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Using Legal Geography to Interrogate the Food Desert’s Spatial Imaginary

Authors: Alanna Higgins*, West Virginia University
Topics: Legal Geography, Food Systems
Keywords: food deserts, legal geography, spatial imaginary
Session Type: Paper
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Legal geographies foregrounds the analysis of space and place in a normative and critical way, highlighting how both geography and law are not ‘natural phenomena’ and instead produced through formalization and selective uptake of concepts. Law – and therefore policy – is seen as constitutive of social relations, institutional worlds, and social- and self-consciousness. Work within food geographies has included examinations of food deserts, a concept
starting in the early 1990’s that has since been taken up around the world. Food desert research and literature has created a particular ontology around food access that which creates a particular spatial imaginary. Shannon (2014) argues this imaginary bounds problems while simultaneously assigning stigma to places and bodies,
disciplining those who are non-normative in a paternalistic fashion.

This paper examines the food desert spatial imaginary in terms of the legal and policy
solutions directed at healthy food access. Particularly the social relations, unquestioned assumptions, and naturalized categorizations inherent to public health policies focused on obesity prevention are examined. This has moved federally funded nutrition programs away from addressing hunger, towards programmatic goals of lowering the rates of diseases seen to be affected by diet and nutrition. This altered focus has subsumed individuals’ bodies into federal research and programs by creating legislation that bounds problems in discreet ways, making these problems
governable. This examination will help to further highlight how subjectivities are shaped through
law in questioning presuppositions behind dominant and naturalized understandings (Cuomo &
Brickell, 2019; Gillespie & Perry, 2019).

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