Making Food Deserts: The Technopolitics of Mapping Urban Food Access and the Professionalization of Food Justice

Authors: Sydney Giacalone*, Tufts University
Topics: Urban Geography, Geography and Urban Health, Planning Geography
Keywords: Food deserts, food access, technopolitics, expertise, food justice
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/12/2018
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Grand Ballroom D, Astor, 2nd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Through ethnography of the mobilization of the food desert discourse in Baltimore, this research investigates a question only recently possible to assess now several years into the rise of US food desert mapping: what has it meant for “experts” to create and use these maps within the professionalization of food justice? Using ethnographic interviews with city planners and GIS analysts, GIS analysis, and participant observation, I show how the mobilization of food desert maps in Baltimore has depoliticized what was once seen as a politically radical method of representing structural violence. While the scene’s actors recognize histories of spatialized racism and classism as the cause of contemporary food inequality, mapping projects have legitimized a technocratic framing through the creation, circulation, and remaking of their maps in order to produce “readability” and legitimize technocratic interventions. Although counter narratives demonstrate inconsistencies within this discourse, planners construct a-political rationalizations discounting urban food access narratives that do not fit within their project’s modern timeline of progress through food in the city. These findings problematize the notion of food desert maps as “just a starting point” for more nuanced conversation; these maps guide a conversational narrative and political project that not only prescribes surface-level solutions but enacts violence itself by treating structural racism as a factor of past causation but mere present correlation to food access disparities. These findings warrant a reflection among those in the growing field of food justice professionals to think critically about our use of food within work towards justice.

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