Interview with Dr. Kenneth Kolb, Sociology Professor and Author of Retail Inequality

by Charles Platkin, PhD, JD, MPH

Kenneth Kolb, PhD, is a Professor and Chair of the Sociology Department at Furman University. His most recent book, Retail Inequality: Reframing the Food Desert Debate (published in December 2021 by University of California Press), examines efforts to increase healthy food access in marginalized communities through a case study of two Black neighborhoods in South Carolina. Dr. Kolb is also the author of Moral Wages: The Emotional Dilemmas of Victim Advocacy and Counseling (published in July 2014 by University of California Press), an ethnographic account of the agencies, advocates, and workers that assist victims of domestic violence.

Dr. Kolb received a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from Bates College, a Master of Arts in Sociology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a PhD in Sociology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay from 2000-2002. Currently, his primary areas of research are food studies, sociology of consumption, racial inequality, urban sociology, social movements, and health disparities.

FPC: Thank you for doing this interview Dr. Kolb. I’m curious. You are a sociologist by training, and a lot of your early work is focused on victims and inequality. When and how did you get interested in food studies? 

Kenneth Kolb: Let me begin with a hearty “thank you” for inviting me. I really appreciate it.

The wonderful thing about my job is that I get to decide what I want to work on. 

After I finished my first book [Moral Wages: The Emotional Dilemmas of Victim Advocacy and Counseling], I started working with a couple of neighborhoods in Greenville, South Carolina, about getting some help to repair a local bridge. When I asked them what else they wanted to fix in their neighborhood, they were uniform in their desire for a grocery store. So, I let them decide my next research project, and here we are.

The challenge I set for myself was to learn a new subfield and write a book that cited completely different research from what I used in the first one. I almost did it. (There are still 5 or 6 pieces that I just had to cite because they are just so good). 

FPC: You interviewed 100 community members and attended five years’ worth of community meetings doing research for your most recent book, Retail Inequality: Reframing the Food Desert Debate – that’s a lot of investigation! What was the biggest challenge you faced while conducting interviews, attending meetings, and conducting any other research you did? Were people willing to open up to you about their experiences regarding food access?

KK: I’m pretty open throughout the book about whether readers should trust my findings. As a privileged white man studying traditionally Black neighborhoods, getting reliable accounts was never a given. I encourage readers to adopt a healthy skepticism about everything I report. In the end, I let my data speak for itself.

My strategy to get people to open up to me was pretty simple: I would sit and listen to people for as long as it took to gain their trust. I let them set the terms of how and where we would talk until they felt comfortable sharing their stories. I had worked in these neighborhoods for a number of years, so people knew me and community leaders could vouch for me. But every interview meant developing a new human connection. 

My questions were about my interviewees’ daily lives, a topic on which they were experts. Some of them, especially my older interviewees, rarely got a chance to speak at length about their hopes and struggles. Once I convinced them that my job was simply to listen, the conversation flowed more easily. 

FPC: What were some of the more interesting stories you heard from the people you interviewed? What are some of the interesting ways people cope with getting the food they need? 

KK: Probably the most interesting interview was with an older gentleman who was the single parent of a young child. The father had a taste for souse meat – a type of head cheese, or terrine – that I was familiar with growing up in Louisiana. We talked for a long time about the challenges associated with trying to find it on a reliable basis. And while he described his tastes as “country,” he had trouble getting his son to eat anything beyond traditional “kid food”: hamburgers, chicken nuggets, etc. Seeing the spectrum of tastes in one household opened up a number of lines of inquiry I pursue throughout the book. 

FPC: The research for your book took place predominantly in two historically Black neighborhoods in Greenville, South Carolina, that suffered significant urban decline following the collapse of the textile industry in the 1970s. Why these neighborhoods? What was unique about them? Since the work you did was mostly in small communities, how does it translate to large urban communities such as New York or Chicago? What best practices can you share with researchers interested in investigating the retail landscape in these larger areas?

