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SCFPC Member Dr. Ken Kolb Discusses his New Book Retail Inequality: Reframing the Food Desert Debate

Last month, SCFPC staff members Ashley Page-Bookhart and Zach Herrnstadt spoke with Dr. Ken Kolb about his new book Retail Inequality: Reframing the Food Desert Debate. Kolb is professor and chair of the sociology department at Furman University in Greenville, SC as well as a member of SCFPC.

SCFPC: What are some of the most important takeaways from the book that you think can be applied to the work of the SC Food Policy Council and to the new committees that we are forming this year?

Dr. Kolb: In my book, I try to explain the problems with the “food desert” concept and propose some new ways to think about the issue. Before, we thought that poor health outcomes in poor areas were due to the lack of nearby healthy food options. And although we hoped that building grocery stores in underserved areas would improve dietary outcomes, many of those efforts weren’t as effective as we had hoped. It turns out that “distance to store” does not determine diets as much as we thought it did, and I propose that we need to rethink how we define success when it comes to improving food access. Increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables is one metric, but it’s not the only metric, and it still can be an aspirational goal. But just because new stores don’t often change the way people eat doesn’t mean those efforts were a failure. They were an investment in those neighborhoods that does a lot of good (even if diets stay the same).

People’s eating and consumption practices are very complex and intertwined with other aspects of their life. Their everyday realities—picking up the kids, going to appointments, going to work, going to worship, visiting family, and all that stuff—create very complex and complicated lives that are very difficult to untangle. Asking them to adopt a completely new set of eating practices because a new store has arrived is not practical. So, instead of blaming people for their eating habits, we need to recognize that their eating practices are carefully crafted solutions that they have honed over their lifetime to solve their everyday problems. To ask them to change that, without fixing any of the other problems in their life, is a little unrealistic.

SCFPC: You mentioned that we need to move the goalposts, to change the goals and other metrics that we are using. What other metrics do you think those of us who are working in this food systems and research space should be using to better quantify change that community members would like to see?

Dr. Kolb: I think one of the goals is to not blame people for their diets. Let’s recognize that their diets are shaped by their everyday realities. Their lives are complicated and we should give them the opportunity to improve their diets, but we need to recognize that they may not have the time or the money to be able to activate new resources on a daily basis.

SCFPC: In Chapter 7, you discuss proposed solutions to improve food access, including subsidizing informal ride networks in low food access areas. Can you tell us more about how you arrived at this solution? Are you aware of any informal ride sharing programs taking place across the county?

Dr. Kolb: When I began my research, I was especially curious to find out how people who didn’t own cars got to the store. Initially, I assumed they rode the bus. However, even though there is a public transit system in Greenville, it’s a “hub and spoke “system that is not very efficient. I soon learned that it was hard to use, even for people who lived quite close to bus stops. This is partly because of the difficulty of timing between pick-ups and drop-offs. But the biggest problem was lugging those bags all the way home after they got dropped off blocks from home—a smaller version of the “last mile problem” that logistics engineers spend their entire careers trying to solve.

Instead of relying on the bus system, many of the people I interviewed found a way to get rides from friends or family members. I call this the “informal ride network” and it was actually pretty sophisticated. The price or fare for each ride was basically determined by degrees of separation from you and the person giving you the ride. So, if it’s your husband, obviously they’re going to give you a ride for free. But if it’s a friend, or a friend of a friend, then it starts to get a little more costly. But the people I interviewed still saw getting rides in cars as better than taking the bus because they could get dropped off at the store entrance, get help with their bags, and get brought all the way back to their door front… so it made things a lot easier.

Subsidizing the informal ride network solves a number of problems. One, expanding bus systems is incredibly expensive and in the southeast, there’s not a whole lot of political will for increasing public transportation. Two, subsidizing local drivers keeps the money in the neighborhood. So, for example, Washington D.C. proposed a system whereby the city would basically pay people’s cab fares to get from their house to a Metro stop. And that’s great, and cab drivers need money too, and that’s an occupation worth supporting. But that money doesn’t necessarily stay in the neighborhood.

I recognize that giving people vouchers that they can give to family or friends in exchange for a ride gets complicated and governments will want to design elaborate means testing protocols to verify people’s incomes. But all that bureaucracy just means more forms and more wasted money. Take that money spent making sure there is no waste and just plow it back into the program. Simple vouchers, paid for by local governments, could be distributed by grocery stores themselves. Someone could get a voucher in the mail, give it to a friend in exchange for the ride, and the driver could redeem it for money inside the grocery store—and likely use that money to pay for food for themselves. In the end, we would see local governments supporting local food retail while subsidizing a solution that residents have already designed themselves. I think it solves a lot of problems.

SCFPC: With qualitative research, I know the focus tends to be on gaining a rich understanding of community context. You’ve conducted this in-depth qualitative analysis focused on two historically Black neighborhoods in Greenville, SC. Do you see the findings translating to other communities around South Carolina and the US?

Dr. Kolb: I think my findings are very much geared towards smaller cities without intensive public transportation programs. Small cities have leaner bus systems because they don’t have enough people to support more robust ones. Less density also means that small scale retail (like bodegas you would find in NYC) cannot compete against the big box retailers on the outskirts of town. The only kind of small-scale and walkable retail that can thrive in places like Greenville is very high end and very niche.

The book is also applicable to other small cities that had to transition from the collapse of manufacturing in the 1970s and 80s. These are small cities in SC that are still recovering from the massive job losses from 40 and 50 years ago. And they are developing new economies. And those new economies are attracting new people into the city centers, so there becomes this kind of new battleground for what those places are going to be.

Small cities across SC saw a “white flight” of white households to the suburbs in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Today, white households are coming back to city centers. And they’re demanding—in a market sense—specific types of retail that appeals to their wants and needs but doesn’t necessarily take into account the preferences of the Black residents who have been sheltering in place for 40 years during the retail drought. And that’s not unique to Greenville, that’s the story of the sunbelt.

Ken Kolb is professor and chair of the sociology department at Furman University in Greenville, SC. He has 20 years of experience conducting community-based research. His new book, Retail Inequality: Reframing the Food Desert Debate draws from in-depth interviews with individuals from two historically Black neighborhoods in Greenville, SC that suffered significant urban decline in the aftermath of the collapse of the textile industry in the 1970s. Kolb also attended Greenville community meetings regarding food access over a 5-year period and conducted a systemic review of over 350 nationwide media accounts about food deserts.

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