Several U.S. cities have ambitious approaches to tackle food insecurity. But have they missed the most important part?
As a freelance writer and survivor of domestic abuse, (not to mention as a single, mixed-race woman), I’ve been poor. Homeless and receiving food stamps poor. I’ve stood on line at food pantries, and I’ve spent years volunteering at a food pantry in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Hunger is a personal issue for me, as it is for many who have been through the proverbial wringer. In 2017 alone, 40 million Americans were food insecure — meaning they lacked the financial resources to access food for their household. More than 12 million of them were children.
Food is essential to life. Food connects us to our families, communities, ancestors, cultures and our Earth. We know healthy food is essential for a healthy life, and that access to adequate food is a basic human right.
It’s unsurprising, then, that feeding the hungry is a mostly non-partisan issue, one a select few argue against; when they do, it’s typically in the context of wedge-issue public policy. Most Americans willingly and easily contribute to feeding the hungry, even if it’s simply pulling the expired canned goods from the cupboard to give to the local school’s food drive or church’s food pantry.
Despite this universal and easy charity, rates of food insecurity nationwide have remained virtually unchanged since the federal government starting tracking this metric in 1995. The rate actually grew a percentage point, from 4 percent in 1995 to 5 percent in 2015, despite a growing corporate focus on ending hunger, especially since the beginning of the 21st century.
That growth in focus has placed us firmly in the midst of an “anti-hunger industrial complex,” as it is coming to be known. The economic incentives have expanded — not to alleviate hunger, but to keep entrenched, inequitable, hyper-capitalist systems in place that instead perpetuate hunger. While that’s not a popular conversation on the tip of most food policy advocates’ tongues, the evidence is abounding. Andrew Fisher’s 2017 book Big Hunger is subtitled, “The unholy alliance between corporate America and anti-hunger groups.” In it, he looks critically at the “business of hunger” and how income inequality and corporate greed, among other forces, conspire to keep people in poverty and dependent on systems of food charity that were only ever intended to be stopgap solutions.
This isn’t that story. Rather, this piece examines how city governments are tackling hunger on the municipal level. New York City’s Council Speaker recently released an ambitious plan that lays out a pathway to an equitable food system — noble aspirations that reflect poorly on the City’s position of Food Policy Coordinator/Director, formed more than 10 years ago to address these very issues. Los Angeles is among the leading U.S. cities that has seen rapid and impressive success with reorganizing food systems. And Boise, Idaho, stands out for its holistic approach that links healthy food access to issues of land use, transportation equity and affordable housing. But even taking these initiatives into account, the question remains: What will it take for cities to truly eliminate hunger?
WILL THE NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL’S FOOD EQUITY PLAN MOVE THE NEEDLE?
Growing Food Equity in New York City, A City Council Agenda is a report issued by New York City’s City Council Speaker Cory Johnson in August. It assesses where the City is in terms of hunger and need, and suggests a map to follow in a quest to achieve “food equity” — “the just and fair inclusion of all people in our food system… essential to building vibrant and resilient economies and communities.”
As the report notes, “New York City food pantries and soup kitchens fed 5 percent more people in 2018 than the previous year… [Since 2013] emergency food providers in New York City have seen elevated traffic and 40 percent reported the number of visitors increased by more than half.”
From 2013 to 2017, New York City’s poverty rate hovered around 20 percent. The City’s food equity report does acknowledge that historical and contemporary issues of age, income, immigration status, gender, mental health, physical ability, race, and more can result in inequities. It notes that, across the country, a whopping 93 percent of “Black American farmers lost their land between 1940 and 1974 due in large part to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) discriminatory practices”—an old issue that reverberates strongly into our shared present, in terms of both land ownership and food access.
These issues, and many others, contribute to the food insecurity of more than one million New York City residents — nearly 15 percent of the City’s population.
