The just urban food system: Exploring the geographies of social justice and retail food access in Kingston, Ontario

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Bedore, Melanie
Geography , Food , Social justice , Dignity , Kingston , Retail
This dissertation explores poor retail food access in low-income, class-segregated communities through a social justice lens. Disadvantaged communities with poor food access—often called ‘food deserts’—have received ample scholarly attention, however the problem has yet to be analyzed from a normative, critical perspective. For this research, I use the case study of two communities in Kingston, Ontario’s North End, whose retail food geography changed significantly between 2006 and 2009. Critical political economy is my primary theoretical framework. I conducted forty-two qualitative interviews with key informants, four focus groups (three with low-income North Kingston residents and one with elderly Kingston residents), two door-to-door surveys in Rideau Heights, archival research, and I attended public meetings around a grocery store closure in the North End. I advance several research findings based on my results. Most broadly, I argue that the food desert problem represents capital’s ability to shape the ‘everyday geographies’ of simple, mundane activities like food shopping through the manipulation of the urban built environment. As such, capital is able to distribute the costs and burdens of food procurement in ways that reproduce class relations and class contempt to suite the dynamics of capitalist accumulation. I propose three interpretations of poor retail food access as a social injustice: (1) poor access represents the unequal and disproportionate allocation of burdens and costs of food acquisition on those with the fewest resources to mitigate these costs; (2) class disparity is inherently supported by urban governance systems that protect the interests of capital, therefore scaled-up retail capital is not accountable to residents of communities or their non-economic needs or wishes; and (3) the consolidated retail food geography of North American cities deprives low-income people of freedom, choice and dignity that is often embodied in the act of enjoying a ‘normal’ middle-class shopping experience. In the transition to a post-capitalist retail food geography, therefore, activists should abandon a romantic notion that low-income people should drive the change by somehow adopting a more agrarian lifestyle or lead the food system re-localization agenda – change driven by desperation rather than personal values.
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