If at least 20 percent of your community lives in poverty and at least one-third of residents have to travel more than one city mile or 10 rural miles to reach a grocery store, you might live in a food desert.
The term, made popular in recent years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, refers to a census tract “vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthful whole foods.” The distinction, awarded to 23.5 million Americans, comes only after communities meet specific criteria, including median family income levels, access to vehicles and distance to grocery stores.
It’s a complicated formula that determines what many Natives already know: geography and income can severely limit regular access to healthy, affordable food.
“What we’re talking about is food insecurity,” said Valerie Segrest, a traditional food and medicine program manager for the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe in Washington. “It means that you have major challenges to accessing food. It means part of your income is set aside to fund the journey to get food. It means the land you live on does not provide food for you.”
The USDA easily applies the term “food desert” to the Navajo Nation, where unemployment hovers near 60 percent and people often drive hundreds of miles to reach a grocery store. Ten grocery stores serve the entire 27,000-square-mile reservation, and as much as 80 percent of items sold in grocery stores have “little to no nutritional value.”
This reality led the Navajo Nation to enact the country’s first “junk food tax,” a 2-percent levy on all sodas, chips, pastries, candy and fried foods sold anywhere on the reservation.
But the Navajo Nation is certainly not alone in its food desert. Based on the USDA’s criteria, much of Indian Country lacks easy access to grocery stores or to fresh, affordable food.
Yet designation as a food desert does little to help Native populations, Segrest said. She called the term “derogatory” and “counterproductive,” especially in discussions about establishing food security—and, ultimately, food sovereignty.
Tribes battle the realities and stigmas of food deserts, Segrest said, but the answers are more complicated than just building more grocery stores.
“What we’re working toward is more of a method of life,” she said. “It’s a way of living, a life of dignity. It’s eating the food we want to eat.”
Food security, according to Mari Gallagher, president of a Chicago-based food research and consulting group, is knowing where your next meal is coming from. It’s having a steady income and access to fresh food.
Food sovereignty is, by nature, self-defined. For tribes, it means access to traditional ways of life, land to cultivate and the right to hunt and fish. For more than half a century, tribes—along with the rest of the country—have relied on packaged foods and become distant from traditional food sources, Gallagher said.
“Different tribes can define food sovereignty differently,” she said. “At its core level is the ability to have influence over, if not control over, the local food system.”
Food deserts stem from colonization, and from changes in the way America produces and consumes food, Gallagher said. They also result when people become distant from their food sources—geographically, culturally and emotionally.
“We’re seeing consolidation of farms, people growing things without nutritional value,” she said. “We’re seeing more reliance on outside processed food and a distancing from what the land has to offer.”
From the Native perspective, food deserts can come from loss of traditional knowledge, Segrest said. Where people once thrived on growing their own fruits, vegetables and grains, they now rely on grocery stores.
“Not so long ago, we had a food system that was producing, as well as people who were active in producing,” she said. “We harvested, made memories, ate foods in season and shared with other people. Our cultural patterns have shifted and that perpetuates food deserts.”
Grocery stores are relatively new to Turtle Island, said A-dae Romero-Briones, an agricultural consultant for First Nations Development Institute. When the USDA calls a location a food desert, it is not taking into account access to traditional sources of food.
“Only recently has a grocery store become a main source of food,” she said. “Food deserts have a lot to do with grocery stores and the food business, fairly new concepts in the timeline of Indigenous Peoples. This is a clash of two very different value systems: food as a commodity to be purchased versus food as a gift to be shared.”
Traditionally, food systems were an integral part of tribal communities, said Romero-Briones, who is Cochiti Pueblo and Kiowa. Food influenced politics and social behaviors.
“Now food is an afterthought,” she said. “You can eat in your car now. You don’t have the ceremonial aspects of gathering food.”
Food sovereignty may come from revitalizing farms and returning to traditional recipes, Romero-Briones said. Perhaps more important, however, are tribes’ rights to determine what works for them.
“When it comes to American Indian communities, I see no reason why we should not be allowed to define what and how we participate or gather our food, or create food systems,” she said. “I think tribes are in a unique position where we have to advocate and fight to build our food systems.”
Check out this food research atlas to learn more about food deserts.