A food desert is an area that has limited access to affordable and nutritious food,[1][2][3] in contrast with an area with higher access to supermarkets or vegetable shops with fresh foods, which is called a food oasis.[4] The designation considers the type and quality of food available to the population, in addition to the accessibility of the food through the size and proximity of the food stores.[5]

Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_desert

Transport and accessing food retailers

The above is fairly useful as a definition but fails to mention access to transport. It’s this that plays a part in someone deciding whether or not they live in a food desert. Let’s take top end of Chadwell St. Mary, a mainly working class overspill development to the north of Tilbury as an example. If you have access to a car, you’re a ten minute drive from ASDA down at Tilbury and just over fifteen minutes from Sainsbury’s at Chafford Hundred. If it was suggested to someone living there with a car that they live in a food desert, they’d scoff at the idea.

Okay, you’re a pensioner living at the top end of Chadwell St. Mary who for various reasons has had to give up driving. Sure, there are bus services but getting a bus down to ASDA and having to lug a load of shopping back on the return journey before walking back home from the bus stop can be an effort. For a pensioner with health issues, the prospect of having to make that bus journey could be very daunting. Sure, there’s online shopping options and home delivery but not every pensioner is on the internet or has the confidence to navigate the shopping menu. The older the pensioner, the more likely they are to not be on the internet. Also, even if they can access online shopping, during a lockdown, there’s a lot of demand and securing a slot can prove to be difficult.

That leaves them with the option of local convenience stores. There are a couple at Defoe Parade and a Tesco attached to a filling station further down towards Riverview. The issues are a bit of a limited choice, particularly when it comes to fresh vegetables. With Tesco, the issue is that they can be a bit pricey.

Planning assumptions and food shops

While there can be an objective definition of what a food desert is, people’s specific circumstances dictate whether or not they feel they live in. Essentially, it depends on social class, income and access to transport. Obviously, the way neighbourhoods have grown and been developed and how retail locations have emerged as a consequence of this also plays a part. As do the assumptions that underlie planning decisions, one being that pretty much everyone has access to a car and won’t mind driving for ten to twenty minutes to get to the supermarket if need be. Which as assumptions go is pretty crass to be honest.

Some people will ask why live in a neighbourhood where you pretty much have to have a car to live anything like a convenient and decent life if you don’t or no longer drive? People’s circumstances do change and illness and/or old age that prevents you from driving can be cruelly life limiting and moving may simply not be a possibility. If you’re a single parent who’s been on the housing waiting list in a London borough and you’re given a take it or get off the list offer of accommodation away from the capital, you often have to take the offer, even if you end up a long way from any decent food shops. It’s the same if you’re a refugee – generally there’s just the one offer. Refusal in these instances will mean eventual homelessness.

Also, it may be the case that when someone moved into a neighbourhood a few decades ago, there was a local shopping parade with a grocer, greengrocer, butcher, etc. within easy walking distance. Over the decades competition from supermarkets has wiped a lot of these small retailers out and your average local shopping parade may have a takeaway, a hairdresser and a nail bar but nothing offering nutritious food. Living in a capitalist society offers an illusion of choice but it’s just that, an illusion. Food retail outlets will be located where the most profit can be generated. If the majority of the surrounding population find that ‘convenient’ and the outlet generates enough of an income, then if twenty percent of the surrounding population can’t for whatever reason, access that store without difficulty, that’s tough luck. So long as the profit margins are high enough, those who fall through the net can be dismissed.

Divorced from the land

Ever since our ancestors were turfed off the land and forced to work in rapidly growing cities at the outset of the Industrial Revolution, we’ve been losing control over how we source our food. Yes, life as a peasant was hard but there was some degree of independence in being able to access a small plot of land to supply at least some of your needs. Industrialisation and the development of a society with more divisions of labour meant that by and large, food production was effectively outsourced. Granted, the development of allotments was a bit of a bulwark against this tendency. On the one hand, the ruling class and their lackeys in the bourgeoisie may have been slightly uneasy about allotments allowing a section of the working class to regain some degree of control over their food supply. However, on the other hand, they saw working on an allotment as instilling a degree of responsibility and discipline. Also, factory and mine owners wanted a fit workforce and saw workers having allotments generating a supply of fresh food as instrumental in helping to achieve this aim.

Interest in and demand for allotments has waxed and waned throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty first. Obviously events such as World War Two and ‘Dig For Victory’ meant that every available piece of fertile ground that could be dug up to grow food was dug up. Understandably, after post war austerity was over, with the spread off affluence from the mid 1950s onwards into the 1960s, the growth of supermarkets and a sense of optimism about what technology could do for us, the hard graft of maintaining an allotment had less of an appeal.

For those of us old enough to remember, the advert for Smash was the epitome of this. Smash was processed, dried potato granules where all you had to do was add boiling water, stir for a few seconds and hey presto, you ended up with something the manufacturer wanted us to believe was ‘mashed potato’. The advert was a spaceship with aliens laughing at the earthlings they were observing who were peeling, boiling and then manually mashing potatoes to get mashed potato. This was in the 1960s when we really started to get divorced from how our food was produced and just saw it as something coming from a factory with only a vague connection to the land. It was the decade that saw the rise of the consumer society, where lives were getting busier and there was generally, less inclination to spend the weekend tending the allotment when there was a growing number of alternative, less strenuous leisure activities on offer.

Taking back control?

Since then, although demand for allotments has fluctuated, there has been a growing level of interest in where and how our food is sourced, albeit it has tended to be more of a middle class thing. The talk of possible disruption to food supply chains in the event of a post Brexit trade deal not being reached was one factor in focusing some people’s minds on the complexity of how we get our food. At the start of the COVID19 crisis back in March, when there was a lot of uncertainty, a fair few people fearing they may have to spend some weeks indoors self isolating brought what they thought would be needed to get them through. This led to an increase in demand on a number of lines of food staples as well as bog rolls and sanitising products. With the complex and finely calibrated ‘just in time’ food supply chains we have, it only takes an increase in demand of just a few percentage points and hey presto, it’s empty shelf time! Needless to say, in a febrile atmosphere, the sight of empty shelves prompted more people to flock to the supermarkets to try and stock up, thereby exacerbating the problem.

This did prompt more people to start asking questions about where our food comes from and why are the supply chains so complex and all too easy to disrupt. The extended time off many people had plus the fine weather did lead to a growing interest in people growing their own food. There have also been conversations about what’s needed in a diet to boost the immune system. All of this and more has led to an increase in the number of people starting to grow their own food.

Obviously, this is a very welcome trend as the more of our food we can grow and preserve for ourselves, the more we can gain some degree of control over our lives. Whoever, controls the food supply, controls the population. With the growing level of cynicism about the narrative we’re being fed to justify the lockdowns and restrictions during the COVID19 crisis, trust in national government, local authorities and the mainstream media is in decline. With this increasing loss of faith, a growing number of people are thinking maybe it’s time we started to pay more attention to where our food comes from and start to have some control over that by increasing the amount we grow ourselves. Whether you agree with the thinking and motivation of some of the people taking this route is a matter for debate. However, we should not let that debate cloud the good news there’s an increasing number of people who want to take back some control over their lives and health by growing their own food.

The answer to food deserts would be taking over control of the planning process from the grassroots upwards so our neighbourhoods grow and develop for the benefit of all residents. That would mean a better distribution of food supply outlets. Well, we can all dream can’t we?! It’s something that has to and will happen after we take power back down to the grassroots. In the meantime, there’s still plenty that can be done to start taking more control of our food supply.