I was caught off guard this summer when a reporter called to ask why a new public market in Easton did not solve the food desert problem. My first reaction was to admit I didn’t know it was supposed to solve that problem nor that it, alone, could. The reporter’s angle was that a number of merchants in the market were high-end vendors. The developers should have rented the spaces to farmers and sellers who had more affordable food and wares. The implication was that that would’ve solved the food desert problem. By adding a new market, the community would overcome the deprivation of a deserted area. Or, to play the metaphor out with actual deserts, it would be to put a water fountain in the Sahara.

In fact, the question had me thinking of a different water problem, flooding. Bear with me for a moment so I can make sense of how I want to jump from one topic to an ostensibly different one.

Easton is a flooding city. It sits at the confluence of the Delaware and Lehigh Rivers. Four times in ten years the Center Square that hosts the farmers’ market was underwater during storms. The Delaware itself has flooded eight times in twenty years.

One might suggest that the city could solve the flooding problem by stacking sandbags along the intersection of the two rivers. Maybe the city government would do this, maybe a non-profit, maybe both. They would go about it by building a small wall to keep the water out. Maybe they’d get funding to add 1000 or 10,000 bags. In fact, they wouldn’t measure it by number of bags. It would be a five-foot wall that was three feet thick, perhaps. Or an eight-foot wall five feet thick. And so on.

When a flood came around and it over-topped the sandbags, would we sit around and ask, Why didn’t that small stand of sandbags solve the flooding problem?

I doubt it.

More likely, we would recognize that that was one small effort in what would have to be a host of initiatives. Rather than a stack of sandbags, we would likely wonder about the degree of water flow, asking if it was produced by rain, a hurricane, an up-river event, the intensification of impervious pavement (paved surfaces) that has increased water flow into the river over the decades. We might ask if water control in northern Pennsylvania or near the source of the Delaware in New York had influenced the flow downriver. We might ask about recreation along the river, the ways boats use it for commerce and cities control its course, how the river is a habitat, the ways the integrity of the river banks maintain how well the river holds or shifts its place and direction. We might ask about water management policy. We might wonder if climate change is affecting the possibilities of flooding. And so on.

In effect, with even minor deliberation we would pull back to recognize that flooding issues at one spot along a river are produced by conditions far greater than that singular location alone. Nobody would say a stack of sandbags could have solved the flooding problem. That would be to suggest a singular, schematic solution. It might help, to be sure, but it would be one part of a collective approach, it would aid the more sufficient response to flooding policy is that assumes it is a complex environmental and political problem.

So too for “food deserts.”

Those working for healthier and more equitable food systems have been using the concept of food deserts for the past fifteen years. The USDA defined it as “a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store,” even providing a mapping service to help people visualize the desert locations. In one sense, it is encouraging to find that a concept aimed at questions of food justice has gone from obscurity to the local news as something everyday citizens need to pay attention to. That is to be applauded. The reporter is making food deserts a point of obvious concern.

Yet as food justice advocates argue, the problem brought to light by food deserts is not one of individual consumers, but one about food policies. Addressing food deserts through stores is only one element of addressing a more complex policy problem. Like flooding, even minor deliberation should have us pulling back to recognize that inequitable food systems in one town are produced by conditions far greater than that singular location alone.

To assume the food desert problem is one of individual access is to assume consumer interaction is the thing to address. That’s certainly and obviously part of the issue. But we have food deserts for reasons beyond just consumer practices. We also have them because of land use patterns, urban planning, community organization, and the like, all factors that influence the foods that are possible in certain places. If there aren’t regional farms to produce food for urban markets, then how will we stock their shelves? If there aren’t sustainable means to distribute food, beyond long-haul trucking or refrigerated rail cars or inter-continental air traffic, then how could the market options be healthy for people or the earth? This is to say, we also have food deserts because of flaws in the distribution and production of food, not just its purchase and consumption. Thus it is true: a new public market will not on its own solve the food desert problem. Assuming so would be to adopt a strictly individual consumer-side perspective. The market-based component must instead be part of a broader approach to a systemic issue that is fully cultural, political, technical, and environmental.

Fortunately, beyond just the new public market, Easton is host to a number of activities to do just that, working toward healthier and more equitable food systems through a variety of efforts. The NEH-funded “Food in the Public Square” that hosts this website is one of them, as it strives to bring together people from all walks of life to collaborate on problem definition in our food system. I wrote previously about a project in Easton’s West Ward led by the West Ward Neighborhood Partnership that Sophia Feller, Lynn Holden, and Larry Malinconico started four years ago. It has sought to build community strength by bringing together neighbors through fresh food distribution. The Kellyn Foundation is making strides with the Two Hearts Foundation to introduce even more mobile market options throughout Easton. The new Lehigh Valley Food Policy Council is working on developing broader policy initiatives to help similar issues.

The new public market will not solve the food desert problem, just as the thriving farmer’s market half a block away has not solved it, just as a new grocery store alone in the West Ward would not solve it. Yet as I wrote in my prior post, I would avoid either/or scenarios to recognize that the work for healthier and more equitable food systems is the work of pluralism, a pluralism grounded in seeing the problems not as individualist issues—just buy better food, just put in a store—but of political action and policy innovation.

B.R. Cohen, Lafayette College