KK: Greenville offers a clear test case of the long-term consequences of what sociologists call “deindustrialization.” The decline of the textile industry in South Carolina in the 70s and 80s had devastating consequences for the local economy; just like the shifts in auto manufacturing and steel production dealt similar blows to Flint, Michigan, and Youngstown, Ohio, respectively. This process led to urban decline and was followed by an exodus of white households to the suburbs (e.g. “white flight”). Fifty years ago, federal and state governments largely gave up on urban centers, and many poor Black neighborhoods paid the price. Now “new urbanism” is sparking reinvestment downtown. Greenville as a case study shows how government infrastructure-spending can steer the geographic shifts in population that affect where retail ultimately locates.

Greenville is very much a “small city,” with a population of 70,000. As a result, it doesn’t have the density to support a robust public transportation system like big cities can. Also, its former reliance on a singular industry (textiles) meant its collapse was swift and abrupt. Bigger cities suffered from deindustrialization, too, but they had more diversified economies that helped soften the blow.

While bigger cities like New York or Chicago still have the population density to support smaller-scale food retail in ways that smaller cities cannot, big city residents still have to navigate their food system within the confines of their “everyday realities,” which I outline in the book. For example: Living next to a grocery store doesn’t mean much if you can’t afford to feed yourself. Another example: a free box of healthy items can sit untouched if your work schedule makes food preparation impossible.

FPC: You’ve said that you “came away with the firm belief that if more policymakers better understood how the food insecure manage their multiple needs, they would be more forgiving of food insecure people’s desire to have more control over their own diets.” Can you explain this comment? I know you wrote an entire book on the subject, but what are the key messages that NEED to be delivered to policymakers and educators? 

KK: Being poor makes life more complicated and time consuming. People facing poverty are problem solvers, so designing solutions to help them shouldn’t pile more burdens on their plate. Assistance programs with convoluted requirements and means-testing protocols simply take time and money that could be spent helping people fulfill their core needs. 

SNAP and WIC programs are well intentioned, but silly restrictions like not allowing recipients to use them to buy hot prepared foods like a rotisserie chicken are emblematic of our insensitivity to the challenges facing the poor. 

Remember, most Americans have lousy diets. Fast food consumption goes up with income. But we allow the wealthy their indulgences because they can offset their less-than-stellar dietary practices with high-quality housing, education, and health care. 

Policy makers should consider the everyday realities and challenges of the people they are trying to help before creating more hoops for them to jump through. 

FPC: Of Retail Inequality, Tanya Golash-Boza (author of Race and Racisms: A Critical Approach) wrote:

“Why do some neighborhoods have pawn shops and payday lenders while others have organic grocery stores and cafes? Kolb tackles this question head-on and explains with clear and convincing prose how racist policies and practices have led to retail inequality in US cities. A must-read for anyone interested in food deserts in particular and urban inequality in general.” 

Can you speak to this? Why do some neighborhoods have pawn shops while others have organic grocery stores? How does racism cause unequal access to food today and how can it be fixed? 

KK: The distribution of retail in America is not random. Neighborhoods that lack high quality retail today were decimated by the urban decline that occurred after WWII, bulldozed by the urban-renewal programs of the 1960s, and abandoned during the white flight to the suburbs in the 1970s. 

The communities that were left behind suffered through generations of concentrated and racially segregated poverty. Today, they lack the population density and collective buying power to support small scale retail that provides wholesome goods and services. Instead, the only retail that is economically viable must offset low overall volume of sales with high profit margins per item. Unfortunately, the highest margin items too often cater to vice (alcohol and tobacco) or exploit the poor (payday lenders and pawn shops). I call these options “bad retail.”

In the big box store era where the Targets and Walmarts of the world dominate, small retailers in urban centers cannot compete on cost. So, if they want to sell “good retail,” they are left to fill narrow market niches that bigger stores avoid. This means selling more expensive items with an added charge for the convenience of shopping close to home. Not all neighborhoods can afford these kinds of items. 

