Food Deserts: A Guest Post


Susanne Freidberg is an associate professor of geography at Dartmouth and the author of a forthcoming book called Fresh: A Perishable History. It’s about food.

Susanne has agreed to write a few guest posts for us on the topic. We present her first one today but, before that, a brief Q&A with the author:


Do you find it odd that you’re doing such compelling food research as a geographer? Please explicate. Do your geography colleagues, e.g., consider you something of a black swan?


Actually I’m far from alone. Geographers have been at the cutting edge in “food studies” for a while now, and the schedule for the next annual geographers’ meeting, in a couple of weeks, is full of food-related sessions. It makes sense, given the discipline’s traditional strengths in agricultural and trade/marketplace research, and given also that we don’t pay much attention to disciplinary borders. If you want a sense of what else food geographers are up to, look up Julie Guthman‘s “Can’t Stomach It: How Michael Pollan et al. Made Me Want to Eat Cheetos” (reprinted in the Utne Reader).


How long have you been interested in food, and in what aspects thereof? Where did this interest come from?


I got interested in food while doing graduate research in the mid-1990’s on vegetable farming and marketing in Burkina Faso (in West Africa). I was fascinated by how people working under very difficult conditions managed to get very perishable goods to market. I was even more fascinated once I started looking at the country’s export trade in French beans to France. At the time I thought the trade deserved a movie more than a university press monograph, given all the intrigue and colorful characters involved. More generally, what I find most interesting about food (besides eating it) are all the professions, relationships, and technologies that get it to us, and how the economics of food supply are shaped by culture and politics (and vice-versa).


Having only glanced at Fresh thus far, I wonder: is it written much more for a lay audience than your first book? And what are you trying to accomplish/communicate with Fresh?


Well, I am still hoping someone someday will want to buy rights to the screenplay for [her first book] French Beans. … Just kidding. Yes, Fresh aims for a lay audience. Unlike a lot of its neighbors on the “food writing” bookshelves, it does not tell the audience what to eat. What interests me is not what’s “really” fresh but rather why we care so much about this question. We tend to assume a lot about food sold as fresh — e.g. that it is natural and healthy; that buying it shows we have good taste; that it should come from nearby, and so forth. Where did the assumptions themselves come from? In Fresh, I try to provide an answer via the stories of several basic foods. The stories are fun (or at least were fun to write) but also take aim at some of the taken-for-granted ideas underlying contemporary “foodie” culture, and consumer culture more generally.


What are your favorite places in the world to do food research? And what are your favorite places in the world to eat?


The best thing about doing food research is that it justifies going pretty much anywhere in the world that people eat. So I’m busy cooking up the next project and itinerary (worst thing about this research: the puns). Based on where I’ve been so far, I love Paris for (among other things) the smell of the boulangeries in the morning, Burkina Faso for the best mangoes on the planet, the Bay Area for its year-round farmers’ markets, and Amsterdam for black licorice.


Where’d you grow up and what did (or do) your parents do? And finally, tell us one interesting/strange/compelling thing about yourself.


I grew up in Portland, Oregon. My father is a retired cardiologist and my mother is a retired nurse. I am a night owl and often edit my writing over a glass of wine at the local bar (I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where this doesn’t raise eyebrows). Over the past few years of working on Fresh I’ve come away with many corny jokes about freshness, a few good ideas, and one boyfriend, still in the picture, whose jokes were better than most.

Food Deserts
By Susanne Freidberg
A Guest Post

INSERT DESCRIPTIONA Hong Kong wet market.

New York may be a foodie paradise, but it’s also full of food deserts. So says the city’s planning department, which last year reported that some three million New Yorkers live in neighborhoods with few fresh food options. Traditional groceries and supermarkets have shut down, to be replaced by fast food and drug store chains. Not surprisingly, many of these neighborhoods also report higher-than-average rates of obesity and diabetes.

In this country, “food desert” is a relatively new term for an old urban problem. City supermarkets have long struggled with slender profit margins, space constraints, consumers’ demands for 24/7 convenience, landlords’ preferences for tenants that don’t attract vermin — and, of course, rising rents. Unless they can lure a large, high-end customer base — witness the throngs in Whole Foods’ Manhattan locations — big stores full of perishable food just don’t put urban real estate to its highest and best use.

But not all crowded, pricey cities end up with food deserts. Take Hong Kong — by some measures the most crowded, pricey city on earth. A square meter of office space costs $2,239 a year, more than double the going rate in Midtown Manhattan. Thirty thousand people live in each square kilometer (versus 10,238 per square kilometer in New York City’s five boroughs), most of them in very small apartments. Yet most also live within easy walking distance of one of the city’s 240 wet markets, where the food is varied, affordable, and very, very fresh.

I visited some of these markets when I went to Hong Kong to research the live fish trade. According to conventional thinking, they should have perished decades ago, when supermarkets first began to offer a clean, well-lit, one-stop shopping environment. Instead, the wet markets have survived and modernized. How?

The answer lies in the relationship between policy, culture, and the economics of urban food supply. The Hong Kong government originally built wet markets wherever pedestrian food shopping made most sense, such as near transit centers and public housing estates. For many years, it rented market stalls at subsidized rates, both to discourage illegal street vending and to ensure a competitive, affordable choice at each market. Most markets are now privately managed, and many have been renovated.

The government’s involvement in turn reflects a cultural value. As I toured the wet markets with my 20-something translator and her 73-year-old grandmother, the older woman explained: it’s the freshness that supermarkets couldn’t beat. Hong Kong’s Cantonese cuisine (much lighter than what you’ll find in most American Chinese restaurants) depends on fresh ingredients, and local standards are high. The grandmother pointed out what “fresh” meant: live fish, not chilled; poultry still warm from slaughter; vegetables not wrapped in plastic.

