Strive to eliminate food waste — this will help (not necessarily resolve) food desert issues. Remove stigmas for those who are food insecure. Support policies that enable (even incentivize) local businesses to donate foods to food banks.
In many parts of the United States, there is a crisis caused by people having limited access to healthy & affordable food options. This in turn is creating a host of health and social problems. What exactly is a food desert? What causes a food desert? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert? How can this problem be solved? Who are the leaders helping to address this crisis?
In this interview series, called “Food Deserts: How We Are Helping To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options” we are talking to business leaders and non-profit leaders who can share the initiatives they are leading to address and solve the problem of food deserts.
As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Darin Detwiler.
Dr. Detwiler is an author of two books on food’s past and future, a professor of food policy, a columnist on consumer perspectives on food, a keynote speaker, and a food industry consultant. He served two terms as an advisor to the USDA’s Secretary of Agriculture and worked with the FDA on new policies. The International Association for Food Protection awarded him with their 2018 Distinguished Service Award.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I was served as an enlisted nuclear mechanical engineer aboard a submarine where food and water were critical to the crew’s ability to maintain operational. In 1993, I became aware of the need for significant change in food policy during a landmark E.coli outbreak in which my 16-month-old son became ill and died. Since then, I have worked in education and in food safety and food policy work in various capacities from appointed advisor to the USDA’s Secretary of Agriculture to author and professor of food policy. I am a consultant and I speak on this topic before industry and international audiences.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Only days after taking the oath of office in 1993, President Bill Clinton discussed the ongoing E.coli outbreak on a live, televised “Town Meeting,” talking directly to live audiences in Detroit, Miami, and Seattle. The Seattle ABC affiliate invited me and my son’s mother to attend the Town Meeting and tell the president about our son, listed in critical condition — sick with E. coli — in Seattle Children’s Hospital. A week later, President Clinton flew to Seattle and had planned to meet with me and with my son Riley in Children’s Hospital, but his plan would prove untimely, as the day before he landed in Seattle, my son died.
The day after my son’s death, President Clinton called me from Air Force One. Echoing JFK’s famous “Ask Not” statement, President Clinton asked what his administration could do to help parents in this situation. I suggested that perhaps the best course of action would be to let parents like myself help the government make food safer. Thus, this conversation began my new focus in university and in a career. Since then, I have shared the stage and collaborated on my books with leaders I have known for nearly three decades. I have worked with students in my class and met up with them and even their co-workers at conferences. I have traveled to Dubai, Spain, Ireland, London, and across America to work with companies and to speak before audiences — always sharing travel experiences with key regulatory and industry executives. Bringing their voices into my classes has also become a rewarding part of my teaching.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
Definitely a key part of my success has been my use of stories. A ‘tipping point’ in my career was the moment I found a strong balance between the focus on consumer stories and the thought leadership from an academic perspective. Audiences want successful takeaways. They want concrete, credible information, but they also want validation and inspiration for the work that they do. I use stories to support my call to action for the Herculean effort in the food industry to go beyond ROI and cost-benefit analysis and to focus on consumers, on communities, and on social issues.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
He does not know this, but Dr. Bob Ballard — a world-renown deep-sea explorer best known for his historic discoveries and for his investigations of the Titanic shipwreck — shared something that had a HUGE impact on my life and professional career. I am fortunate to have had the chance to meet him after he presented at a conference many years ago. What he shared was a story of being at the bottom of the Black Sea with other top engineering types and how they did not feel knowledgeable enough to evaluate their findings. The team went back to university to study, but they also started recruiting new team members who had degrees in the sciences as well as in geology or history or geography, etc. Ballard stated that thousands applied, yet only a few met their criteria. I hold a background in mechanical and nuclear engineering with experience in naval submarine service, went on to earn degrees in History, Social Studies, Education, and finally Law and Policy. It is only through the combination of my diverse experiences and degrees that I feel confident and successful in my career and even credible enough to talk about food policy.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Prioritize — Place your mission first as a driving force and as a rubric to evaluate your success. I worked with a company that shared a story with me about how a manager made a decision that made sense economically but went against their company’s mission statement. While the manager’s decision to allow a problem with an ingredient to continue into the food manufacturing process would have saved about $20,000, the owners of the company soon recognized the potential impact on consumers as a direct result of that decision and chose to recall all the products — at a total cost of $10–12 Million. The owner ultimately fired the manager not because of the economic impact, but because of the lack of confidence in that manager in terms of supporting the company’s mission. I continued to work as a consultant for that company for a long time, solely because of that owner’s priorities. My success has long stemmed from keeping a focus on my priorities as a driving force behind my actions and my decisions.
