For the past decade, I have been researching how people struggle to get by in situations where they lack sufficient access to their preferred foods, healthy or not. For the most part they are neither starving nor undernourished, but they still struggle to acquire food in places where global distribution systems continue to produce and exacerbate inequality. I have studied food access issues in eastern Cuba since 2008, and in South and East Los Angeles since 2010. What can we learn from bringing together research from these two very different field sites: one a socialist country in the Caribbean that has guaranteed access to basic dietary needs through a food ration, and another set in a purported “food desert” where rates of obesity have been on the rise and where the government has failed to alleviate structural inequalities, leaving local nonprofits struggling to fill the void? Both settings illuminate the importance of understanding food acquisition practices for improving food security.“The proliferation of home internet and cellphones, in this scenario, had shifted how and where people buy food, a relationship often ignored by those designing food access interventions.”
On a hot mid-July day in 2018, I visited a corner store in South Los Angeles called Alba Snacks and Services to follow up on its conversion into a “healthy food store” in 2014. I had popped in to the store a few times over the years and observed them slowly selling less and less of the “healthy food” they introduced in 2014, reverting back to the typical mix of “junk food” that they had always sold. On this visit, the owner explained to me that “everything has changed since then and we have to adjust.” He explained that the main reason people came to the store for the past 15 years was to send remittances to their “home” countries. People would come to send the remittances and then buy a snack or pick up something they might need for lunch or dinner. Now, four years later, with the ubiquity of home internet and the ability to send remittances with cellphones, fewer and fewer people were coming into the corner store. Because they are no longer using the store to send remittances, it is no longer a site in their daily routines. This situation demonstrates the ways food access and practices of food acquisition are intimately connected with other aspects of our lives. The proliferation of home internet and cellphones, in this scenario, had shifted how and where people buy food, a relationship often ignored by those designing food access interventions.
In my LA work, I find that many of the organizations I work with are focused on expanding healthy food purchasing opportunities in urban areas. However, the organizations often do not understand food security as “a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”1Food and Agriculture Organization, The State of Food Insecurity in the World, 2001 (Rome: FAO, 2001). When we shift our focus to be more attuned to the “physical, social, and economic” elements of access to food that meets “dietary needs” and “food preferences,” we should also shift our approach to food security. To understand the nuanced practices through which people acquire their food, and the complexities of their food preferences, we need to obtain sufficient information to develop programs for improving food access.
Food access and food security in Cuba
My research in Cuba has helped me to see the importance of understanding both food preferences and processes of acquisition. The World Food Program (WFP) states that rates of hunger in Cuba are “extremely low,” and the FAO cites Cuba as an example for the world with respect to sustainable food production.2World Food Program, “Cuba: Country Overview,” WFP.org, accessed September 5, 2009. Cuba has had a nationalized food rationing system since 1962 and has been lauded for its exemplary food security innovations in the face of national financial hardship. However, Cuba’s socialist food-rationing system has recently undergone significant changes. Reductions in the amount of rationed foods at state-subsidized prices mean that households must now purchase increasingly expensive foods in government-run stores or through the informal economy, all with limited peso-based salaries. This situation is a continual source of stress and anxiety for many Cubans. With the collapse of its most significant trade partner, the Soviet Union, in the 1990s, Cuba entered the “Special Period” of economic hardship. Although new, import-oriented trade agreements have improved the quantity and quality of food available, supplies have never returned to Soviet-era levels. Once the Cuban government was the major provider of foods; this labor has now shifted to individuals and families.
While rates of hunger are extremely low in Cuba, and ostensibly everyone has access to their basic dietary needs, the Cubans that I work with continue to tell me that “there is no food” or “there is only crap or trash.”3In my research in Cuba I investigated these dynamics using ethnographic research methods. In 2010 and 2011 I studied 22 households in Santiago de Cuba, the second largest city on the island. I spent about three weeks with each household observing all of their food shopping, meal preparation, food consumption, and related household practices. In addition to direct observations, I conducted interviews with household members, photographed their kitchens, and the markets where they acquired food. I also had household members keep food diaries. At the same time, I observed that these families eat a variety of meals—from a full meal that includes beans, rice, meat, salad, and a starch, to a simple soup, to a plate of spaghetti or a pizza. Given these findings, at first I found it confusing when Cuban families told me “there is no food” when I can plainly see that there is food for sale in the markets and people are eating regular meals. After several years I realized that what they meant by these statements was that the food available and the meals they ended up eating were not really what they wanted to be eating.4Hanna Garth, “Things Became Scarce: Food Availability and Accessibility in Santiago de Cuba Then and Now,” NAPA Bulletin 32, no. 1 (2009): 178–192. They longed for a particular kind of culturally appropriate cuisine instead of the plate of spaghetti that sat before them. Cubans perceive there has been a drastic shift in food availability and food access because of the decrease in subsidized foods and increase in full cost foods. Additionally, I found that people will go to great lengths to acquire the food they prefer to eat and the food that matters to them socially. Food consumption is a deeply social process, and the social dimensions of food consumption matter just as much for food access as the distribution of nutritional resources.
