They are widely known. These problems are frequently reported in the media. What’s missing is the discussion about how they were created.
It is not by chance that there are few grocery stores or other fresh food sources in communities with poor service. This is due in part to bad urban and regional planning.
In the United States, there are more than 38,000 local governments, including counties, cities, and villages. Their operations affect the daily lives of over 319 million Americans. These local governments have a wide range of responsibilities. They are responsible for public safety and economic regulation and provide water, parks, education, transportation, and social services.
Local governments are not paying enough attention to one of the most important resources for Americans: food.
Local food policy
In a survey conducted by the University at Buffalo in 2014 of planners, elected officials, and other members of the American Planning Association, the University at Buffalo found that local governments were incredibly unengaged with the food sector. Only 13 percent of the 1,169 respondents who work for these governments cited food systems planning as an important priority in their jobs. Fifty percent of respondents said that their involvement was minimal or non-existent.
This alarming lapse is responsible for a multitude of food-related issues, from the disparity in access to food among consumers to the financial struggles of farmers who often work two jobs just to get by.
Michigan Municipal League reports that there are currently over 300 farmers’ markets across the state. Michigan Municipal League CC BY NC-ND
This doesn’t need to be the case. A project was launched last month to help connect eight communities in the US with consumers who don’t have access to healthy foods. It’s called Growing Food Connections and is a federally-funded project that I lead with the American Farmland Trust, among other partners. Urban and rural regions will be targeted, from the Kansas City metro to two sparsely populated areas in New Mexico. Local governments play a key role in both.
The project will research how local governments can remove policy barriers for locally grown food and foster connections between farmers and residents of underserved communities. We will provide policy recommendations for improving regional food security through sustainable and economically viable production.
What is blocking farmers’ markets?
It is not enough to make improvements in just eight communities.
We need to plan and organize our cities around food. We need local officials who will dedicate their full time to solving the problem.
The food system is complex. It involves physical components like land for farming, facilities for butchering, retail, and distribution networks. The food system also includes resources such as sunlight, soil, water, and pollinators. It also includes human resources, including entrepreneurs, trained farmers, farmworkers, and butchers.
In many communities today, the infrastructure is in disrepair. Some zoning codes, which dictate where food businesses are allowed to locate, date back as far as the 1950s. Some ban people from growing their food in front yards. Some ban farmers’ markets in residential neighborhoods. This makes it difficult for those without a car to get healthy food. There are still many other problems.
Urban planners, food, and urban planning
How would local governments address these concerns if they were to plan food systems?
They would be able to track problems and missed opportunities. They would make sure that transportation and land-use plans protected assets like farmland. They could help neighborhoods in need of amenities such as farmers’ markets or community gardens. They would update outdated zoning laws. They would help to create a stronger regional supply chain of farmers, processors, and distributors.
Seattle’s P-Patch, a city policy that encourages municipal gardening, is a forward-thinking initiative.
Baltimore, Maryland, and Seattle, Washington, are two cities that have already begun to plan. Both towns have dedicated staff to developing a purposeful food policy. Both have food policy councils, which are advisory groups comprised of residents who volunteer their time to advocate for improvements.
This allocation of funds has been a success. Seattle runs PPatch – one of the nation’s largest municipal community garden programs. The city provided staff and financial assistance for the project. Residents were able to grow food and donated 29,000 pounds of fresh fruits and veggies to food banks and other programs.
Seattle voters recognized the importance of community gardens and included US$2,000,000 in the 2008 Parks and Green Spaces levy to develop the P-Patch. The city’s comprehensive planning encourages the use of community gardens.
Bringing food production back
Ironically, local government agencies such as the Departments of Planning and Development have shaped food infrastructures in communities without realizing it.
Local governments develop land use plans to place prime farmland on the path of development. They regulate food producers’ access to water. Taxes are levied on food businesses. They enforce outdated zoning laws. They do this with little to no understanding of the food infrastructure of their communities and without any departments of food.
Earthworks Urban Farm, Detroit. detroitunspun, CC BY-NC
The City Beautiful movement in the early 1900s was a precursor to these modern planning failures. Planners of that time designed cities to be grandiose rather than for quotidian tasks such as growing food and harvesting it.
From the middle of the century onwards, a preoccupation with automobile-centric development led to further degradation of food infrastructure. In 1965, Buffalo, New York, sold to a local bank the century-old Washington Market, where 400 vendors sold poultry, dairy products, fruits, and vegetables. The buyer demolished the market in order to build a parking area that still exists today.
Buffalo is fortunate that city officials and planners now support grassroots efforts to rebuild the food infrastructure by using innovative public policies.