Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Food Deserts Could Bloom if City Hall Helps

Photo (cc) h-bomb

City health officials have now rolled out a voluntary program to reduce the salt in foods. This follows the ban on transfats, the requirement that many menus include calorie postings and the removal of junk food and soda from schools. All of these efforts are geared to steering consumers toward healthier choices. But questions remain about how much effect these measures can have on public health problems like obesity and diabetes that are related to the food that people eat.

For example, though preliminary surveys show some people make healthier choices based on calorie postings the findings are inconclusive, and an October 2009 study published in the journal Health Affairs found many fast food restaurant and frozen foods processors underestimate in their posted calories counts. Unhealthy choices -- usually foods that are sweet, salty and relatively cheap – are pervasive, especially in wide swaths of the city known as "food deserts," where fast food prevails, while access to fresh fruits and vegetables is limited. These areas have the highest levels of obesity, diabetes and other food-related diseases, and they tend to be low-income and minority neighborhoods.

To address this, many cities are moving aggressively to shape broad policies on food systems. They are using land use regulations to restrict junk food outlets, and to promote urban agriculture and community gardening. Since access to healthy food varies greatly by neighborhood, many cities are working with the most affected communities on plans and strategies for change. New York City is not there yet. So far, it has not yet expanded its focus to go beyond consumer choice and include access.

However, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has hired a food policy czar and formed a Food Policy Task Force. And City Council Speaker Christine Quinn has said she will roll out a policy agenda for food this spring that will address the question of access in a more comprehensive way. The question now is how far these efforts will take the city toward a more holistic food policy.

From Choice to Access

City food policy has yet to focus on the supply side of the equation -- improving access to healthier foods, especially in the food deserts but also in areas where good choices are available but not affordable.

This theme emerged from the recent New York City Food and Climate Summit, sponsored by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and an array of non-profit healthy food groups. The conclave, which drew hundreds of people from throughout the city, followed an earlier Stringer report on food policy and his 10-point NYC Food Charter: 10 Principles for a Sustainable Food System.

The city already has some of the building blocks in place to expand the supply of healthy foods. The Council on the Environment sponsors 51 green markets, but they tend to be located in areas that already have good access to fresh food. In addition, many are open only once a week, most are seasonal and not all accept food stamps, which 1.1 million New Yorkers rely on to buy food.

The city's Thumb program supports over 600 community gardens throughout the city, and many of them supply produce to gardeners. The city’s health department launched healthy bodega and green carts initiatives in neighborhoods where access to healthy foods is particularly limited, but these are limited in scale and have produced mixed results. And the city’s botanic gardens help train people to do their own composting, which can create soil for local gardens.

So far, however, city has not connected the dots to both increase the supply of healthy food and focus on food deserts. In the policy arena, food was noticeably absent from Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s long-term sustainability plan, PlaNYC2030, released on Earth Day 2007.

Meanwhile, the city’s ongoing development efforts have undermined access to better food. For example, the city has been shutting down the Depression-era city markets that were mostly located in working class neighborhoods and could have filled the gap in the food supply. For example, the Bronx Terminal Market was recently converted to a shopping mall and the city has not been able to make places like La Marqueta in East Harlem or the Essex Market on the Lower East Side into major centers for low-cost healthy food let alone multiply that model throughout the city.

While many European cities have preserved their neighborhood public markets, New York has let them slide into disuse and instead encourages large supermarket chains. One of the most dramatic recent examples of the city’s developer-driven policies is the ill-fated city proposal to turn the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx into a suburban-style shopping mall with a supermarket that would have driven out of business many well-established local markets.

Planning for Supermarkets

On the surface, it might appear that the city is moving in the right direction with its recent initiative offering tax and zoning incentives to supermarkets that locate in food deserts and older manufacturing areas. But this effort may do more to help supermarket giants find cheap land than it does to improve access to healthy food, as I have previously suggested.

The problems with this initiative are emblematic of the upside-down land use policy regarding food access. The new initiative can pave the way for giant retailers to move into low-income areas that are in transition to upper income communities, helping to push out the very people that are most in need of access, and thus not solving the problem of access. The 100 rezonings completed by the administration, fueled by the real estate bubble, helped pave the way for these changes.

The city’s supermarket program can also push out smaller local retailers, destroying the bodegas instead of helping them to offer healthy food and to become examples of healthy local entrepreneurship. And the zoning changes have made it easier for supermarkets to move into industrial zones, pushing out active industries because they escalate rent levels and cause traffic problems. The supermarkets are allowed to have ample parking, encouraging more driving and energy use at a time the city claims it wants to reduce traffic.

While the chain supermarkets do tend to carry fresh produce, there is nothing in the law that will prevent them the stores from stocking almost all of their shelves with industrially processed food with lots of sugar, salt and other mysterious ingredients. The program offers no incentives or subsidies for green markets, community gardens, consumer cooperatives or other media for healthy food. And it does nothing to expand the production of food in the city.

Urban Agriculture or Asphalt and Concrete?

At first sight, the idea of growing food in New York City might seem absurd. The island of Manhattan is densely populated. Much of the soil throughout the city is contaminated. And even though there were working farms in all five boroughs only a century ago, few New Yorkers have practiced farming.

Yet urban farming occurs throughout the world in cities as densely populated as New York, and it is growing in places where governments help out. According to City Farmer, 40 percent of the population in Vancouver, Canada, a city of 1.6 million, grow food. Vancouver also has 1,000 community gardens and a food policy that encourages the production and distribution of local food, which also reduces transportation and energy costs.

New York City has 52,000 acres of backyard space in New York City that could together provide vegetables for 700,000 people, New School Professor Nevin Cohen, a leading expert on urban agriculture, said at the Food and Climate Summit. There are no city programs to help cultivate them or to systematically promote community efforts.

Just Food, a local non-profit, helps create Community-Supported Agriculture groups that buy directly from local food producers in the region. The city’s zoning regulations are fairly open, permitting agriculture in most residential districts.

While proposals for vertical farming on Manhattan-sized skyscrapers may be literally "pie-in-the-sky," no one in government seems to be looking at the more possible alternatives of farming in the outer boroughs, where some 30 percent of land is public right-of-way, much of it unused or underutilized, and much of it in food deserts. Throughout the city, many parks, schools and other community facilities could host urban farms and composting operations, train a new generation of urban farmers, make healthy food more accessible, and expand the choices for the majority of the population.

In urban Milwaukee, Will Allen created an urban farm that does all of these things and has become a national model. We need to learn from these experiences and then do it here on a large enough scale to make a difference.

This article originally cited the number of neighborhoods where the Green Carts and Healthy Bodega programs exist. That information has now been corrected.

Tom Angotti is Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, City University of NY, editor of Progressive Planning Magazine, and a member of the Task Force on Community-based Planning.

Print Friendly and PDF

Editor's Choice

Gotham Gazette: New York Voters Approve $4.2 Billion Environmental Bond Act
New York Voters Approve $4.2 Billion Environmental Bond Act
Gotham Gazette: 
New York City Voters Approve Racial Justice Ballot Measures
New York City Voters Approve Racial Justice Ballot Measures
Gotham Gazette: Max Politics Podcast: A Winning Formula for Democrats in Tough New York Races
Max Politics Podcast: A Winning Formula for Democrats in Tough New York Races
Gotham Gazette: Max Politics Podcast Max Politics Podcast