- Invest — One major consideration in a company’s success is its ability to invest in itself — invest in their validation, emergency response, employees, community, etc. Tim after time, companies that get caught up into outbreaks (Chipotle), recalls (Blue Bell Creameries Ice Cream), or scandals (Wells Fargo) respond with assurances to the public and to their customers that they will now invest in new leaders, new programs, new partnerships, new measures, new auditing, and more. What I hear from these statements is that the public awareness of a problem with the company has forced them to do what they should have been doing all along by investing in these activities to prevent the events from happening in the first place. Sometimes investing in one’s career might not make sense, but in support of priorities, this is critical along the way.
- Train — Training is not simply about protocols and an accumulation of certificates. More important than training about the ‘how’ is training about the ‘why.’ When we talk about changing consumer behavior, we talk about the emotional or behavioral changes that come from an understanding about the stakeholders’ perspectives and the consequences for all stakeholders. Many companies call upon me to help tell the stories of victims and to paint a compelling picture as to the need for Herculean effort behind an issue. This includes victims’ and families’ stories and even drawings that help validate the efforts of those whose work is critical to make sure that consumers get what they need in terms of quality, quantity, nutrition, and safety.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Admiral Hyman Rickover (1900–1986), known as the ‘Father of the Nuclear Navy’, stated “Responsibility is a unique concept … You may share it with others, but your portion is not diminished. You may delegate it, but it is still with you … If responsibility is rightfully yours, no evasion, or ignorance or passing the blame can shift the burden to someone else.”
This has lived rent-free in my mind for decades as something that motivates me in different capacities. When I served aboard a nuclear submarine, I learned just how important a crew is collectively — and individually. We all depended on each other to be responsible and diligent in our duties to succeed and to survive. As a professor, I have a responsibility to influence and prepare a new generation of leaders in areas related to food policy. As an author, speaker, and consultant, I have a responsibility to support and inspire the Herculean effort needed to make safe and nutritious food available to consumers. I know that I am not the only one who is in these roles, but I cannot simply assume that the next person is responsible.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about Food Deserts. I know this is intuitive to you, but it will be helpful to expressly articulate this for our readers. Can you please tell us what exactly a food desert is? Does it mean there are places in the US where you can’t buy food?
A food desert is a situation where an imbalance exists between the supply and demand of food.
Based on 2018 statistics, we know that at least 23.5 million Americans live in food deserts, meaning that they live over one mile from a supermarket and do not own a car. The USDA’s Economic Research Service defines a “Food Desert” as “Low- income census tracts with a substantial number or share of residents with low levels of access to retail outlets selling healthy and affordable foods are defined as food deserts.” The USDA also defines how census tracts (small, subdivision of a county inhabited by an average of around 4000 people) qualify as food deserts if they meet low-income and low-access thresholds:
- Low-income: “a poverty rate of 20 percent or greater, or a median family income at or below 80 percent of the statewide or metropolitan area median family income”;
- Low-access: “at least 500 persons and/or at least 33 percent of the population lives more than 1 mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (10 miles, in the case of rural census tracts)”
This is not as easy as a small town with no grocery store, as some heavily populated neighborhoods of San Francisco have long been known as food deserts with their lack of local grocery stores. In many cases, the people most impacted are POC and the poor, but recent statistics show that even working Americans experience food insecurity. Some cases can be traced to population growth while other causes stem from retail chains not wanting to operate in certain neighborhoods.
The USDA has defined “food insecure households” as those that may not be able to guarantee enough food for all members of their household. Today, the harsh reality is that more than 50 million Americans — roughly one in six — lived in food insecure households in 2011. Some 11.1% of US households without children were food secure throughout 2018, whereas 13.9% of US households with children under age 18 were food secure throughout 2018.
In contrast, national data on indigenous food insecurity indicate that 23% of Native Americans living on reservations in the United States are food insecure, with some of the poorest reservations experiencing levels of 50% or more. Some who live on the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona consider themselves lucky to be living only 25 to 35 miles away from an off-reservation grocery store, as it is not uncommon for others to travel 75 miles (one way) to reach one. On the Navajo Nation, only 13 full-service grocery stores serve its 300,000 inhabitants across its 27,413 square mile land base — equivalent to the land size that almost entirely covers the same amount of square miles as in the states of Massachusetts (10,565), New Hampshire (9350), and Vermont (9623) combined. Virtually all reservations in the United States qualify as rural food deserts, as defined by the USDA. Further, one survey found that, between 2000 and 2010, 25% of American Indians and Alaskan Natives remained consistently food insecure and they were twice as likely to be food insecure compared to white populations.
Food insecurity is strongly correlated with diet-related diseases such as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Currently, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease rates in Native American populations are more than double the national average.
Can you help explain a few of the social consequences that arise from food deserts? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert?
Due to this lack of options, many often stop at convenience “hybrid” stores where they can purchase some staples and eat a quick meal during commutes to and from work. These hybrid retail outlets — such as gasoline service stations, drug stores, liquor stores, and corner markets — have grown in environments characterized by high rates of poverty, low economic development, and weak infrastructure. In the absence of supermarkets, they are often the only food outlets within communities.
