The Food Desert Problem/Possibility: Threading Desert Imaginaries in the Ideology of Improvement to the Food Desert

Authors: Erica Zurawski*, University of California Santa Cruz
Topics: Food Systems, Human-Environment Geography, Social Geography
Keywords: food desert, ideology of improvement, desert imaginaries, food access
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/10/2021
Start / End Time: 11:10 AM / 12:25 PM
Room: Virtual 31
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The food desert concept has received considerable and necessary criticisms. Despite these critiques, analyses have not extended far enough to examine how hegemonic mobilizations of the food desert are tethered to long histories of desert imaginaries and ideologies of improvement that are deeply rooted in colonial notions of race, place, and nature. In subtle ways, the desert and wasteland imaginaries woven into the food desert metaphor offer a peek into the ideology of improvement that lays at the bedrock of the food desert. By teasing out these imaginaries and their material manifestations through improvement and anti-desertification projects, I argue that the food deserts mimic the same cycle of condemnation, devastation, and redemption found in colonial representations of desert and wastelands. As both problem and possibility, the food desert draws on a long-standing history of desert imperialism and ideological wastelanding that represents the desert as barren, lacking, uncivilized, and uncultivated, which offers up the food desert as a terra economica, a not-yet-improved landscape and therefore a terrain of potential improvement and profitability. In this light, the food desert is called upon to fulfill certain cultural, social, and psychological needs that reproduce desert imaginaries to the benefit of capitalist expansion. This analysis is important if we are to take seriously the call to move beyond frameworks and analyses of food inequity that begin and end with lack. In this light, I highlight how hegemonic constructions of the food desert fail to remedy the structures and systems that create inequitable food access.

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