Food deserts constitute a public health phenomenon in which communities lack sufficient access to nutritious whole foods. The U.S. Appalachian region currently faces a food desert crisis of problematic proportions: this crisis stems from neoliberalism’s dire legacy and a rapidly transitioning energy sector, which have left the region devastated. To combat food deserts, the Appalachian citizenry has cultivated nascent, sustainable local food systems. As viewed through an ecofeminist lens, such local systems serve as a potentially potent reform model for reconstructed “living economies” based on collective cooperation and egalitarian co-ownership.
The Appalachian region of the United States is beset by food deserts. As defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food deserts are “low-income census tract[s] where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.” In practice, this means that numerous Appalachian citizens lack access to vegetables, fruits, and other whole foods: the nutritious stuff of life.
In a nation supposedly endowed with plenty, how has it come to this? Appalachian food deserts stem from a disastrous confluence of events (both regional and global): the insidious rise of neoliberal economics; a rapidly transitioning U.S. energy sector; and a century’s worth of Appalachian regional subordination.
The exploitative coal industry has long undergirded Appalachia’s economy. Previously awash in extensive and rich coal seams, the region paradoxically gained scant material benefit from such resources: outside coal interests “wield[ed] power over [Appalachia] at the expense of its citizens and the natural environment.” Appalachia therefore exemplifies the natural resource curse par excellence.
In recent years, however, the coal industry has largely collapsed due to energy marketplace shifts (i.e., towards natural gas and renewables). Because Appalachian governmental elites—captured by coal interests—eschewed diversification, coal’s collapse has overwhelmingly devastated the region. Economists have now classified many Appalachian counties as in a legitimate “great depression.”
As investigated by Jessica Lilly and Roxy Todd, Appalachia’s socioeconomic implosion has led many transnational superstores, such as Walmart Stores, Inc., to abandon the region. Many communities, like the town of Kimball in McDowell County, West Virginia, relied solely upon such a superstore: in Kimball, its closure deprived citizens of ready access to healthy foodstuffs—i.e., thereby creating a food desert.
Why do residents lack alternative local options? Ironically, it was the very rise of superstore conglomerates—under a vigorous regime of neoliberalism—that displaced Appalachian grocery stores, along with other local businesses, in the first place. Endemic poverty and a steep population decline now stymie systemic rejuvenative development.
Hearteningly, the Appalachian citizenry is pursuing creative solutions to food deserts via sustainable local food systems: community-based agriculture and farmers markets dot the landscape. As third wave ecofeminism (among other schools) teaches us, such projects are crucial in “promoting living economies” through development of local renewable resources. Appalachian food deserts indeed constitute unacceptable social ills. But through critically informed explorations of local systems, we may begin broader reformist projects wherein reconstructed, ecologically sound economies are based less on the stark competition of late capitalism—and more on cooperation, co-ownership, and genuine participation among the Appalachian demos.