Even in the wealthiest parts of urban America there are pockets of deep food insecurity, and more often than not it is Black and Latino communities hardest hit.
Inasmuch as urban planning university who teaches food justice, I am aware that this disparity is largely due to design. For more than a century, city planning has been used as a toolkit to maintain the white supremacy that has divided American cities along racial lines. And this contributed to the development of so-called “food deserts– areas of limited access to healthy, culturally relevant and reasonably priced food – and “food swamps” – places where shops selling “fast food” and “junk food” predominate.
The two terms are controversial and have been challenged on the grounds that they ignore both the historical roots and the deeply racialized nature of food access, whereby white communities are more likely to have sufficient availability of healthy, reasonably priced produce.
Instead, a food justice specialist Ashante M. Reese suggests the term “food apartheid.” According to Reese, food apartheid is “intertwined with policies and practices, current and historical, that come from a place of anti-Blackness.”
Whatever their name, these areas of inequitable food access and limited options do exist. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that 54.4 million Americans live in low-income areas with limited access to healthy food. For city dwellers, that means they’re more than half a mile from the nearest supermarket.
More expensive, fewer options
The development of these areas of limited healthy food options has a long history linked to urban planning and housing policies. practices such as redlining and yellowing – in which the private sector and government conspired to restrict mortgage lending to black and other minority homebuyers – and racial pacts that rental and sale ownership restricted to whites only meant that areas of poverty were concentrated along racial lines.
Besides, owners associations which denied access to black people in particular and federal housing subsidies who have largely went to white and wealthier Americans have made it harder for people living in low-income areas to move or accumulate wealth. It also leads to urban scourge.
This is important when it comes to accessing food, as retailers are less willing to travel to poorer areas. A process of “supermarket redlininghas seen larger grocery stores refuse to locate in low-income areas, close existing outlets, or relocate to more affluent suburbs. The idea behind this process is that as the pockets of a city become poorer, they are less profitable and more prone to crime.
There is also, scholars suggest, a cultural bias among large retailers against locating outlets in minority-populated areas. Speaking about why supermarkets shunned the New York borough of Queens in the 1990s, Mark Green, then the city’s consumer commissioner put it like this“First, they may fear not understanding the minority market. But second, there is their instinctive premise that black people are poor and the poor are a poor market.
In the absence of large grocery stores, less healthy food options – often at a higher price – have taken over in working-class neighborhoods. Search among food suppliers in New Haven, Connecticut in 2008 found “significantly lower average product quality” in low-income neighborhoods. Meanwhile a study of new orleans in 2001 found that fast food density was higher in poorer areas and that predominantly black neighborhoods had 2.5 fast food outlets for every square mile, compared to 1.5 in white areas.
“Whole Foods and Whole Food Deserts”
Geographer Nathan McClintock conducted a detailed study in 2009 on the causes of Oakland disease food deserts. Although limited to a single Californian city, I believe what he found holds true for most American cities.
McClintock details how the development of racially segregated areas in the interwar period and subsequent redlining policies led to concentrated areas of poverty in Oakland. Meanwhile, decisions made in the late 1950s by the then all-white Oakland City Council to build major freeways through the city effectively isolated mostly Black West Oakland from downtown Oakland.
The net effect was an outflow of capital and a flight of whites to wealthy Oakland Hills neighborhoods. Black and Latino neighborhoods were emptied of their wealth.
This, combined with the advent of drive-in suburban Oakland supermarkets in the 1980s and 1990s, led to a shortage of fresh food outlets in predominantly black districts such as West Oakland and Central East. Oakland. What was left, McClintock concludes, is a “raw mosaic of parks and pollution, privilege and poverty, whole foods and whole food deserts.”
Urban planning as a solution
Dietary disparities in American cities have a cumulative effect on people’s health. Research linked them disproportionately bad nutrition black and Latino Americans, even after adjusting for socioeconomic status.
As much as urban planning was part of the problem, it could now be part of the solution. Some cities have started using planning tools to increase food equity.
Minneapolis, for example, has as part of its 2040 plan a goal of “establishing an equitable distribution of food sources and food markets provide all Minneapolis residents with reliable access to healthy, affordable, safe and culturally appropriate food. To achieve this, the city is reviewing city plans, including exploring and implementing regulatory changes to allow and promote mobile food markets and mobile pantries.
My hometown of Boston is engaged in a similar process. In 2010, the city began the process of creating a urban agriculture overlay district in the predominantly black and Latino neighborhood of Dorchester, rezoning to allow commercial urban farming. This change has provided jobs for local people and food for local cooperatives, such as the Dorchester Food Co-opas well as restaurants in the area.
And that may just be the start. My students and I contributed to the candidacy of Michelle Wu, candidate for mayor of Boston. Food Justice Program. It includes provisions such as a formal process in which private developers should work with the community to ensure there is space for diverse food retailers and commercial kitchens, and licensing restrictions to discourage the proliferation of fast-food establishments in the poorest neighborhoods. If Wu is elected and the plan is implemented, it would, I believe, provide more equitable access to nutritious and culturally appropriate food, good jobs, and economically vibrant neighborhoods.
As Wu’s Food Justice Agenda notes, “Food justice means racial justice, requiring a clear-headed understanding of how white supremacy has shaped our food systems” and that “nutritious, affordable, and culturally appropriate food is a universal human right.”
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