UB expert: The term 'food desert' slows solutions to neighborhood nutritional woes

people standing in a garden.

By Scott Scanion, Published in The Buffalo News

Release date: October 22, 2021


Samina Raja helped popularize the term “food deserts” more than a decade ago but has been on a mission in recent years to jettison the term, which she considers inaccurate.

Deserts are almost always healthy ecologies, she recently wrote on the social networking site, LinkedIn. “Poor food environments are not.”

Raja, a University at Buffalo professor of urban planning, focuses her work on understanding the role that planning and policy play in building sustainable food systems and healthy communities.

The term food desert was first used in the early 1990s in Scotland to describe poor access to an affordable and healthy diet.

“At the time, they didn’t have evidence about what would be a strategy to solve the problem of poor food environments,” Raja told The Buffalo News, “so they put the cart before the horse, so to speak.”

A research paper she wrote in 2008, “Beyond Food Deserts,” was among the first to explore the phenomenon.

Her research study concluded that racial makeup outweighed community wealth in neighborhoods lacking healthy food options. 

“If a grocery store was going to make a decision to go into a neighborhood, one would presume that they will be looking at income and at land area. That was not the case,” said Raja, who has continued the work since as associate dean for research and inclusive excellence, principal investigator of the Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab (better known as the “Food Lab”), and co-director of the Community for Global Health Equity at UB

In a 2016 TEDx Talk, she pondered “the possibility of edible landscaping in every public right of way in the city of Buffalo and Erie County,” concluding, “Why not?”

She blames redlining by supermarket chains, a plethora of cheap processed foods, and disinvestment by government at all levels for poor nutritional outcomes.

“By using the term 'food desert', we make invisible the actor(s) responsible for creating (poor) food environments,” she wrote in her Sept. 30 post. “How did we get here? Without answering this question, it is less likely that we (society) can understand the 'causes' behind poor food environments, and we are unlikely to remedy food inequities.”

People, including researchers, often throw the term around when having never set foot in neighborhoods they describe, she wrote. In Buffalo, she hears neighborhoods on the East Side and West Side described that way, despite Guercio & Sons on Grant Street, Urban Fruits & Veggies and other urban farms across the city, and a growing number of freedom and community gardens east of Main Street.

The Food Lab helped foster some of those efforts, including with a nearly $1 million Seeding Solutions program grant from the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research to encourage more urban agriculture in Buffalo and Minneapolis. Raja credits grassroots entrepreneurs and volunteers in poor neighborhoods for undergirding the continuing effort.

Many poor communities need more grocery stores, she wrote, but those who want to use a more apt phrase to draw attention to a food problem, or aspiration, should consider using food apartheid ("yes, it is," she said), food inequity, food injustice, poor food environments or absence of supermarkets.

Much food disparity remains, she said, including in Buffalo Niagara, where those in nearly 56,000 households don’t live within walking distance of a grocery store and/or have access to a personal vehicle in a continuing pandemic.

global goals.

Sustainable Development Goals:

2. Zero Hunger 

10. Reduced Inequalities