Santa Fe-based author and food-policy activist Mark Winne is one of the leaders in the fight to reform our food systems to improve local access and control and ultimately food security. This is abundantly clear in his books Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty and Food Rebels, Guerrilla Gardeners, and Smart-Cookin' Mamas.
Winne does not only challenge the establishment, but also prompts those of us who advocate for a more equitable food system to examine our perceptions and solutions. The debate over funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a clear example. For Winne, the discussion created the opportunity to examine whether the program truly encourages and enables healthy eating. (Read his blog post "Time to Re-think Food Stamps").
This brings us to the latest challenge that Winne posed to the nutrition community: our perceived solution to solving the problem of food deserts. Food deserts are defined as urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. "Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options," said the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service. "The lack of access contributes to a poor diet and can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease."
In a blog post entitled "Access Games," Winne challenges the notion that building a grocery store is the automatic solution to this problem. Citing articles in Health Affairs and Slate, Winne argues that the mere act of building a grocery store in an area of need does not necessarily improve the health and diet habits of the residents. (He also cites articles in The Huffington Post that suggest that residents of the underserved communities are indeed better off with a new grocery store. The Huffington Post, in fact, has an extensive array of articles on the topic).
According to Winne, politicians are quick to create tax breaks and provide other high-cost incentives to bring grocery stores back to the inner cities that they abandoned a couple of decades ago.
"Before we bathe that industry in public cash to entice it back into the hungry food desert marketplace, a market that they played a major role in creating, let’s at least be respectful of how we spend the taxpayers’ money," said Winne. (Incidentally, the newly approved Farm Bill contains $125 million for the government's Healthy Food Financing Initiative, on top of $500 million that has already been distributed).
___________________________________So, should we or should we not encourage the construction of grocery stores in the inner cities? Some experts would argue that having a grocery store is better than not having one. “Simply opening a grocery store doesn’t guarantee anything, but without the access it provides, efforts to address affordability, cooking skills, nutrition, and the effective use of food assistance benefits [e.g. SNAP] become much harder to accomplish,” said Martha Page, executive director of the Hartford Food System..
“Simply opening a grocery store doesn’t guarantee anything, but without the access it provides, efforts to address affordability, cooking skills, nutrition, and the effective use of food assistance benefits [e.g. SNAP] become much harder to accomplish.” --Martha Page, executive director of the Hartford Food System
And Winne offers a concept that is applicable everywhere, whether it is in an inner city neighborhood or rural community in the U.S. or another country."What 'we' think is good for others isn’t a bad place to start, but we better ask the nomads of our food deserts what they want before we get too far down one particular road,"he said. "It’s too easy to fixate on one high-cost strategy; let’s review the evidence first, and give equal measure to all actions. As in nature, diversity usually yields the best result.