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Swamp Imaginaries

“Food swamp” has become a popular term in food movement circles. As public health researcher Sarah Elton explains, “Food swamp describes an urban environment where there is a lot of food for sale that is not nutritious, or worse, and therefore is seen to be a threat to public health. This foodscape is typical of the North American food system that is corporate, industrial and increasingly global. A whole lot of us live in food swamps.”

However, the designations of predominantly low-income neighbourhoods as food swamps echoes a 19th century settler-colonial perspective. Conjuring notions of disease and disorder, the classification of these areas as swamps perpetuates the idea that they need to be cleaned up, rid of their swampy qualities, which in turn can become a justification for urban improvementa process entangled with gentrification, colonialism and displacement.

Chris Moure is a summer student with The Stop, who has been connecting his academic work to his work in our food programs. In “Swamp Imaginaries,” he explores the many intersecting issues with the term, and how we may re-imagine the rich value of swamps.


Swamp Imaginaries

A thin wet sky, that yellows at the rim,
And meets with sun-lost lip the marsh’s brim.
The pools low lying, dank with moss and mould,
Glint through their mildews like large cups of gold.
Among the wild rice in the still lagoon,
In monotone the lizard shrills his tune.
The wild goose, homing, seeks a sheltering,
Where rushes grow, and oozing lichens cling.
Late cranes with heavy wing, and lazy flight,
Sail up the silence with the nearing night.
And like a spirit, swathed in some soft veil,
Steals twilight and its shadows o’er the swale.
Hushed lie the sedges, and the vapours creep,
Thick, grey and humid, while the marshes sleep.

Pauline Johnson, “Marshlands”

 

25%

The percentage of the world’s wetlands located in Canada. 

90%

The percentage of Toronto’s wetlands estimated to have been lost to infilling and dredging since the time of European settlement. 

30%

The rate of food insecurity in Canada among Black and Indigenous households. 

300%

The percentage increase in the average price of a single-family home in Toronto between 2000 and 2018. 

500 years

The time it takes for a wetland to create 30 centimeters of highly fertile ‘muck soil, which, once drained, immediately begins to subside and vanish. 

 

I came to The Stop three years ago as a food bank volunteer. This summer, I applied for and received an internship position at The Stop through the internship program at York University, where I study politics and philosophy. As part of my internship, Diane Janzen, The Stop’s volunteer coordinator and one of my supervisors, suggested I write a short blog post reflecting on some of the connections between the mission of The Stop and the content of my university courses.  

What follows is a brief reflection, centered around the notion of the swamp, on how the conversation around public health, food security and community building might be enriched by incorporating ecological and postcolonial perspectives. Part of The Stop’s mission is to change the conversation around foodhow it connects us with each other, with the land and with our cultures; my hope is to draw out a few strands from series of diverging and converging perspectives in order to further inspire this conversation. 

A few months ago, I came across an article written in 2018 by Sarah Eltonthen a PhD candidate in social and behavioral health sciences at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at University of Toronto. In the article, Elton criticizes the term “food swamp,” which is used by some public health researchers to describe urban, usually low-income neighborhoods where there is a high concentration of fast-food restaurants and other unhealthy food options. Using the term swamp to negatively describe a retail food environment, she argues, incorrectly associates swamps with negative health outcomes.  

Swamps are in fact essential parts of the natural ecosystem which filter water, prevent soil erosion, support biodiversity, absorb floodwater and even absorb carbon from the air. In short, swamps are a necessary part of a healthy ecosystem, rather than something to be removed or improved upon 

 In highlighting this misrepresentation, Elton levies a much broader critique of public health discoursenamely that by ignoring the ways in which public health is conditioned upon the health of natural ecosystems, conventional approaches to public nutrition will inevitably provide inadequate solutions. For example, one peer-reviewed research paper suggests that the practical solution to food swamps is to simply “modify the community food environment to reduce exposure to less healthy food and beverages,” by doing things like giving tax incentives to certain types of stores, changing zoning laws, and providing funding to highrisk populations 

While these policies may prove effective in modifying the makeup of storefronts in the neighbourhood, an ecological approach considers how the whole of our environment, of which the retail landscape is only a facet, is vital to sustaining healthy lives. It examines not just consumption patterns but all aspects of the food systemsoil, water, climate, etc.toward a view to sustainable management of these ecosystems. Such an approach, Elton writes, means “evaluating the health of the food system by examining it from its agricultural beginnings, to the processing, production and consumption stages as well as looking at its waste.

