Name, Title: Karina Christiansen PhD
What work have you done for the community: I see my contribution as a public health researcher to challenge the way we have thought about food justice and community health. I have done that by challenging how my field has approached and framed issues of food access in the community. Specifically, I was responding to the reductionist focus on obesity as a primary public health problem related to food access, when we should be concerned more broadly with the effects of inequality and racism on health. What I wanted to do in research and advocacy was to show how our public discourse amplifies some frameworks and silences other.
In my work, I challenged the “food desert” frame, which has been used to motivate a certain type of policy response to the inequality in the marketplace for food in American cities. The goal was to help reframe our understanding of the problem through engagement with history and the narratives that have been de-centered or silenced from the mainstream advocacy and research discourse.
What inspired you to do this work: In Baltimore, I had been working on healthy bodega programs and also interning part-time with Baltimore Food Policy Initiative in the Department of Planning for the city of Baltimore. The city was using these maps created by researchers at Johns Hopkins to identify so-called “food desert” areas in Baltimore and to mobilize a policy response. It should be noted that the definition of poor healthy food access used to create these maps was more robust than the federal definition because it took into account whether households had access to a car as well as a score for the availability of healthy food in local stores. But what was clear to me from the maps was that the neighborhoods that are considered food deserts” today were the same ones that were highly segregated through redlining in the past.
Like in many other American cities, our primary strategies to address this problem of food access were market-based, for example, incentivizing supermarkets to locate in areas designated “food deserts.” And this makes sense since the story goes that “supermarket flight” from the city to the suburbs was the primary cause of “food deserts” today—but this led me to ask several questions. We talk about a decline in access—it’s always a story of decline—but did Black communities ever have fair access to high-quality affordable food in the community? And if we understand the marketplace for food in Black communities as a long-standing inequality based on redlining and marketplace exploitation, then what does that mean for our market-based solutions to food access today? As a public health researcher, I also knew that there was little evidence that building new supermarkets would result in making the community healthier and it certainly would not address the underlying inequalities that caused poor health outcomes and limited access to quality, affordable food in the first place. It might even spur gentrification, making inequality worse.
To examine these questions, I looked to history. I mapped the locations of all supermarkets in Brooklyn between 1970-2010 and I also went back through the archives to find every piece of public debate on the problems of supermarkets in the city between the 1960s and early 2000s, before the “food desert” term came into fashion and dominated our public discourse. And what I found was clear—supermarkets in predominantly Black neighborhoods were consistently described as smaller, often dirty, cramped places selling higher priced and lower quality food. From the ’60s through today, supermarkets have been accused of price gouging and even raising prices each month to coincide with the distribution of welfare payments. There were actually congressional hearings on this issue in the late 1960s, one of which was held in Harlem and focused on exploitation in supermarkets in New York City. Even the Kerner Commission Report addressed marketplace exploitation as a reason why grocery stores were commonly damaged in the civil disorders/rebellions of the 1960s.
And in Brooklyn, I found that the neighborhoods where “supermarket flight” had occurred were typically white and higher income in 1970s. Supermarket flight is blamed for “food deserts”—but quality markets were never evenly distributed throughout the city and those that were in Black neighborhoods were often substandard in quality and sites of unfair treatment of their customers.
In what ways does the work you do help to advance community health? I think that my work lends scholarly support for community-led solutions to food access issues. Historically we have to understand that Black communities were denied opportunities to generate wealth through policy (redlining; lending policies; state violence). Rather than allocate government funds to incentivize large corporations to open doors in so-called “underserved” communities, we should support policies that create opportunities to generate community wealth, like through credit unions and cooperatives, and also strengthen our safety net so that families have all the resources they need to shop where they want to spend their dollars on food. These types of solutions were proposed during the 1960s and 1970s, but more and more food access advocates and policymakers are looking for public-private partnerships with corporations to solve these problems. The “food desert” frame is a perfect example of that evolution in discourse.
Tell me about some of the programs you are most proud of: I’ve done my research and now my responsibility is to share what I have learned with the community and with policy-makers. In conjunction with the Brooklyn Health Action Center, I am working with the Food Justice Coordinator to create presentations on countering the “food desert” narrative and also on solution-based strategies for addressing food inaccessibility, namely the creation of food hubs. My goal is to share my findings and help create counter-narratives that support more equitable and explicitly anti-racist solutions. The food justice space has typically been characterized as white because those are those stories that have been amplified. But activists of color today are part of this lineage of self-determination—current activism is based on a history of Black-led self-determination—which so far has been invisible to much of the wider discourse and policymaking on food access, health and fairness. For example, I found clippings in the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper back to 1909 on a Black-led food cooperative in Bed-Stuy, near where the Central Brooklyn Food Coop (CBFC) is organizing today – I have shared my research at a CBFC community event to help make this history more visible. Jessica Gordon Nembhard has led the way in this scholarship, particularly with her book “Collective Courage,” which traces the deep roots of cooperative economics in the Black liberation struggle.
Are there any upcoming initiatives we should know about? As a non-person of color, my approach is to focus on the research and lost historical narratives and to share out my findings with the communities that are on the forefront of addressing these inequities. That said, I admire the work of Central Brooklyn Food Coop and Brooklyn Movement Center which are Black-led organizing groups addressing food through cooperative economics and principles of self-determination.