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Why are we stuck in the (colonial) desert? Interrogating the Staying Power of the Food Desert Metaphor

Authors: Erica Zurawski*, University of California Santa Cruz
Topics: Food Systems, Human-Environment Geography, Cultural and Political Ecology
Keywords: food deserts, Black geographies, food justice, wastelanding
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The food desert metaphor has been emphatically critiqued by scholars/activists like Ashanté Reese, Monica White, Alison Alkon, Karen Washington, Leah Penniman, and Julie Guthman. These critiques admonish the metaphor for how it dehumanizes the people within “food deserts”; misrepresents actual food geographies; obscures how communities thrive and negotiate food landscapes; and elides the complex socio-spatial processes that create food inequity. Despite interdisciplinary critiques, the metaphor remains affixed in popular and bureaucratic imaginaries, demonstrating its powerful hold on discussions, visualizations and solutions to food inequities. This paradox is where I dig in: why is the metaphor still so prominent despite the critiques? My paper centers Black geographic analytics with literature on wastelanding, depoliticization, and food justice to understand this paradox. This analytical conjuncture visibilizes how the metaphor upholds white supremacist and colonial imaginaries of space, thereby reproducing bio-centric and racist notions of humanness. I argue this shows how the metaphor reinforces rather than upends the geographies of domination that created food inequity to begin with, exemplified in efforts to eradicate “food deserts” that justify naturalization of food inequity, new waves of extraction and exploitation, and uneven development. This analysis builds on food justice research and organizing that centers abolitionist, decolonial, and liberatory praxes by unsettling Western, geographic traditions that reproduce hegemonic spatial orders that begin and end with lack. Instead, incorporating a Black geographic analytic that begins and ends with life, survival, and vibrance allows us to see food inequitable landscapes as sites of struggle and alterability towards new geographic practices.

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