At its heart lies a radically different notion of health, which sees health not as a property of self-sufficient individualswho make rational choices about which foods to eatbut as a reciprocal relation between human and non-human systems. In other words, health is “something that is shared as opposed to a condition that is found in the body.”  

From this perspective, the term food swamp (a phenomenon notably prevalent in Canada) misrepresents the swamp as a place of unhealth and disease, and in doing so, misses the vital role they play in supporting ecosystems and sustaining public health. Thus, “rather than helping to improve public health by identifying and naming the negative health consequences of the corporate, industrial foodscape, the metaphor of the food swamp obscures the underlying health risks posed by the corporate industrial food system, writes Elton. 

In addition, by equating the socially constructed landscape of the urban retail food environment with the natural landscape, food policy researchers obscure the social and political forces that create such environments. Characterizing a neighborhood’s private commercial spaces as naturally occurring phenomena can end up naturalizing the unequal social and economic relations underpinning them, which in turn limits the range of possible solutionsfor instance, by shifting the focus from the potential causes of food swamps to the mere mitigation of their effects.  

Moving beyond Elton’s criticism, this misconception also reflects a more longstanding connection between the colonial imaginary of swamps as places of disease and impurity, and the practice of pushing marginalized and oppressed peoples onto land deemed undesirable. The designation of these predominantly low-income areas as swamps mirrors this colonial practice of associating poverty with disease and moral impurity while obscuring its root causes.

While working on this post, Diane pointed me in the direction of Michael Classens, a professor of environmental studies at Trent University and a volunteer at The Stop, who has written extensively on the socionatural properties of food production systems. To my surprise, I discovered that his doctoral research around the Holland Marsh touches on further aspects of the cultural production of swamps, locating this production nowhere else but in Toronto’s own agricultural backyard.  

In his doctoral dissertation, From ‘dismal swamp’ to ‘smiling farms’: Socio-ecological change and making food in the Holland Marsh,” Classens describes how the Holland marsh was characterized by early settlers as a “mosquito filled wasteland.Beset with Puritanical undertones and moral panic,” he writes, “the Holland River marsh of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was perceived as fit only for indigenous populations, bootleggers, and desperate settlers. This “deep seated suspicion” of wetlands, stemming from the European puritanical vilification of swamps as “dirty and godless places,” took on a specific othering function in the Canadian context of tense confrontation between indigenous and colonial populations. Classens argues that such a context, whichensured the marsh remained undeveloped for so many years also contributed as a precipitant for its eventual reclamation” and subsequent transformation into the second most profitable agricultural land in Canada.

In a real sense, “draining [the marsh] was more than simply a way of making productive farmland; it was a way of purging the landscape of the evils of disease and waste;” and “a way of introducing civilizing values to the Canadian colony.” In sum, Classens writes, marshes were indigenous; drainage was colonial improvement. 

The designations of low-income neighbourhoods as ‘food swamps’ more than echoes this 19th century settler-colonial perspective. Conjuring notions of disease and disorder, the classification of these areas as swamps perpetuates the idea that they need to be cleaned up, rid of their swampy qualities, which in turn can become a justification for urban improvement a process entangled with gentrification, colonialism and displacement.

As Liza Kim Jackson writes in “The Complications of Colonialism for Gentrification Theory and Marxist Geography,viewing a neighbourhood as a wasteland uninhabited by anything or anyone useful, waiting there for the taking, resonates as a new form of terra nullius. Jackson locates her own analysis in the Junction neighborhood of Toronto: a place that was once a neighbourhood where Indigenous and low-income people could live, [yet] in the period of gentrification they remain as either targets of policing and removal, or as people institutionalized in the remaining social housing, shelters, and halfway houses.

