Gaps and Opportunities
This section shares some challenges and suggestions on how to improve current approaches to increase healthy food access. Click the plus sign to the right of each title to learn more about each challenge.
Many planning tools that may be used to improve food access have not been designed with equity in mind. At the same time, as mentioned above, past planning decisions and development patterns have had a significant impact on the health inequities and racial disparities that we see today. One example of this is how the unequal distribution of retail outlets means that there are communities where access to healthy, fresh foods is limited or non-existent, while at the same time, there is easy access to junk food. Food justice advocates have started referring to this inequitable system as “food apartheid” because this term reflects how structural racism is a main contributing factor to these conditions.52 Compelling research has demonstrated that areas with an abundance of junk food (rather than a lack of healthy food) are a better predictor of health outcomes associated with food insecurity.53 Food systems planning tools and policies can exacerbate existing food insecurity disparities if they are not deliberate about placing equity, and racial equity specifically, front and center.
The planning tools mentioned above should be used together with other planning strategies and approaches to work toward equity goals. For example, an Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) offers a wealth of environmental benefits, but in the absence of strong affordable housing protections, geographic housing constraints can also promote gentrification within center cities and price out lower-income residents.54 If equity is not centered, and inclusive community engagement does not drive the planning process, there will be unintended consequences. Urban agricultural initiatives in declining cities, while often a component of a resilient local food system, can also create social tensions along racial and class lines where large corporations or nonlocal actors buy up property. This can be seen by residents as land grabs.55 Local residents have begun to respond to this issue. For example, in Detroit, Michigan, residents are raising funds to get land into the possession of local Black farmers and limit out-of-town speculation.56
Although there are many tools that planners can use to create strong, resilient, and equitable food systems, it can be difficult to evaluate the impact and effectiveness of these tools and strategies. First, food systems planning is different from how other forms of planning operate, which focus on population trends over time. Corridor plans rely on traffic projections based on surrounding population and economic growth. Economic development projects rely on cost-benefit analysis and market research, both of which are based on economic activity at a population level. However, food systems planning is in many respects a public health intervention focused on changing individual behavior, and the planning practice is not generally set up to evaluate the effectiveness of these interventions.
Another way in which food systems planning is distinct from other forms of planning is that interventions to promote food access and food security can look very different based on community needs. As discussed in this resource, interventions can be done through zoning changes, transportation planning, and economic development strategies. This is different from, say, a region’s affordable housing plan. The particulars of strategies to increase affordable housing may vary, but ultimately the goal is to allot a share of required housing stock to each city based on median household incomes, which in turn are projected through demographic trends. While the goals of a food system plan may include promoting fresh food access or increasing food security, the interventions can look drastically different. To help decision-makers think about what intervention might be most appropriate to address a food systems issue, tools such as food system assessments57 can be a good starting point.
Planning projects intended to increase food access might be flawed in design if they assume a policy or a program in and of itself will lead to population-wide behavioral changes, in the spirit of “if you build it, they will come.” The relationship between food access and healthy food consumption is more complex than that. Programs like New York City’s FRESH Program have been criticized from a few angles. The program has been accused of relying heavily on dense technical information and data-driven assumptions (e.g., how far people will walk to a grocery store or how much square footage should be dedicated to grocery) and not enough on listening to the lived experiences of residents and their ideas for potential solutions.
Also, many of the programs and policies discussed in this resource are new and experimental as they are applied to food systems. Because of this, there is a lack of evaluation and evidence of the success of such programs and policies. How effective has Maryland’s Complete Streets policy been in increasing food access in communities across the state? Has Tulsa’s Healthy Neighborhoods Overlay District led to an infusion of fresh fruits and vegetables into the city, and has it positively impacted health outcomes for city residents? We might not have answers to questions like these for years, by nature of how recently planners have begun to apply these tools to food systems.
Another challenge is implementation; namely, how can planners make sure that these tools and strategies are effectively implemented? If a grocery store in an incentive program like New York City’s FRESH program (see above) fails, the developer has already reaped the reward of the square footage offered by the incentive, with no mechanism to reintroduce a new one. This has been seen in a similar program in Philadelphia.58 Similarly, although Kenilworth Courts received PUD approval for its redevelopment efforts in part because of the promise of a grocery store, the project still does not have one. These challenges speak to a gap between the aspirations of planning and the follow-through that can be achieved through policy making. Implementation is always a challenge for planners, as planning itself tends to guide rather than implement or enforce policy. As with all planning, data collection and analysis can help identify key issues that a community faces, as well as provide insight on goals and policies to address the issues, which in turn can generate public buy-in and goodwill. But without the engagement of local partners of all sectors, it can be challenging to fully implement a project beyond words on paper.
52Patricia Hanna, What Is Food Apartheid?, The Green Dandelion (Feb. 11, 2019), http://blogs.rochester.edu/thegreendandelion/2019/02/what-is-food-apartheid/.
53Kristen Cooksey-Sowers, Marlene B. Schwartz, Kelly D. Brownell, Food Swamps Predict Obesity Rates Better Than Food Deserts in the United States, 14 Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 3 (2017), https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29135909/.
54John D. Landis, The Reality of Neighborhood Change: Planners Should Worry About Decline, Penn Inst. for Urban Research (Nov. 11, 2015), https://penniur.upenn.edu/publications/the-reality-of-neighborhood-change-planners-should-worry-about-decline.
55Remi Guillen and Carlo Epifanio, Will Urban Farming Save Our Cities? Perspectives from Detroit and Brussels, LABGOV (Jul. 29, 2019), https://labgov.city/theurbanmedialab/will-urban-farming-save-our-cities-perspectives-from-detroit-and-brussels/.
56Rhonda J. Smith, It Took a Group of Black Farmers to Start Fixing Land Ownership Problems in Detroit, Civil Eats (Nov. 6, 2020), https://civileats.com/2020/11/06/it-took-a-group-of-black-farmers-to-start-fixing-land-ownership-problems-in-detroit/.
57Kara Martin and Tammy Morales, Am. Plan. Ass’n. Pas Memo: Community Food System Assessments (Nov./Dec. 2015), http://planning-org-uploaded-media.s3.amazonaws.com/document/PASMEMO-2015-11-12.pdf.
58Jake Blumgart, Kenyatta Johnson Introduces Reform to ‘Fresh Food’ Zoning Bonus That Rewarded Developers for ‘Bananas in the Window,’ WHYY (Apr. 26, 2019), https://whyy.org/articles/kenyatta-johnson-introduces-reform-to-fresh-food-zoning-bonus-that-rewarded-developers-for-bananas-in-the-window/.