Marketing studies back up this explanation. They also note that wet-market standards of freshness will likely survive the recent privatization, even if some of the markets do not. This is because Hong Kong’s biggest supermarket chains have lured customers by offering the old alongside the new: mini wet markets — complete with independent vendors and tanks full of live fish — inside their own stores.

Hong Kong’s food supply isn’t perfect. Recent scares related to tainted fish, milk, and eggs from mainland China have left many consumers wary. But it is a good example of how city governments can help food markets work better — and potentially help their citizens eat better too.

Related links:

The lost supermarket: a breed in need of replenishment
Where have all the supermarkets gone?

Addendum: The figure for the population density of New York City was changed from 1,750 per square kilometer (which included the greater metropolitan area), to 10,238 per square kilometer (which represents only New York City’s five boroughs).


Louis Kestenbaum wrote a great book regarding a similar topic, called "Just Desserts". He addresses US consumers concerns about foods imported from China after the whole melamine problem. He also addresses the fact that rice fields are often tainted with arsenic.


Too bad local standards are so low in our country. We will never match Hong Kong.


"Thirty thousand people live in each square kilometer (versus 1,750 in New York)"

Is this a typo? 1,750 people per square km in NYC cannot possibly be correct... can it?


help!- i'm burnin' up in da food desert known as philly- yeah, there's a Whole Foods oasis, but where are the plebes supposed ta shop?- i know, i know- the dollar stores all have beef jerkey made in china- hong kong has it right- the government needs to mandate space for supermarkets in the city


I'm impressed by the Hong Kong system, but it obviously developed along cultural lines. I'm afraid our culture is too complacent and lazy to ever support this ideal. I wish I had a decent market in walking distance to me. Well, there is a Whole Foods in "walking" distance, but to schlep more than a couple of light bags would be too much trouble and become too far away for all practical purposes. I guess I exhibit the same cultural reluctance to overcome these obstacles. I suppose I could buy one of those carts with wheels to transport more--I'll just have to get over my vanity issues....


In my view the US concept is based on food manufacturing versus preparation. That and local regulation of food vendors due to health issues keeps the system constrained.

If the Hong Kong vendors had to provide for sterilization of equipment, handicapped access, restrooms, and dish washing facilities they might not be able to survive


How about the recent extreme interest in food poisoning, Salmonella, etc.? When I was younger - long ago - people often got sick from food poisoning; the "touristas" were just a joke, though. Sanitation departments monitored, but no one was totally outraged by such things. Since fatality rates were so low, overall. Except in those already week from other conditions and old age.

Has recent sensitivity to food problems, their importance in the news, increased therefore, from 1) increased respect for old folks (who are particularly vulnerable)?

Or has sensitivity to this, also increased ... because2) there is new interest in monitoring food, water, air, to counter possible terrorist attacks?

Is all this part of the "War on Terror," in other words?

No doubt - as I have said myself before - the critical science of our, 21st century - an era of increasing population density, and so forth - will be ... epidemiology.
So that, after all, we can avoid this particular horseman of the Apolcaypse: the plague; even from glass "vials."

Keeping our food safe, therefore, is an interesting field, for these an other reasons. Reasons with ... big geopolitical implications.



Quick math from wikipedia's numbers (which are probably a few years out of date, but reasonably accurate) says NYC has closer to 6,800 people per square kilometer, and Manhattan specifically has over 27,000. Hong Kong's density, therefore, it's so mind-bogglingly different to anything we know.


I am frequently in China and frequently host Chinese guests here. The differences between Chinese food in China and the States is more than just freshness. I now warn my guests to speak Chinese to the manager of each restaurant to request "real Chinese" food and not the sugared-up stuff that they serve the Americans. While my Chinese is very weak, I have learned the phrases needed to get that point across.


those lucky people in Hong Kong... however, i know too many people who refuse to eat anything that's not cut up into anonymous chunks and thrice-wrapped in plastic for that to really take off in the US.


I am frequently in China and frequently host Chinese guests here. The differences between Chinese food in China and the States is more than just freshness. I now warn my guests to speak Chinese to the manager of each restaurant to request "real Chinese" food and not the sugared-up stuff that they serve the Americans. While my Chinese is very weak, I have learned the phrases needed to get that point across.
Sorry... forgot to say great post - can't wait to read your next one!


@6 Econobiker

"If the Hong Kong vendors had to provide for sterilization of equipment, handicapped access, restrooms, and dish washing facilities they might not be able to survive"

I can only assume you have never been to Hong Kong. HK vendors and infrastructure do provide all of this and more.

Additionally, many vendors now provide details of where the food was sourced. So you can tell whether your fish was farmed in China or caught somewhere off the coast of Japan. It has its flaws, but it's quite a system.


Louis Kestenbaum's book is quite informative, Dolores! I was very concerned about the possibility of arsenic in the rice fields. I drink mainly rice milk, as I'm allergic to all things dairy. I also eat rice with my meals 4-5 times per week. Would hate to think I'm slowly poisoning myself! Louis Kestenbaum should provide a solution for those of us who need the rice, but want to make sure it's safe...


Thank you for this excellent post. My class from Portland State University is working on a project that is regarding food deserts. We are developing a website and a blog to build awareness and hopefully effect change. I wrote about your article on our blog. Please feel free to look over it at: You will find that everything is properly cited and accredited to Ms. Freidberg and the New York Times.