Chelsea witnessed an interestingly ignorant exchange on social media today and was kind enough to share it with me. I felt compelled to do a little research on this topic and explain why I think that vegan food deserts are inherently nonexistent. In the initial conversation, an Indianapolis neighborhood containing an ALDI and a Kroger was called a “vegan food desert.”
Here’s why I don’t think anyone should use that terminology:
The term ‘food desert’ was first used in the 1990s, and was defined as “poor access to an affordable and healthy diet.” The term means largely the same today. Sometimes people use it to refer to a specific geographic area and other times it can simply allude to the difficulty of gaining access to food, such as a lack of public transit lines to a nearby grocery store.
Essentially, ‘food deserts’ explains the unfortunate phenomenon of a lack of healthy, affordable food options, especially in historically impoverished areas. Convenience stores chock full of highly processed foods are sometimes on every corner in a poor neighborhood, but to buy fresh produce and other non-heart disease-causing foods, heads of households have to travel long distances to the nearest grocery. Often times, this means waiting around for unreliable public transportation and/or having to walk several miles on foot. Food desert is not a term to be co-opted by people who have elected to eat a vegan diet (though there’s nothing wrong with that) and who are presumably middle class or above, as indicated by their dietary preferences.
While removing meat and other animal products from one’s diet does not necessarily mean you will be spending more money on groceries, it typically costs more to buy vegan items because that are specialty goods. (It is very different from simply choosing to not buy steak.) Additionally, there are other lifestyle choices that many health-conscious vegans choose to make that are indicative of socioeconomic privilege.
The struggles of a person living below the poverty line who has to ride the bus for half an hour to reach a grocery store are extremely different from a person who prefers to make the drive to stores with a large selection of vegan food options. Indianapolis already has a terribly high amount of actual food deserts, there’s no need to add to that by making up new forms of them.
I get that this person(s) who used this phrase were not trying to equate their struggles, but because of the nature of the phrase food desert, I don’t think it is a good idea to use it.
The act of adding the qualifier of ‘vegan’ to the term food desert should point out that the phrase likely does not apply to the person using it and shouldn’t be made to. That’s pretty solid advice for almost any term referring to an unjust struggle or form of oppression. There’s nothing wrong with wishing that one’s neighborhood had a Whole Foods (it can be problematic in some settings but I’m not getting into gentrification right now).
In the future, it would be easier for everyone involved if the person would just say “Yeah, they don’t have my favorite brand of vegan products at my local Kroger, so I have to drive a little further to go to Fresh Thyme.” This way, the person is being more clear about their own experiences/opinions and also not using a phrase which, by definition, does not apply to them.