If You Fish A Man From A Food Desert…

We all know the saying, “If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.” As it turns out, the same is true for fish as it is for fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy proteins, and grains — the many ingredients of a healthful diet. You can’t simply plop a grocery store in a food desert and expect the inhabitants to flip some internal switch, and reject the habits that they have spent their lives acquiring up to that point.


Food deserts are an underlying cause for problems like obesity, chronic disease, shorter lifespan, poorer educational outcomes in nearby schools, and generally worse health for their residents. In order to address these problems, you have to approach them behaviorally as well as in terms of resources. Sure, making fruits and vegetables available to individuals in the community is an important first step, but people have to be taught how to use any tool before they can use it correctly. The same is true for produce as it is for a buzzsaw: if you don’t know how to use it properly, you’re probably going to end up wasting a lot of natural resources and time, making a mess in the process…

Steven Cummins, a professor of population health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine spoke to this issue directly with PBS Newshour in this 2014 interview. His basic point is that just because the perceptions surrounding access to healthy food change in a community, that doesn’t mean the dietary behaviors of residents will necessarily change as well.

To illustrate his point, Cummins tells the story of a woman in the UK, who would travel over three miles to visit the grocery store near her childhood home, instead of getting her groceries from the brand new supermarket next door to her house, “because that’s where she was born, that’s where she grew up — it was a place she had a connection to.”

So the “habits” that need to be addressed in a solution to the problem of food deserts do not solely relate to food, diet, and eating. They are habits of community interaction, a sense of belonging, cultural identity, and surely many more nuanced aspects as well. This means that any solution to the problems that food deserts create has to address these issues in addition to the question of “availability” in a larger sense.

Basically, you have to do more than make the access to, and use of healthy food, a possibility. You have to create a culture that welcomes behavioral change as a natural course of action, because to remain in the grooves that you’ve spent your life wearing out is no longer as attractive as it once was. And that takes time and community commitment.

If we understand that habits and routine play a bigger part in our dietary choices than availability and access, the solution to food deserts becomes increasingly involved and complex. But this should be invigorating — not discouraging! This means that a grocery store is not only a warehouse with shelves lined by various types of sustenance and indulgence, but social spaces in which community can be fostered, strengthened, and reinvigorated.

So next time you go to the store to get your groceries for the week, perhaps greet someone you haven’t yet met. Ask someone in your community what they are making for dinner that evening. It might seem odd, especially in a time when so many of us go from the office, to the car, and back home, but whether we realize it or not, the spaces in which we get the items to stock our fridge and pantry provide an opportunity to nourish more than our physical bodies and those of our families: they are a chance to fulfill our social, cultural, and communal needs as well.

A solution to the problem of food deserts must necessarily take this into account.