This conversation is a recurring feature of the Consumers and Consumption website: the “Scholars’ Conversations” series, where consumption scholars (broadly defined) talk to other scholars in the field about recent publications and their approach to all things consumption. You can participate too! Graduate students, this can be an excellent opportunity to connect with someone whose work you like. Faculty and postdocs, this is a way to highlight your recent work and establish connections with future colleagues.

To learn more or to participate in the series, please email Tim Rosenkranz (timrosenkranz@cuhk.edu.hk) or Jordan Foster(jordann.foster@mail.utoronto.ca).

Scholars’ Conversations: Unpacking Retail Inequality with Ken Kolb 

By Jordan Foster 

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to Ken Kolb, Professor and Chair of Sociology at Furman University. In this conversation, we discuss Ken’s new book, Retail Inequality, and his interests in food studies and consumption more broadly. 

Jordan Foster: How did you come to work on your book, Retail Inequality, and the topic of food? 

Ken Kolb: Well, my research in Greenville, South Carolina started with working with some neighborhood groups. In 2012, they were in a big fight with the State Department of Transportation that was trying to tear down a bridge that connected their neighborhood to another side of town. 

So, I took some students and did a little community-based research project going door-to-door and sort of documenting what the neighborhood really wanted. Unfortunately, the bridge was ultimately torn down. It took 8 years of fighting to get it replaced. But in the aftermath of the bridge fight, I kept asking community members what concerns they held about the community more broadly.  A central concern at the time—and one that received a lot of attention—was the development of a grocery store. 

And while this was an important concern, it was by no means their only one. The multitude of their complaints led me to develop the general thesis of the book: neighborhoods without grocery stores have been complaining about the lack of grocery stores, as well as a bunch of other things—poor retail availability for example—for a long time.  But nobody cared about those other things until the problem became framed in the language of “healthy food” and once it was, out of the woodwork came all of these largely white middle class social movements related to food, food justice, and organic food.

Jordan: What sparked your interest in this area of research? 

Ken: Well, I was really drawn to it because of my interest in food. I took a break from graduate school and joined the Peace Corps in the United States. I served in Paraguay and lived on a farm as a beekeeper. So, it’s food that really drew me in. 

Jordan: In your book, Retail Inequality, you take issue with the term “food desert.” Can you tell me why this term isn’t the right one to think with? 

Ken: At the time, the food desert terminology was really kind of in its heyday and it’s amazing that this term went from just a talking point in a UK public policy document in 1990 and then by 2010 it was making wide appearances across national publications. The term had a lot of political strength: it was intuitive, it could be mapped. It really captured people’s attention.

What people missed, however, was a slow growing critique. There was, at first, a lot of debate about whether we should call them food deserts or “food swamps” (places inundated with unhealthy and fast food). Or “food mirages” because there could be, say, a Whole Foods or a Farmers Market in your neighbourhood but it’s too expensive and inaccessible. More recently we’re starting to hear the phrase “food apartheid,” which is a good step forward because it acknowledges the systemic and institutionalized racism that depopulated many of these neighbourhoods and drained them of the wealth necessary to support small scale retail. And although I think “food apartheid” is an appropriate term, I would argue that it doesn’t go far enough. It is about so much more than food – it’s about banking, dry cleaning, hardware stores, and so on.

Jordan: What was the process of transforming this curiosity like for you in terms of developing your research question and later, your book? 

Ken: My research is very much inductive and the research question changed over time. It began with, “how can I help people eat better?” And so, I started going to public meetings and hearing all this outrage to the tune of, ”there’s no healthy food in our neighborhood or our grocery stores, the lettuce sold on our side of town doesn’t look as nice as grocery stores on other sides of town” and so on.  I wanted to help and this made me really excited.

It was clear that people had this desire for healthy food and so, I thought they were just going to jump at the first opportunity for it. My first hint that there was something off with the “food desert” concept came when a mobile farmers market started trucking in fresh fruits and vegetables to a neighborhood without a grocery store. I surveyed its shoppers whenever it arrived and found out that in reality they weren’t community members, but relatives of the people working at the market. 

I did the same type of survey at a local “healthy food” store – a small 8000 square foot space. The same thing happened. When I charted customers’ geographic distance from the store, it turned out that almost all of them were coming from three or four miles away. 

