.  Using culture to justify a like of fried food is not only lazy, it’s just not true.  And again, McWhorter illustrates my earlier point.  Know why “slavery and sharecropping didn’t make healthy eating easy for black people”?  Because slaves and sharecroppers lived in poverty.  And in case you missed it earlier, poverty makes it hard to eat a healthy diet.


Fur coating and shit.

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  • MH8D

    I didn’t read McWhorter’s position to be as extreme as you are making it seem here. What I infer from his piece is that simply providing people with access to a thing doesn’t make them any more personally inclined to actually use it.
    A convenient supermarket full of fresh fruits and vegetables doesn’t in and of itself instantly change the routines of people who are in the habit of popping in and out of Popeye’s for a 3 piece dinner instead of going to the market, shopping, and cooking meals at home.
    I think he’s calling the food desert a myth in the same way that the welfare queen or the black man on the downlow who spreads HIV to black women is a myth. They exist, but are not nearly as ubiquitous or causal as many people would like to believe.

    • Nicole

      The latest population estimates for New York City are about 8.3 million people. The city itself says that three million New Yorkers live in areas that have a high need for supermarkets. That’s more than one in three people. Seeing as we’re talking about people being able to feed themselves properly, how much higher does it need to be?

      And you’re right, providing access doesn’t automatically change behavior. But there’s no way you’re going to bypass Popeye’s you don’t have any other options. I’m of the mind that we should save the “not making the ‘right’ choice” argument for people that actually have choices. McWhorter used a single cherry picked neighborhood to extrapolate a conclusion for the rest of the city that simply isn’t true.

      • MH8D

        Maybe he did cherry-pick the neighborhood to illustrate his point, but I would tend to say that you just can’t make the food desert argument for anyone who lives in Manhattan. It’s densely populated, but it is not a very large place physically. Also with regard to real groceries in Central and East Harlem, there is a Pathmark at 125th. & Lexington. I’ve never been inside, so I am unaware of the quality of their produce or the accessibility of their prices, but it’s there and certainly conveniently located for people living in Central or East Harlem.

  • quadmoniker

    Also, Fairway is not in West Harlem. It’s in what used to be West Harlem, and is now an extension of the Upper West Side. Part of the reason it became a nice neighborhood is that Fairway was there.

    Also, until recently I lived in an area that is technically not a food dessert because there is a supermarket .8 miles from my house, and desserts are defined as not having one in a mile radius. But I had to force myself to walk that .8 miles with bags, and even some days I couldn’t do that, and I don’t have kids to cart around.

    • My bad on this, there’s a new Fairway that actually is in Harlem. But still. It’s newish.

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  • Carl

    Something isn’t right here. I crafted numerous responses. I’m at work. Slacking. But you forgot to mention. POOR people have agency, and poor people make choices. Poor people can make bad choices.

    Maybe I have just been lucky or maybe I’m in great shape. But I have never believed I was ever in food dessert living in Central, West, or East Harlem. Central and West Harlem are nearly same area btw. I can name five supermarkets/ grocery stores, ethnic markets (not beodegas) that are less than a block away and I live in Central Harlem. There are more markets in Harlem than near my job in times square area/ hells ktichen.

    @ MH8D
    I agree wholeheartly

    Fairway is not in the Upper Westside. That is absurd. New York Mag disagrees also. It may be far west. Morningside Heights maybe. But is still in Harlem. Expensive yes. UWS no.

    • Morningside Heights is the new Real Estate marketing name for an area that used to be Harlem.

      • thatpurplestuff

        Actually, the term “Morningside Heights” has been around since the 1890s -mainly because it’s home to the intellectual abyss known as Columbia University, which was founded in 1754.

    • People make choices, but I think that conditions shape choices way more than we think they do. For example, it’s very difficult to get places by walking in Memphis, but in New York, it is easier. New Yorkers tend to walk more, not because they are better people than Memphians, but because they can.

    • Nicole

      No one’s saying poor people can’t make choices. But if the only readily available choice is between fast food and an overpriced mushy apple from a corner bodega, that’s not really giving people much of a choice, is it?

      Food deserts aren’t just about having a grocery store around the corner either- it’s about having a store where you can afford to shop..

      • Scipio Africanus

        The point McWhorter brings up about the program to add fruits and vegetables to regular bodegas not working that well shouldn’t be ignored, though.

        • Nicole

          Agreed. But solve the access issue first, don’t discount it as a “myth”. If there are no fruits or veg in your neighborhood, you don’t even have the option to buy them.

          And as for as the results of the Healthy Bodega initiative, I’m doing some more research into what those rates look like for similar initiatives. I would say 1 in 4 people buying more fresh fruit/veg is a significant step up, given the magnitude of the problem in the Healthy Bodega neighborhoods.

      • Carl

        This is so complicated.

        I live in Harlem. Saying those are the only choices is absurb. Manhattan is not a great place to analyze. The links you provided are interesting. I live Harlem work Midtwon, there are far more grocery stores in Harlem with better quality food than in the midtwon area from 38th to 59th.

        I rewrote that response 30 times I took out important parts. Food in Harlem is not whole foods quality, but it is still quality and lowcost. I can’t neccessairly extrapolate to all of America. But that does say something.

