Agriculture and Human Values

, Volume 36, Issue 2, pp 241–256 | Cite as

Desert wonderings: reimagining food access mapping

  • Kathryn Teigen De MasterEmail author
  • Jess Daniels


For over 20 years, the concept of “food deserts” has served as an evocative metaphor, signifying spatialized patterns of injustice associated with low access to nutritious foods through retail and social exclusion. Yet in spite of its pithy appeal, scholars and activists increasingly critique the food desert concept as stigmatizing, inaccurate, and insufficient to characterize entrenched structural inequities. These well-founded critiques demonstrate a convincing need to reframe approaches to spatialized food injustice. We argue that food desert maps, which aim to visually illustrate food inequality, can reproduce problematic assumptions, stigmas, and inaccuracies that form the crux of scholarly critiques. For example, food desert maps typically overlook community assets and also utilize decontextualized and overdetermined indicators, such as proximity to supermarkets and transportation access. Although we acknowledge the contributions of food desert maps, in this paper we propose a reimagining of food access mapping. To illustrate our argument, we present a course-based food justice mapping study in Providence, Rhode Island. Our project draws inspiration from studies that interrogate the deficit-oriented framing of food deserts, as well as several alternative mapping practices: critical cartography and counter-mapping, community asset mapping, participatory geographic information systems, and radical cartography. We suggest these alternative mapping approaches have potential to move practitioners and viewers beyond the desolate “desert” vantage point and toward a more textured understanding of community food access that inspires engaged exploration.


Food deserts Food access Critical cartography and counter-mapping Asset mapping Participatory mapping Radical cartography 



The authors gratefully acknowledge the contributions of the students of Brown University’s “Sustenance and Sustainability” course and leaders of the Providence Foodshed Justice Project ( to this work. We are especially thankful for contributions by Molly Bledsoe and Daniel Blaustein-Rejto, who contributed mapping information on Providence farmer’s markets and food pantries. We also thank the dozens of Providence, Rhode Island storekeepers and employees who generously accommodated our experiential course-based exercise, and we are grateful to the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Food Policy Council for their helpful feedback at critical junctures of this project. Finally, we thank Brown University’s Center for Environmental Studies, Swearer Center for Public Service, and Creative Mind Initiative for their support.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Environmental Science, Policy & ManagementUniversity of California-BerkeleyBerkeleyUSA
  2. 2.FibershedSan GeronimoUSA

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