Jackson, citing the work of Canadian geographer Nicholas Blomley, describes how the concept of terra nullius, used to justify the violence of colonialism, is reimagined as a narrative of urban revitalization. “The visual decay of the landscape,” Jackson writes, quoting Blomley, “the boarded-up buildings, the disorder of the street, the pervasiveness of ‘lowest and worst use’ contribute to the idea that these neighborhoods are in need of improvement, while the abandoned communities are themselves imagined as causal agents of decline.  

Some researchers of food swamps reproduce this causal framework when they place the blame for poor health on an individual’s bad choices. For example, when University of Waterloo researchers Ellen Gregg and Tina Chen write that “certain mental states increase the likelihood that individuals will give in to food temptations,” and that “personal beliefs factor heavily into how food environments influence health, their language implies that the central causal factor of unhealth (albeit tempered by other factors) rests on an person’s choice to eat unhealthy food. This view is further reflected in the common solution: namely, increasing the number of healthy food options and restricting the number of unhealthy ones.  

In the conclusion of his dissertation, Michael Classens remarks of the Holland Marsh that “the same dismal swamp that was written off by a generation of colonial explorers was understood just years later as an opportunity to exercise colonial control and demonstrate mastery over nature. Yet, as Sarah Elton points out, the swamp is an area already teeming with life, a living system that “contribute[s] directly and indirectly to multiple ecological determinants of health. From natural swamp to food swamp, the term ‘swamp’ produces certain ideas about nature, that in turn inform ideas about our social, and in this case, social health landscape.

Rather than designating areas with unhealthy food retail spaces swamps, we might consider how this designation perpetuates colonial narratives about who deserves to use land, and how it may also end up legitimizing the displacement of communities through gentrification under the aegis of urban improvement narratives. Instead of draining the swamp, we might ask how food policies designed to improve the food retail landscape might contribute to rising land values, or to the closing of locally owned restaurants.  

Following Elton, we can also see how this conception perpetuates a lack of consideration for how the health of our natural environment is inseparable from the health of our communities. In our era of failing ecosystems, considering the value of natural ecosystems to health is no longer a controversial idea. Yet it is often difficult to imagine how such considerations might be put into practice. It is difficult to imagine how an organization can take on food security, the dynamics of gentrification, colonization and the ecological quandaries of industrial, commercial agriculture all at once. However, the imagination is not limited by material resources, nor by lack of social or political capital. As such, it is a uniquely powerful resource.

In the case of the swamp, I suggest we can start by imagining, not the dismal swamp of puritanical Europe, but the marshlands of E. Pauline Johnson’s poem: humble, sheltering and imbued with the tranquil fecundity of life in harmony with itself. 

 

Sources: 

Classens, Michael. “From ‘dismal swamp’ to ‘smiling farms’: Socio-ecological change and making food in the Holland Marsh.” Doctoral Thesis, York University, 2015. 

Elton, Sarah. “Please don’t call it a food swamp: U of T expert.” utoronto.ca. University of Toronto, September 5, 2018. https://www.utoronto.ca/news/please-don-t-call-it-food-swamp-u-t-expert. 

Elton, Sarah. “Reconsidering the retail foodscape from a posthumanist and ecological determinants of health perspective: wading out of the food swamp.” Critical Public Health 29 (3). (2019): 370-378. 

Gregg, Ellen and Chen, Tina. “Understanding healthy food environments in public health practice.” Environmental Health Review 60 (4). (2017): 88-92. 

Jackson, Liza Kim. “The Complications of Colonialism for Gentrification Theory and Marxist Geography.” Journal of Law and Social Policy 27. (2017): 43-71. 

Marsh, James. “Toronto’s Wetlands: The Humber Marshes.” citiesintime.ca. Toronto in Time, accessed August 7, 2020. http://citiesintime.ca/toronto/story/torontos-wet/ . 

Tarasuk V. and Mitchell A. “Household Food Insecurity in Canada.” proof.utoronto.ca. PROOF: Food Security Policy Research, accessed August 7, 2020. https://proof.utoronto.ca/food-insecurity/ . 

Whyte, Murray. “’My Parkdale is gone’: how gentrification reached the one place that seemed immune.” theguardian.com. Guardian UK, January 14, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2020/jan/14/my-parkdale-is-gone-how-gentrification-reached-the-one-place-that-seemed-immune .