Food Deserts and Real-Estate-Led Social Policy


Since the early 2000s in the United States, food deserts—neighborhoods in which households have limited geographic access to full-service supermarkets or grocery stores— have become conceptually central in public policy research on food security. Analyzing this phenomenon from a ‘policy mobility’ perspective, this article traces the food desert’s emergence in policy discourse, locating it within an entrepreneurial social policy paradigm that privileges real estate development over direct economic relief. In the context of property-led anti-poverty efforts, the identification and mapping of food deserts catalyzes a logic that leads to subsidy to grocery store development in low-income areas (or ‘fresh food financing’), while at the same time officials are cutting programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), which directly supplements household food budgets. The article contributes to widening critical discussion of the food desert paradigm and the policy interventions with which it is associated. It calls on urban researchers and practitioners to reframe discussions of food access and nutrition around the shortage of basic income and a need for higher wage floors.