Smart Policies for Food Deserts

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We live in a political culture that looks at big problems and (provided we can bring ourselves to admit that the problem exists in the first place) says “nope, too big” or “too expensive.” We howl about big government and worship the false idol of the free market. In effect, by defending the status quo we defend the rights of corporations to shape the landscape of this country. Government provides running water and electricity, but food (and healthcare) are in large parts left to the whims of the marketplace and the corporate entities that run wild in it.

New York City happens to be a city taking incremental steps towards solving one of the Big Problems that the market has presented us with: low access to healthy food in certain urban areas, coupled with an abundance of, and easy access to, unhealthy food options that lead to heart disease, diabetes, and other preventable illnesses. Check out this Opinionator blog post by David Bornstein on for a great menu of policies enacted by the city government to increase access: the Green Cart Initiative, which  authorizes permits for “street vendors who sells only raw fruits and vegetables in areas of the city that have been designated as in need of them”; the Healthy Bodegas Initiative, “which provides businesses with grants for refrigeration or shelving, and advice on marketing, provided they stock various categories of healthy food”; and the Health Bucks program, “through which families receive a $2 coupon for every $5 in E.B.T. [electronic benefit transfer] sales at a farmers’ market.”

Read this article from The Atlantic for more on the Health Bodegas Initiative.

As if dealing with the problem weren’t hard enough, there are some people who will argue about the existence of any problem at all. An article in The New York Times today sites two studies that call into the question the very idea of a food desert. The studies found that poor urban neighborhoods “not only have more fast food restaurants and convenience stores than more affluent ones, but more grocery stores, supermarkets and full-service restaurants, too.” In terms of the link between food deserts and obesity — a key reason for wanting to increase access — they found that “there is no relationship between the type of food being sold in a neighborhood and obesity among its children and adolescents.” The studies appear a bit uneven, and we must look at the methodologies very skeptically. The article includes key rebuttals of the study, particularly the idea that “not all grocery stores are equal.”

I don’t care much for arguing with the researchers on this one. I just care about increasing the availability of fresh produce in urban areas, and the effect that fresh food can have on the spirit of a community. The more that people eat raw, whole, natural foods, and the less they eat processed foods, the closer they are to the earth and to the true source of energy and life. Maybe with more real food comes more reverence for the world and its wonders in their natural state, more respect for the earth and our effect on it. In terms of policy, New York City still has room to improve in the realm of urban agriculture. In addition to the policies mentioned, grants of some sort to start gardens and farms would be another way to bring people closer to the land, bring fresh produce into urban areas, and at least partially disengage those areas from the corporate-controlled food system.

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