Thank you for finding your way to this section for more context and information on the Primer’s terms, definitions and/or descriptions. You understand that words have power, and that word choice matters to our work and to the lives of people with whom we work and serve.
last update: 2023-07-26
UNDERSTANDING the origins of terms and how they might have changed over time can provide additional insights when we hear them or use them. Some terms such as “swamp” and “desert” are ecological terms for describing land environments that are taken up to describe food environments. This resource offers a reflection on term roots and characteristics which can provide insight about whether a term’s meaning likely shares broad agreement and understanding among people.
Public health food and nutrition security work often requires measurement and/or evaluation of programs or showing justification for actions and the allocation of resources. “Food desert” is a term linked to specific geographic measurement units that include distance from a food store, population density, and income as illustrated in the USDA Food Access Research Atlas, which compiles data to help illuminate and define areas of the United States with low food access.
Yet people who live in a desert region understand there is much life that might be missed without presence and a long and appreciative gaze. Deserts are not empty places. Imagine you are a person living in an area labeled a “food desert” by someone from outside your community. How might that impact how you perceive your community or make you feel?
Some critiques of the term “food desert” were summed up by the Congressional Research Service. Those who wish to challenge the term assert that it implies barrenness and focuses on deficits over community assets. Other voices submit that using “food desert” can lead people to think that places with little access to healthful foods are a natural occurrence, rather than social and/or economic conditions brought about through structural inequities that were sometimes intentionally constructed.
This food desert example illustrates that terms public health nutritionists commonly use may unintentionally be hurtful or harmful to others.
ASPHN encourages those working in food, nutrition and health to continually examine and consider word use, current meaning, and the context in which words are used. Develop an awareness of how the terms are used and are perceived by seeking community perspective through open, continuous dialogue. For example, “I realized I just used the term, ‘food swamp.’ What does that mean to you? What does it not capture about your community and food? How would you prefer we talk about this community?”
As public health professionals, we are beginning to fully realize the importance and effectiveness of working with groups of people who are directly impacted by social and economic conditions, and by policies that have contributed to poverty, poor health, and food and nutrition insecurity among other conditions. People working for food dignity, food justice, food sovereignty and against food apartheid are striving for better lives for themselves, their communities, their nation. Community partner perspectives and insights are important, particularly from those who may be living through or have lived through discrimination, segregation, racism, and are marginalized.
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