A whole new wrinkle: ‘food desert identity theft’

Posted by
February 21, 2012


I guess I really must be  ‘out of the loop’,  because I’ve just discovered that I live smack in the middle of a “food desert.”

Living in a “food desert,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, means I have “low access to a supermarket or large grocery store” (defined as within one mile in a urban area or ten miles in a rural location, such as mine), which, according to the experts, results in poor food choices, lack of fresh fruits and vegetables and dinners comprised of of chips and soda from the corner convenience market.

Now, I won’t deny that such places do exist in America, What surprised me, however, was to find the location where I reside designated among them.

But there it was, right inside a “pink zone” of  fresh-food deprivation on the USDA’s Food Desert Locator, which provides an overview of  “high concentrations of people in “low income census tracts” who lack ready access to the requisite retail outlets. Now, I can’t speak for the rest of the places that are represented on this map, but this is something I have never personally considered a problem — especially since our “food desert” includes a chain supermarket that’s less than a mile from my house, not to mention an in-season weekend farmers market several blocks away.

While I don’t want to brag, I’ve always thought where I live in South Jersey to be a pretty special location.  Aside from the natural beauty of an area buffered by the Pinelands National Reserve (which helps recharge an aquifer holding some of the purest water in the U.S.) on one side, and some popular beach communities on the other, there is also no shortage of places to shop for food, including all the standard “big box” stores (although located a tad out of the 10-mile “desert” radius). So you can imagine how taken aback I was to see my location designated as being among those lacking in places to buy apples, oranges and fresh veggies.

The “food desert” designation and the images it conjures up of a barren landscape devoid of healthy dietary staples is also a big part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, as well as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ “Healthy Food Financing Initiative” (HFFI).

Enter Walmart with a plan to ‘reclaim’ food deserts…

Now, I’m all for any program that promotes “farmers markets, small retailers and corner stores” of the kind the HFFI talks about. But lately, the world’s biggest retailer has gotten into the act in a big way  – and has made reclaiming those “food deserts” a major part of its current and future development plans.

Last summer Mrs. Obama announced she was “joining forces” with “grocery giants,” including Walmart, to “stamp out food deserts” so “parents will have a fresh food retailer right in their community – a place that sells healthy food, at reasonable prices.” Left out of that equation, of course, is how many existing farmers markets, produce stands and co-ops may be driven out of business by Walmart’s subsequent pledge to bring “healthier” foods to “800,000 underserved Americans” by jumping on board a government-funded program to bring new stores to “more than 700 food deserts.”

So do those having the convenience of a Walmart in the immediate neighborhood eat more whole grains, fruits and veggies? From what I’ve seen while shopping at my nearby Walmart (which is precisely 10.6 miles away from my doorstep, according to Google maps), customers seem to be loading up on just as much junk food there as anywhere else. But, as it happens, Walmart plans not only to lead people out of the desert, but to a land of foods that are simply “Great for You.”

…and a new symbol to help guide folks out

At the beginning of the month, to considerable fanfare, Walmart introduced its new front-of-package icon to be applied to food products that conform to the mega-retailer’s standard of healthiness. It consists of  a white and green-outlined person-shaped symbol with outstretched arms, below which are the words “GREAT FOR YOU”  – a pretty broad assumption, considering that what may be “great for you” may not be particularly great for others.

Although a relative latecomer to the game, Walmart has now joined the “healthy foods” promotion movement, which already includes other grocery chains such as Safeway and Stop & Shop, as well as academia and the food industry itself. All have devised symbols, logos and numbers to promote certain food products as “healthier,” a claim that is often, shall we say, highly questionable.

For now, Walmart has reserved the label for its own “Great Value” products, mostly bagged salads, fruits, canned vegetables and fresh eggs (which were belatedly added  and reportedly almost didn’t make the “great” cut at all).  The company says other brands can participate at no licensing fee if their products meet the requirements of the program.

All this comes at a time when our federal leader in “nutrition,” the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, is still groping for ways to make nutritional labeling easier to understand. But Walmart feels it has found the solution to helping “Walmart moms” as they’re referred to, while addressing “an issue many feel is too complicated or too hard to tackle…”

Walmart’s new icon system is part of the corporation’s “Healthier Food Initiative” program, which, you may have guessed by now, includes building more and more stores across the country to help do away with “food deserts” – presumably including the one I supposedly live in.

My community, however, may soon be able to toss aside the stigma of that label, thanks to plans for a Super Walmart to be located here (precisely 1.8 miles from my house). True, those plans were held up a bit, as some people really didn’t like the idea of such a superstore coming to town, especially with another Walmart a mere 10 miles up the road; even the local police chief went on record about traffic concerns.  And then there was the issue of  several endangered species being found at the proposed location, to say nothing of the local businesses that may soon be endangered as well.

But all those nebulous roadblocks, I feel quite sure, will end up being tossed aside in order to save us from the deprivations of living in a “food desert” –  even one that seems to be more like a case of “food desert identity theft.”

Linda Bonvie  FoodIdentityTheft.com