The conflict between public policy, perception and local facts and realities came to a head in national news when earlier this year residents of a once-predominantly black neighborhood in Portland successfully rallied against the building of a Trader Joe’s on a vacant lot in the area. Many folks were baffled. Why wouldn’t people in this place labeled as a clear food desert rejoice at the fact that they could get great groceries (and tasty cookie butter) right down the street? But what outside viewers and eager Traderites willfully ignored was that many citizens were deathly afraid of gentrification and being displaced from their own neighborhoods in a city well-known for aggressive gentrification, much of which had involved early incursions by large chain grocery stores.
Breyer said that in the case of Trader Joe’s in Portland, the food desert concept was “used as an excuse to push an agenda that had nothing to do with food access for low-income communities” and had more to do with providing a rationale for securing access to cheap, promising real estate for developers and, eventually, the chain. The lower-income inhabitants of the neighborhood had figured out what policymakers and informed citizens across the country hadn’t: that the courtship dance with grocery stores was a dance with death for the people that needed the groceries most. The jig was up.