Many in the Slow Food community are likely familiar with the term food desert, used to describe an area that has limited access to fresh, healthy and affordable food. This is an issue in the UK, where more than one million people and one in ten low-income communities are part of a food desert.[1] The reasons behind this can be complicated and many[2], but often include poverty, insufficient transport and over-concentrations of fast food and corner shops—and some argue this is by design. A growing group of activists are pointing to the historical and structural issues related to race and class that intentionally deny some people access to fresh and healthy foods. Rather than food deserts, they say this is a food apartheid, in which the color of one’s skin is a determining factor for accessing good and affordable food.

What is food apartheid and where does the term come from?

The term and the associated movement are credited to Karen Washington[3], a Black urban gardening activist from the Bronx who grew increasingly frustrated by the lack of attention on race when discussing food inequality in America. Washington looked around at the predominantly white food justice landscape and realized that something had to be done to call attention to race as one of the leading predicators of a person’s access to quality food. By coining the term food apartheid, Washington highlights the political, intentional barriers to food that exist in communities of color. Identifying this as a food apartheid not only moves beyond the term food desert, but also points out some of its flaws. One of the issues is that calling a place a food desert divorces it from the political underpinnings that create food inequalities. It suggests that these are natural spaces—like deserts in a landscape—when in reality the systems that create them are political and man-made. There are many examples of race-based inequalities in the food system, like how Black farmers in the US hold a disproportionately small share of US-farmland (just 2% as of 2021)[4] and are denied loans at higher rates than their white counterparts.[5] Or in the UK, where Black households are four times more likely to experience food insecurity, reflecting broader societal inequalities that lead to poverty (like how ethnic minority workers are significantly overrepresented on zero-hours contracts).[6] Frustratingly, research on the impacts of race on food access in the UK is limited, even when studies from the US confirm the existence of race-based food poverty.[7]

What’s wrong with the term food desert?

It is important to consider how the widespread use of the term food desert may harm the communities it is meant to describe and the broader food justice movement. For one, the term is easy to co-opt and corrupt, making it possible for corporations and politicians to give lip service to the issue without acknowledging their roles in creating it. Large corporate retailers like Walmart have described food deserts as motivation to enter low-income areas.[8] While proximity to a supermarket grocer like Walmart can improve hunger,[9] it can also lead to increases in obesity[10] through the availability of cheap, unhealthy foods and negatively affect local economies.[11] The term shields the corporation from criticism, arguing that they are simply bringing more affordable food to communities in need; this distracts from real solutions in which we would focus on providing healthy foods at fair prices that also support local growers and retailers. Food apartheid is a confronting and descriptive term, and far less likely than food desert to be used for disingenuous economic or political interests. There is nowhere to hide with food apartheid, as it forces us to consider what it is trying to convey: our food system intentionally denies certain communities access to nutritious foods.

Why is this important?

Language is a powerful tool for social justice, communicating a movement’s aims and claims in the hopes it will motivate and inform the broader public. The emergence of the term food desert was itself an important step, originating in Scotland in the 1990s as a way to describe the poor quality diets of those in low-income areas.[12] Perhaps now though it is time to reconsider how we describe areas that lack access to good food, particularly when discussing those of color and especially when activists from those communities are asking us to do so. While food desert may still have a place in the lexicon in the UK—where predominantly white communities can also experience food scarcity and inequality—food apartheid acknowledges the racial, economic and structural issues that limit some people’s access to healthy food. Food apartheid appears to be an appropriate evolution of a concept meant to highlight food system injustices, and one we as members of the good food movement should consider using.

Lizzy Rainey is a graduate student at the University of Sussex studying Food and Development. She also works for an international fruit-tree planting charity and is a certified Master Gardener in the United States. Her academic and professional interests include supporting indigenous food knowledges, local food systems and alternative ways of understanding and communicating about food. Follow her on Instagram @lizzyrainey and her nonprofit work at @fruittreeplantingfoundation.

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[1] Social Market Foundation & Kellogg’s, 2018

[2] A Systematic Review of Food Deserts (1966-2007), 2009

[3] The Guardian, 2021

[4] The Nation, 2021

[5] Politico, 2021

[6] The Independent, 2022

[7] Racial Differences in Perceived Food Swamp and Food Desert Exposure and Disparities in Self-Reported Dietary Habits, 2020

[8] Ebony, 2013

[9] Do Walmart Supercenters Improve Food Security? 2018

[10] Supersizing Supercenters? The impact of Walmart on body mass index and obesity, 2011

[11] The changing landscapes of food deserts, 2019

[12] “Food deserts”—evidence and assumption in health policy making, 2002