The Food Desert Fabrication

A multidisciplinary research team from UC San Francisco and UC San Diego is tackling the issue of so-called “food deserts” with an AI platform. Backed by federal funding, the experts are using big data to address a long-debated and elusive issue. The term food desert has long served as a convenient catch-all to explain why certain communities rely heavily on fast food and convenience store products. Peel back the layers of this flimsy narrative, however, and what you find is not so much a desert as it is a mirage—a myth sold with all the flair of a used car salesman hawking a lemon.

Before going further, one must be clear about what is meant by a food desert. It’s the kind of term that sounds like it something straight out of a dystopian novel—a barren wasteland where sustenance is impossible. In reality, the term refers to areas where access to fresh, healthy food is limited, typically due to a lack of grocery stores or other sources of nutritious sustenance.

Food deserts are regularly presented as a key problem of American society. According to this narrative, the poor, innocent citizens living in these desolate wastelands devoid of kale and quinoa are forced to subsist on a diet of deep-fried despair, all while the evil empire of Big Food profits from their misery.

Now, don’t get me wrong—such places do exist. It can be difficult in some areas to find access to fresh produce nearby.

But the problem arises when we take this concept and wield it like a bludgeon, blaming all manner of dietary woes on the mere proximity of a Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. It’s a convenient scapegoat, allowing us to absolve ourselves of any responsibility for our own eating habits.

This is where the myth begins to unravel: even in the heart of these so-called food deserts, there are often pockets of abundance waiting to be discovered. Farmers’ markets brimming with fresh produce, community gardens bursting with life, even corner stores stocked with fruits and vegetables—all of these defy the narrative of scarcity, offering residents opportunities to make healthier choices.

So why, then, do we cling so tenaciously to the myth of the food desert? Part of it, undoubtedly, stems from our collective desire to find a simple explanation for complex problems. It’s far easier to blame our dietary woes on the absence of a Whole Foods than to grapple with the deeper issues at play.

But there’s another, more insidious reason why the food desert myth persists: it absolves us of responsibility for our own choices. By framing access to healthy food as a matter of geography rather than an act of personal agency, we effectively strip individuals of their power to make meaningful change in their own lives.

And make no mistake—change is sorely needed. The rise of diet-related diseases like obesity and diabetes is not merely a consequence of where we live, but of how we choose to nourish ourselves. It’s a harsh reality, but one we ignore at our peril.

So where do we go from here? The first step is to acknowledge the myth of the food desert, exposing it for the lie it is. Yes, structural factors play a role in shaping our food environment, but they are not the sole determinants of our dietary choices. We must also acknowledge the agency of individuals—the power we each hold to make conscious decisions about what we eat and how we live. Also, contrary to the chorus of naysayers, you don’t need a Swiss bank account or a trust fund to nourish yourself with wholesome fare. The time has come to resist the allure of the golden arches and $5 footlongs (which are no longer only $5, anyway).

Of course, empowerment cannot exist in a vacuum. It requires not only access to healthy food, but also the knowledge and resources to make informed choices. That means investing in nutrition education, supporting local food initiatives, and holding corporations accountable for their role in shaping our food landscape. More specifically, holding Big Food accountable.

Big Food stands as a colossus, its reach extending into the very heart of our daily lives, shaping not just what we eat, but how we think about food itself.

The pernicious influence of Big Food isn’t just about the empty calories and dubious additives they peddle; it’s about the insidious ways they manipulate our perceptions, hijacking our instincts for nourishment with slick marketing and deceptive labeling. They’ve turned our kitchens into battlegrounds, where processed junk masquerades as sustenance, and wholesome ingredients are relegated to the fringes. The real danger lies in how they’ve reshaped our relationship with food, divorcing it from its cultural and communal roots, reducing it to mere trash that’s supposed to fuel our bodies. In their relentless pursuit of profit, they’ve commodified not just food itself, but our very identities, selling us lifestyles packaged in plastic-wrapped promises of happiness.

Although Big Food exerts a powerful influence, we must accept some responsibility for our actions, our decisions, and our questionable eating habits.

Which brings us back to the cautionary tale behind the food desert narrative: The stories we tell ourselves about our diets and our communities are often more fiction than fact. If we truly want to build a healthier food system, we must start by reclaiming our agency, one meal at a time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.