CfP AAG2018: Rethinking Food Access Research. Food deserts. Whose access are we mapping?

Organizers: Angela Babb (Indiana University) & Joshua Lohnes (West Virginia University)

Discussant: Pending

Food deserts are a tangible manifestation of uneven development as post-Fordist food retail trends continue to reshape the built food environment (Bedore, 2013). Over the past two decades, public health concerns have led to a proliferation of research that highlights spatial disparities related to healthy food access (Walker et. al, 2010). Relying heavily on GIS, food retail locations and types, food costs, availability and quality are paired with demographic data including income, race, gender, health indicators and vehicle access to produce maps that highlight spaces of food dearth. The assumed scientific rigour of the food desert map lends its rhetorical power, yet food deserts have also been critiqued for producing spaces of neoliberal paternalism that bind poor eating habits to low-income communities and for naturalizing problems borne out of corporate dominance of agro-supply chains (Guthman, 2011; Shannon, 2014). When not complemented by qualitative methods, quantitative models often fail to capture the cultural and social practices that affect food consumption patterns among the poor (Pine and Bennet, 2014; Alkon et. al, 2013)

This session aims to foster dialogue on whom the food desert framework has historically served and evaluate its place in local, regional and national food access planning moving forward. While there is surely a continued role for geographers to highlight spatial disparities in the food system, the fix may not always be in the built environment but rather a focus on the component social parts producing the problem. How then do we map and communicate the production of food access problems, highlight programs that are reducing gaps and include alternative strategies that have the potential to disrupt the status quo, all while ensuring we do not reproduce existing food system injustices? How can we capture the complex spatial realities of food access beyond retail foodscapes to include other food access strategies such as charitable foods, self-provisioning, food sharing or the many non-retail based entitlements that support food insecure households (e.g. school meals, senior nutrition programs)?

Themes could include but are not limited to:

  • Foodscapes beyond the retail sector
  • Integrating alternative food sourcing strategies into food desert maps
  • The relationship between cash-equivalent food entitlement programs and the retail sector.
  • The role and impact of non-cash based food entitlements on food access
  • Experiences applying food desert frameworks to food access planning.
  • The limits of global models in addressing local level food access issues. (e.g. urban vs. rural)
  • Consumer perspectives on living in sso-calledfood deserts.
  • Mixed methods approach to food desert mapping
  • Quantitative critical food studies; critical algorithm studies

Please send a title and brief abstract (250 words) to and by October 15th, 2017


  • Alkon et. al. 2013. Foodways of the Urban Poor. Geoforum. 48: 126 ­ 135
  • Bedore, Melanie. 2013. Geographies of capital formation and rescaling: A historical­geographical approach to the food desert problem. The Canadian Geographer. 57(2): 133-153
  • Guthman, Julie. 2011. Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice and the Limits of Capitalism. UC Press.
  • Pine, A. and Bennett, J., 2014. Food access and food deserts: the diverse methods that residents of a neighborhood in Duluth, Minnesota use to provision themselves. Community Development,45(4), pp.317-336.
  • Shannon, J., 2014. Food deserts Governing obesity in the neoliberal city. Progress in Human Geography, 38(2), pp.248-266.
  • Walker, R.E., et al. 2010. Disparities and access to healthy food in the United States: A review of food deserts literature. Health & Place, 16(5), pp.876-884.

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