Challenging assumptions about food consumption
Based on my close observation of food acquisition processes, I have identified several problematic assumptions that scholars and activists have made in developing interventions. First, I have observed interventionists assume that people buy food at the markets closest to their homes. However, in an effort to obtain culturally appropriate or preferred foods, in both Cuba and LA I find that people go out of their way to shop at specific markets. Their preference to shop at these locations can be based on any number of factors, from perceptions about food quality, prices, store layout, or the availability of one desired item. Additionally, in both Cuba and LA I have observed that many people shop for food on their way home from work, school, or daycare at markets that may be far from their homes but are conveniently accessed in their daily routines. Relatedly, Ashante Reese has found that grocery stores are spaces where people interact across “lines of difference” outside of their primary social spaces in a “third space” of social interaction. This social interaction matters for people as they choose where to shop for food.“Places that lack these larger markets are not completely devoid of stores for buying food—they just tend to look different from the corporate supermarket.”
Second, researchers assume people prefer to shop in large supermarkets over smaller markets. When people describe and envision “food deserts,” they often assume there are no places to procure fresh produce, dairy, or meat, and that liquor shops and fast food restaurants are all that is available. Instead, the literature often defines food deserts as places lacking full-service grocery stores, which are defined as stores with at least 10,000 square feet, and supermarkets 45,000 square feet or larger.5N. Bassford, M. L. Galloway-Gilliam, and M. G. Flynn, Food Desert to Food Oasis: Promoting Grocery Store Development in South Los Angeles (Los Angeles: Community Health Councils, 2010). However, places that lack these larger markets are not completely devoid of stores for buying food—they just tend to look different from the corporate supermarket. Furthermore, in addition to the importance of social connections in store selection, the influence of retail branding also matters to consumers.6Hanna Garth and Michael Powell, “Curating Value(s) with the Retail Brand: Rebranding a Corner Store in South Los Angeles,” Journal of Business Anthropology 6, no. 2 (2017): 175–198. Stores have (intentionally or unintentionally) created an immersive environment that influences consumption decisions and consumer desire to return.7Michael G. Powell, “Media, Mediation and the Curatorial Value of Professional Anthropologists,” Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings (EPIC), 2016: 2–15. For instance, in several South LA stores, signs are posted in both English and Spanish and the walls are adorned with pictures of smiling brown-skinned people eating fresh fruits and vegetables. These are two forms of retail branding and product curation that might make certain consumers feel welcome.
Third, and probably most important, researchers too often make assumptions about what people eat, why they eat what they eat, and how it relates to what they want to eat. In my work in South LA, I have heard scholars and activists echo the media and literature by saying that people in South LA only eat fast food. But rather than make this assumption, it would be better to understand what people actually eat and why. For future food research it is important to understand these disconnects between what is available, what people want, and what people actually eat. Some work in this area shows promising results. For instance, in her work interviewing California families, Priya Fielding-Singh has found that one of the things that drives the consumption of junk food among low-income families is the meaning attached to food, or in this case, the fact that these families cannot afford to give their kids everything that they ask for, but they can afford the occasional bag of chips, cookies, or a soda to show their kids that they care about them and can care for them.
In my analysis of food access in contemporary Cuba in my current book project, tentatively titled The Politics of Adequacy: Food and Everyday Life in Post-Soviet Cuba, I call for more scholarly attention to how individuals and communities determine what their basic needs are. In many parts of the world it is commonly held that food, water, and shelter are the three most basic and essential human needs. But the questions of how much food, of what quality, how clean the water should be, how consistent access should be, and what type of shelter is sufficient remain open and are interpreted differently depending on one’s position in the world.“With respect to food, who makes determinations regarding food provisioning based on what is economically feasible given a set of competing interests?”
Another vector of concern here is the question of who or what entity is responsible for making sure we have what we need. With respect to food, who makes determinations regarding food provisioning based on what is economically feasible given a set of competing interests? Do we leave it to the market to dictate where new grocery stores are built, or should local political dynamics create economic incentives for new stores in low-income areas? Relatedly, as we strive to improve access to healthy foods in low-income areas, what role should nutritionists have in determining what foods contain enough calories and amino acids to be nutritionally sufficient in relation to local ways of determining food consumption that take social and symbolic needs into account? In order to overcome the problems outlined here, we must develop an understanding of how local level communities define what an adequate, sufficient food system looks like for them and then relate it to what we know about health and nutrition needs. I would like us to understand not only what conditions are adequate for survival, but also what is necessary to live a good life.