        THe larger issue is an indictment of capatalism. Am I right? I don’t know how to handle that

  • Madjoy

    I live near Fairway (I think the area is technically called “Manhattanville” these days, but yeah, basically West Harlem.) Though it’s worth noting (if you look at the recent Census data that just came out) that the immediate area is less black than if you go at all east, and less Hispanic than if you go at all north. The actual census tract is pretty diverse, though it’s definitely in a state of gentrification right now (which I’m probably not helping with).

    That said, I think it’s worth noting that Fairway is a very different kind of supermarket than C-Town, which if you live just a little further east, is all that’s in comfortable walking distance. Fairway has tons of organic, vegetarian, gourmet food, and at reasonable prices. I find that C-Town isn’t actually cheaper for a lot of items, but has a much more limited and less healthy selection. It’s still not bad, for sure – you can get fresh fruits and vegetables. But it’s not the same.

    So Fairway is in far-west-Harlem, and its area is different in a lot of ways than the rest of West Harlem. When you live in New York, you don’t have a car, and you’re carrying your groceries home (especially in Harlem, where there seem to be fewer train and bus options to get where you want to go. There aren’t any buses that stop right by Fairway, though the BX15 isn’t too far – it just comes somewhat infrequently). So small amounts of distance make a big difference when you’re choosing your supermarket (or overpriced neighborhood deli across the street).

    I think the bigger issue is the proliferation of fast food restaurants in the area. My boyfriend was living in downtown Manhattan last year, and the contrast between dine-out options is tremendous. Seriously, the only places that deliver here are fast-food Chinese and fast-food pizza/Italian, or you could stop by such wonderful neighborhood restaurants as McDonalds, Checkers, Dunkin’ Donuts, etc… And because I’m lazy, I do it. I get terrible egg-and-cheese biscuits at Dunkin’ Donuts and feel guilty about it.

    Anyway. I agree that using “Fairway” and its proximity to West Harlem doesn’t make sense nor prove the author’s intended point whatsoever.

  • quadmoniker

    I’d also just say that Fairway’s mission is to go into under-served areas where it can buy land cheaply. They always promise to employ local residents, but they can’t help the fact that the presence of a Fairway changes the neighborhood.

  • @Nicole
    You are educating the hell out of me with these food posts. There’s so much here to think on: access,geography,agency,culture,class,race etc. etc.

    Thanks for this.

  • young_

    Great read. I don’t know much about this issue but suspected that McWhorter was (once again) inappropriately extrapolating on the basis of a non-random, non-representative anecdotal observation (it’s one of his MO’s).

    That being said, it’s not clear to me that his cultural argument is completely wrong– it just seems more like it’s overstated. Do you doubt that palates, like other types of tastes are significantly culturally informed? The type of food we are exposed to in our formative years can shape our tastes in foods for the rest of our lives, barring other intervening cultural influences (like the types lots of us receive when we go off to college and gain broader exposure to the world). Middle-class, middle-aged people in my family use a lot of salt and pour tons of sugar into their coffee and iced tea not our of economic necessity, but because it’s what their family and friends did when they were growing up, which shaped their tastes concerning food.

  • msl

    It’s also interesting to look at who shops at Fairway vs. C-Town in the neighborhood, because class is probably at work here on top of all the other issues. I was a regular Fairway shopper when I lived nearby, and I liked it because, if you’re careful, and buy the cheap stuff, you can get excellent-quality fruits and vegetables for a good price. However, the clientele there seemed (at a glance, of course, I wasn’t checking tax returns) to be fairly well-off, and many of them were crossing the GW bridge over from Jersey. Also, firemen: just about every time I went in there, I saw grocery-shopping firemen.

    Fairway’s marketing places it within an upper-middle-class milleu and that might turn away people who are not of that demographic, who think “this isn’t for me.” Which of course is too bad, because it was a great supermarket with just about something for everyone. No one makes you buy the proscutto de parma, but its presence could make a person less likely to find out if Boar’s Head ham is on sale that week.

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  • aisha

    At the end of the day it’s a both/and situation. Both arguments have merit. It’s best to do environmental change along with education for the greatest impact. For example cigarette taxes go right along with cessastion programs. I think it’s very easy for you to marry your stance with his. It doesn’t have to be polar arguements.

    There is more to it than just bringing the grocery store to a person. To buy those fresh veggies one will have to shop more than once a month or the food will perish. A person will have to want to spend time cooking. Even if a person then cooks who’s to say they won’t use fat back and lard in everything. As you know it’s really complicated.

    I may have missed something but are you saying in your last point that eliminating food deserts are a tool to reducing poverty?

  • a thought experiment:

    you are poor, earning less than $15K annually, a single mother with one child. You live in an ultra-rural area (continental climate), in a trailer, are a recent immigrant (good English), and are an hour’s, backfiring (old car), terrifying ride from the nearest grocery store. The community in which you live is small and everyone commutes to jobs at least an hour away. Time for gardening is severely limited by the need to make money for survival. There is no fast food. There are no choices except that which exists in the big-box grocery store.

    Do you live in a food desert? Is it unreasonable to expect the mother and her fellow community members to make the trip and buy healthy food? What if they share a unique culture in which that healthy food is glorified as a way of living the ideal life? (yes, by now you’ve realized this is not a thought experiment at all)