Because of America’s racial wealth gap, neighborhoods that can sustain these kinds of goods and services are largely white and middle class. That is why wealthier and whiter areas still have smaller grocery stores and eclectic cafes.

FPC: You write about the common perception that people who live in areas with little access to full-service grocery stores/supermarkets tend to purchase their groceries from gas stations and convenience stores instead, saying that this is, in fact, a myth. So where do people in these neighborhoods shop? What obstacles do they face in doing their shopping?

KK: The gas station myth amazes me because I still hear it all the time. 

Yes, poor people in areas without grocery stores do visit gas stations and convenience stores, but they do so for the same reason as everyone else: to get quick snacks and sugary drinks.

We’ve known definitively since at least 2019 that Americans spend 85 percent of their food budget in grocery stores and supermarkets. People who live in zip codes without grocery stores are no different (they spend roughly 84 percent of theirs). And you don’t have to trust me on this. The scholarship is clear.

Without transportation, getting to the store can be quite difficult. But people in “food deserts” find a way. It costs them extra because if the bus system is insufficient, they have to pay for a ride from a friend or family member (remember: being poor is expensive). Still, despite these challenges, they engineer novel solutions to their everyday dilemmas. 

The real barriers to nutritious food consumption are so much more complex than just getting to and from the store. Cooking raw ingredients into an enticing meal takes more time. Precooked convenient items are quicker and easier to prepare. And don’t forget that supermarkets sell more junk food than all convenience stores combined. So, distance to the store is a formidable hurdle, but it isn’t the only one or even the most difficult one to overcome.

FPC: You said in an interview with Bates College that “for better or worse, to be an equal member in American society is to have an equal ability to shop at the same venues and for the same goods as everyone else.” This quote really resonates with me. Can you elaborate? What barriers stand in the way of people shopping at the “same venues” and for the “same goods?”

KK: Think back to the last time you drove into a new town late at night. With little traffic and empty sidewalks, how do you gain a sense of place? If you’re like most people, you look at the store fronts. Are they well lit? Do they have nice landscaping? Or do they have bars on the windows? Do they have makeshift signage? 

After talking to people about their retail options for years, I came to understand the symbolic value of a community’s commercial strip. The types of stores on their side of town, and the things they sell, signal to outsiders what kinds of people live nearby. 

The problem is, residents who live blocks away may not like the stores that line their streets, but they lack the economic power to support different kinds of businesses that they would prefer. Thus, you get a mismatch between the types of retail people want and the types they can afford to sustain nearby. 

Until these neighborhoods can accumulate the collective wealth necessary to support better quality retail, they need help to recruit businesses to invest in their neighborhood. As a society, we’ve agreed that subsidizing healthy food retail is appropriate. But if policymakers talked to neighborhood members, they’d learn that they want retail that reflects their values and preferences.

FPC: In Chapter 5 of your book, you write about how the issue of retail inequality was reframed to be about healthy foods specifically. Some people have even taken up the term “nutritional insecurity” in place of “food insecurity.” Can you talk a bit about how this framing changes people’s perspectives?

KK: The healthy food framing of the issue around the lack of grocery stores in some areas had both costs and benefits. On the positive side, it enticed a number of politically powerful “foodie” social movements to join the cause. On the negative side, it limited the debate to the topic of nutrition, when it really should have been about the deeper root causes: poverty, racism.

The term food insecurity came about when policy makers wanted to raise the bar above eliminating “hunger” and ensure that everyone had access to food that is safe, culturally appropriate, and nutritious. Advocates for the term nutritional insecurity want to ensure that we fulfill our entire promise. Those in need deserve nutritional food—not just the cheapest option. 

In our current food system, the healthiest calories are also the most expensive. Go to any food pantry and you’ll see the shelves lined with highly processed foods. This is because these items last a long time, are easy to consume, and don’t require refrigeration. But, as a society, we need to ask ourselves: Do the poor deserve the same quality food as everyone else? Traditionally, we’ve answered that question with the saying beggars can’t be choosers. But that is barbaric. We can and must do better. 

