Our Urban Food Systems Have Failed — But We Can Do Better


D-Town Farm, an urban farm in Detroit, Michigan. Photo by Nathan Carpenter.


Wander down a bustling Manhattan street on any given day and you will find a deceptive image of an urban food utopia. The grocery stores, delis, restaurants, bodegas, and food trucks are crowded — it’s easy to imagine the area’s residents as spoiled with an embarrassment of culinary riches.

But just a short subway away are any number of New York’s underserved neighborhoods, which exist in a much less comfortable reality; one that better reflects the broken food economy of the 21st century.

The narrative that society has become removed from its food production and distribution, though somewhat trite, is potent in the context of American cities. Between 1900 and 2000, the percentage of the American labor force involved in agriculture dropped from almost 40 percent to close to 3 percent, and a small number of farms have accumulated a huge portion of farming profits. In an age when economic profits across many industries have become highly concentrated, it’s no surprise that the food markets are behaving the same way.

The disconnect between consumers and food is especially prevalent in Black and Latinx neighborhoods that have been historically disadvantaged in a myriad of ways.

Take Baltimore for example: one of America’s poorest cities, sitting at the edge of its richest state. According to a study by Johns Hopkins University, neighborhoods of Baltimore that were redlined, or deemed “high-risk” for New Deal-era investors, largely due to their racial demographics, overlap significantly with neighborhoods that are currently considered food deserts.

In fact, out of 43 Baltimore supermarkets, only 4 are located in the redlined neighborhoods. Residents of those areas are left with little in the way of healthy food options, which accounts at least partially for the enormous disparity in the prevalence of diet-related illnesses in low-income versus middle and high-income neighborhoods.

It’s well documented that the U.S. produces twice as much food as it eats and throws away produce deemed too ugly or blemished to bring to market, and the common cry in food justice movements has been to distribute this unwanted food to those who can’t afford produce that meets the supermarket standard.

But why should  marginalized communities be expected to eat food that society deems second-rate? It’s an inherently problematic notion with dangerous implications.

Instead, these communities need access to food that anyone would be happy to eat. Rather than  redistributing unwanted food, we need to address overproduction, and create systems which ensure that the food we do produce is accessible for everyone.

New York City has implemented a number of interesting programs to this end, taking important steps toward creating effective urban food systems. One such program is the Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH) initiative, managed by the New York City Economic Development Corporation.

FRESH provides economic incentives for supermarkets to expand into low-income neighborhoods, most notably by fully abating their land taxes for up to 25 years. One of the initiative’s crucial requirements is that, in order to qualify for tax incentives, supermarkets must include a minimum of 500 square feet dedicated to fresh produce. When residents of the neighborhoods were surveyed, 96.1 percent of respondents said construction from the FRESH program made fruits and vegetables more accessible for them.

But in order to achieve a truly equitable food system, both the issues of proximity and cost must be addressed, and while FRESH may ease proximity difficulties, it has little effect on the cost barrier to accessing healthy food.

Another potential drawback with a program like this is that when supermarkets move into low-income areas, it often leads to an increase in home prices which can force out local residents. FRESH is certainly a step in the right direction, but the fact remains that it is a corporate, profit-driven incentive program and can not be seen as a long term solution to food access inequality.

Urban farming has shown promise in addressing cost concerns, but without careful and intentional implementation it can serve the purposes of gentrification, rather than food accessibility. It’s for this reason that the world of urban farming is often characterized as a trendy — usually white — niche of foodie culture, simply increasing access to fresh food for those who can already afford it.

However, many urban farms do resist this narrative and increase food access in communities that need it.

In 2013, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) launched an initiative called Farms at NYCHA. They partnered with private investors to bring farms to empty lots in public housing projects in neighborhoods with limited access to fresh food. The farms are operated and constructed by young residents of the housing projects, and the produce grown is free for residents who volunteer or bring food scraps to the farm.

There are many other examples of urban farms across the country working effectively for food equity.

D-Town Farm, pictured above, is a good example — located in Detroit, Michigan, a city challenged by racial and economic stratification, it uses an anti-capitalist model to increase local access to fresh and sustainable foods. D-Town focuses on the input and leadership of residents, responding to community needs rather than corporate ones.

As issues around food become more prominent in environmental discourse and more pressing in the face of climate change, it’s critical that we design our new food systems to work for everyone. It’s time to abandon the idea that some people deserve to eat food that the rest of us reject, and instead try to expand projects like D-Town and Farms at NYCHA, while working to get rid of inefficient food subsidies that lead to overproduction and waste.

Far from a food utopia, the saturated blocks of Manhattan are a drop in a bucket of inequality. Without effective action, the problems of food justice and access will only continue to plague our cities.

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