So, I started talking to community members and performing site visits to better understand where they were doing their shopping and how they accessed healthy food options. I came to find that community members charted quite different paths to grocers, often outside of their own neighbourhoods. It turned out that distance wasn’t the obstacle we imagined it was, and it certainly wasn’t the only or even the most important factor explaining food choices. 

Jordan: How long did your publishing process take from the inception of your idea when you first got thinking about this to the point you know that book is bound and we’re ready to go.

Ken: Well, my last book came out in 2014. I started Retail Inequality in the spring of 2015 with fieldwork on a local farm. In and around that time, I began to find evidence from among these local farmers markets and food stores that really distance wasn’t determining diet.  

Once I started questioning the relationship between distance and diet, I joined the Consumers and Consumption section session and really dived into food studies and food study scholarship. This was completely new to me. I delved into the field and set about writing a book in an unfamiliar area. 

Officially, I started writing in 2017/2018 and by 2019, I had the first draft all set. The COVID-19 pandemic slowed the review process, but this process was very valuable. One of the reviewers shared that retail inequality argument was the strongest point of the manuscript, whereas I had thought the best frame was around the rise and fall of a concept. It turned out that the new revision really drew out how everyday people talk about their access to food and the complexities that shape it. 

Jordan: What does consumption mean to you in your work? 

Ken: Well, it’s twofold. First, I think about consumption in terms of bodily consumption; people are consuming things into their body. And this makes food consumption quite a bit more unique than say, consuming a movie or watching television.

Second, I think about consumption as a symbolic gesture to show how one is an equal participant in the society that we have together. Driving through a new town, for example, you get a sense of a place by taking a look at its storefronts and sidewalks. Are there yoga studios and nice cafes or do the stores have iron bars on the windows? These are questions that bear on one’s sense of community. 

Jordan: Is there any book or article about consumption that’s been particularly influential in your work? 

Ken: I really like Pressure Cooker by Joslyn Brenton, Sarah Bowen and Sinikka Elliott because it really gets into like the nitty gritty of how hard it is to make meals work. Michaela Desoucey’s Contested Tastes is similarly wonderful; she’s such a brilliant writer and such an excellent ethnographer. And obviously, Shyon Baumann and Josee Johnston’s Foodies is very impressive and made a big impression on my work. 

Jordan: What are some of the major takeaways you would like your readers to leave with? 

Ken: I want readers to be critical of what they perceive to be a problem in the world around them and how white privilege can cloud people’s judgements. If the premise of white privilege is that societies’ institutions are generally structured in a way to benefit white people in ways that they aren’t even aware of, then a corollary to that theory is that in order for something to be deemed a problem in society, its solution must also appeal to the tastes of white and middle-class folks. 

People in “food deserts”, like the one I studied, have been living their lives in entrenched poverty and residential segregation. These problems were in plain sight, and yet it wasn’t until the solution became about nice grocery stores that all of a sudden, the proverbial veil had been lifted. 

And so, I do want people who read the book to think to themselves when deciding to join a social movement, ”why is it that I care about this right now?” ”Why am I dedicating my time and energy to this cause or that one?” Questions like this can open up an opportunity for some internal reflection into one’s positionality and their privilege and from this place, they can start unpack their ways of knowing and reflecting. That’s probably the biggest takeaway, to get people to reflect, especially white readers, on their privilege and which movements or causes they choose to support and which they don’t. 

In addition, I also really like the work it takes to debunk a concept and this is something I explore throughout Retail Inequality. You know, there’re some concepts out there that we just can’t seem to knock out of place (“broken windows theory” is a classic example), and we need to be more critical of these. Questioning taken-for-granted concepts and their usefulness is something that sociologists are pretty well equipped to do. 

About the Interviewer: Jordan Foster is a graduate student at the University of Toronto. His research lies at the intersection of consumption, new media, and inequality.

Published by Carla Cunha

Carla is an aspiring Sociologist with a Bachelor's degree in Sociology and a Master's degree in Business Administration from Montclair State University. She has over 8 years of digital marketing experience and works as a Senior Director of Digital Marketing at Faircom New York. Her research interests are consumer philanthropy, lifestyle choices, and anything revolving around the digital world.

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