FPC: You’ve noted that “food apartheid,” a term popularized by food activist Karen Washington, is helpful, but still not enough. Can you explain and expand? Why did the term change to describe food deserts and food swamps?  Why was there a need for this new term? What term or terms would you propose instead and why?

KK: The term “food apartheid” does an excellent job drawing a straight line from the racist policy choices of the past to the geographic areas without grocery stores today. I think it is a great term to show how the distribution of retail in America is not random. There are clear and identifiable housing and infrastructural decisions of the past that created the zones of segregated and concentrated poverty that we still are grappling with today. The term “food apartheid” holds those decision makers accountable.

My only contribution to this debate is to try to frame the issue in larger terms. It’s bigger than just food. Think back to the lunch counter sit-ins of the Civil Rights movement. That wasn’t a battle over food access. It was about justice and equality. 

So whether we want to highlight the preponderance of unhealthy options in some areas (food swamps) or highlight the inaccessibility of high-end expensive options (food mirages), I argue that we should also acknowledge that these problems apply to all types of retail goods and services. 

People living in areas without grocery stores have been complaining about their retail options for generations, and no one listened. Then, when the issue became framed around “healthy food,” white and middle-class foodies decided to join the fight. The only flaw in this political strategy is that these new allies are sometimes more comfortable talking about fruits and vegetables than racism and poverty. Limiting the debate to the topic of food ultimately impedes our ability to think about solutions that address the deeper root causes. 

FPC: Cities around the country (including New York City) have seen a major increase in the number of “instant” grocery delivery services that allow you to order groceries and receive your delivery within minutes (see here, here). Do you think these platforms have any potential to combat retail inequality? Why or why not?

KK: I’m an optimist, but I’m also a sociologist, so let me tell you what I think. 

Everybody who lays a finger on your food from farm to fork needs to be paid: that applies to the pickers, packers, truckers, and shelf stockers—the list goes on and on. When you add in delivery, you add another link to the supply chain. That increases the costs and ultimately cuts into peoples’ food budgets.

But there might be a way for this to work. Right now, grocery stores serve as climate-controlled distribution hubs. The food comes in, it waits to be selected, people take it home. That middle phase (waiting to be selected) is quite expensive. Stores need to be spotless, aesthetically pleasing, and spacious. Everything from background music to colorful signage adds costs.

What if grocery stores became more like warehouses that offered curbside pickup? Cutting out the “pleasing shopping experience” could drop prices enough to offset any additional delivery fees. 

Remember, the modern experience of customers perusing and choosing items from shelves by themselves is actually quite new. Clerk service was the norm up until the 1950s. Maybe it can be again today?

FPC: In your opinion, what is the number-one thing governments get wrong about inequality and food?

KK: Grocery stores are a necessary public good, even in places where they can’t turn a profit. 

We don’t ask public libraries to generate a yield on investment, nor do we expect parks to pay quarterly dividends. 

The injustices of the past—primarily racist urban planning decisions of the post WWII era—have made quality food retail economically untenable in poor areas across the country. Today, these neighborhoods are left to live with the consequences of past mistakes not of their own making.

Waiting for the population density and collective wealth to rise enough for a grocery store to return to their side of town is backwards thinking. Subsidize and incentivize grocery stores first and watch the population and economic base rebuild as a result. Leaving it to “the market” to fix the problem will only prolong the suffering.

FPC: What was your proudest food advocacy moment? 

KK: I did a photo shoot with the neighborhood leaders I featured in the book. You can find it on this page (scroll down). It was a wonderful moment when I realized that their stories were finally going to be shared with the wider community.

Fact Sheet

Where you grew up: New Orleans
Where you call home: Greenville, SC
Job title: Professor and Chair of the Sociology Department at Furman University
Background and education:  PhD, Sociology, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 
One word you would use to describe our food economy: Exclusionary
Your food policy hero: Julian Agyeman
Your breakfast this morning: Eggs and coffee
Favorite food: Tonkotsu ramen
Favorite last meal: NY Strip

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