The National Restaurant Association calls these establishments “hybrids” or “retail-host restaurants” and labels them as one of the fastest growing segments for restaurant food. In contrast, most “traditional” grocery stores, convenience marts, etc., only sell food items, thus are considered “point-of-sale” businesses, while restaurants prepare and serve food items and are, thus, considered “point-of-service” businesses.
The Commerce Department reported in 2015 that sales at restaurants and bars overtook spending at grocery stores for the first time in U.S. history. This indicates a larger consumer preference for ready-to-eat foods than for raw ingredients to be used for cooking from scratch in the home.
One case study I learned about a few years ago looked at how children who accompanied their parents into these hybrid options (such as the corner store) for their food needs were far more exposed to cigarette marketing and alcohol images while also more likely to purchase unhealth or non-nourishing foods that were lower in price than healthy options. Further, these consumers are less likely to purchase fresh raw produce or meats and, instead, are limited to only purchasing commercially prepared or ready to eat foods.
Where did this crisis come from? Can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place?
Well, we need to consider all social science perspectives of economic, geographic, and political.
- Economically, we have seen consolidation and centralization of grocery retail caused by corporate decisions and by other factors. When large retailers come into an area, we often experience the loss of small, local businesses that provided critical service to communities. We also find that more and more foods come in the form of commercially packaged or ready to eat foods that do not necessarily come with the same nutritional benefits.
- Geographically, when families without vehicles depend on public transit for access, food deserts only grow. We need to rethink interruptions or changes to services. The pandemic has highlighted some of these problems and solutions though of as temporary need to be evaluated for potential long-term use.
- Politically, barriers to food bank donations and to community resources continually plague small communities and disenfranchised populations. The 1996 Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act (2 USC 1791) is meant to protect good faith food donors from civil and criminal liability (in the event that a recipient fell ill after consuming the product.) In theory, this law would negate the concerns of liability; however, many operators are still hesitant.
Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact to address this crisis? Can you share some of the initiatives you are leading to help correct this issue?
In my speaking an in my book, Food Safety: Past, Present, and Predictions, I continue to associate problems with access to food as one of the many pillars of reputations that the food industry must address. When we have food quality problems that do not affect food safety — but the food is now considered waste, then people go hungry. When food safety or food authenticity failures result in enormous amounts of food that is destroyed, then not only are we creating some of the food access problems that consumers are faced to deal with, but we are dismissing the Herculean efforts of so many in the food supply system. During the pandemic, this was particularly of concern as those who worked on the farms and in the processing plants, in distribution and in retail, put themselves at additional risk to support consumers.
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
Perhaps what makes me most proud is when my graduate students present or publish their work that integrates food deserts or food insecurity into the larger context of the food supply system. This is really an issue that weaves through a complicated mountain of laws, regulatory agencies, as well as federal and state policies. The social and economic barriers to ending food deserts is another challenge that must be considered.
In your opinion, what should other business and civic leaders do to further address these problems? Can you please share your “5 Things That Need To Be Done To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
- Foster a culture that once again embraces local foods and cooking at home. When profits are the driving force for food prepared outside of the home, society loses in terms of affordable and accessible food for those families that are food insecure.
- Position food security as a local and national priority. City planning, allocation of resources, and other common political forces need to not only take into consideration the lifestyles of the wealthy but should deal first with those who are marginalized or who may easily become marginalized. Part of this will include strong connections being made between food deserts and public health. I recall an event where a town in Massachusetts had only one grocery store and it had closed down due to protests over worker compensation. The community depended on that one solution for food access and had no other options nor the public transit resources (to take people to another town) during that period.
- Strive to eliminate food waste — this will help (not necessarily resolve) food desert issues.
- Remove stigmas for those who are food insecure.
- Support policies that enable (even incentivize) local businesses to donate foods to food banks.
Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address food deserts? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work? Perhaps we can reach out to them to include them in this series.
Here is where you will find local, community leaders — mayors, state representatives, universities, etc. — working on these issues.
If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws that you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?
Restructure the federal food policy / regulatory agencies into a more simplified, cohesive few.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The movement would be an opportunity for consumers to share their voices and stories of hunger, lack of access, lack of nutrition, food allergies, foodborne illnesses and other concerns to industry and to elected representatives without being restricted by obstacles that businesses and unions easily circumvent.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Dr. Bob Ballard, Bill Gates, Oprah, Phil Donahue, President Bill Clinton, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cynthia McCain, President Barack Obama
How can our readers further follow your work online?
My website is www.herculeaneffort.net. I can be found on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/darin-detwiler/.
My twitter account is https://twitter.com/darindetwiler.
My 2020 TEDx talk “Inspiring Change: Harnessing the Inner Hercules” can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fSYuX11qJR4.
My book FOOD SAFETY: Past, Present, and Predictions can be found on Google and at https://www.elsevier.com/books/food-safety/detwiler/978-0-12-818219-2.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.