In a city where $4.5 billion in taxpayer dollars was spent for commercial developers such as Related to build its luxury playground Hudson Yards, just two avenues away hundreds of people experiencing homelessness sleep in doorways, on rooftops, and under scaffolding. Officially, according to the Coalition for the Homeless, 2017 saw New York City reach a new record of people experiencing homelessness, at more than 63,000 individuals, an increase of 82 percent from a decade earlier. Seventy-five percent of New Yorkers who experience homelessness are members of homeless families, and more than 23,000 are children.
Yet, the report barely touches on the issue of homelessness, often mentioning it only in the context of issues related to the elderly and disabled.
“In an equitable food system, all people have adequate access to food and greater control over the quality and kinds of food available in their community,” notes the report. “This approach centers on food justice, a component of environmental justice in which all communities share in an equitable distribution of risks and benefits throughout our food system, including how food is grown, processed, distributed, accessed, and disposed.”
The report calls for the institutionalization of an Office of Food Policy, as well as the creation of a Multi-Year Food Policy Plan, and updates to how data is collected and how food access and insecurity are measured. It directs more money to emergency food assistance, food pantries and soup kitchens. It notes the City Council is continuing to direct more money to community programs for building SNAP capacity — assistance with applying for SNAP, for example, along with expanding education about SNAP as well as access to the program. It supports greater food access for seniors and in NYC public schools as well as the City University, and encourages greater SNAP access for college students, who are generally prevented from accessing SNAP benefits under Federal law. States have the power to amend that access, and Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania have done so.
It also lays out plans for food-waste education along with incubators for food businesses — two policy objectives that have become common goals in U.S. urban areas that strive to cultivate a noteworthy food culture. In these areas, a robust farm-to-table restaurant scene is viewed as integral to healthy economic development.
The report suggests that the City Council create an Office of Urban Agriculture and to develop an urban ag plan, which would include educational outreach as well as the removal of community gardens from their current “vacant lot” status with City’s Department of Finance.
The report even makes policy recommendations for New York State, including to build upon the recently passed Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act.
This is a laudable approach for any American city to take. But the report, while comprehensive, is also siloed. Hunger does not exist in a vacuum, and cannot effectively be analyzed as a standalone problem. Food deserts, lack of affordable food and food access are all connected to key facets of urban policy reform, including a living minimum wage, transportation equity, affordable housing, and the vagaries of real-estate policy that encourage gentrification — for example, up-zoning for a development that includes a Whole Foods and high-rise condos at prices unaffordable for current community members.
For some policy aspirations, NYC already has detailed plans with target goals to meet and time frames in which to achieve them, such as Vision Zero and Zero Waste. Yet despite this food equity report, the City still has not committed to a formal food plan, let alone one with a comprehensive proposal to eliminate hunger or “food insecurity” and its root causes, such as lack of affordable housing, access to affordable healthy food, and systemic racism and classism.
Those who experience discrimination are twice as likely to experience hunger than those who don’t. Across the U.S., nearly 22 percent of African American households and 18 percent of Latin American households in the U.S. are food insecure, versus 9 percent of white households. These numbers come from an August 2018 report from Children’s Health Watch and Drexel University’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities, which also notes White caregivers received as much discrimination or more as black caregivers did when they sought support services such as SNAP and WIC, although the sample size was smaller.
“You cannot take on poverty and hunger without taking on historical and contemporary discrimination… If we are just fighting to strengthen SNAP [formerly food stamps]… we’ll make little progress. We have to go deeper to the root causes,” Dr. Mariana Chilton, a professor of public health at Drexel University Chilton and co-author of Drexel’s report, told the Nation.
New York City’s report does allude to this, noting, “A comprehensive food plan for New York City could serve to coordinate and guide all City agencies towards overarching and interconnected goals addressing racial, economic, and environmental inequity in our food system.”
Yet connecting their goals with other agencies and identifying and addressing the root causes of hunger are sorely missing from the Council’s agenda. Perhaps telling, rather than examining other U.S. cities for direction, the report looks to Belo Horizonte, Brazil for an example successful food governance.
In addition, New York already has had more than 10 years of some sort of food policy—with questionable success. Back in 2008, Mayor Michael Bloomberg created the position of Food Policy Coordinator within the Mayor’s Office. Mayor Bill de Blasio later renamed the position Food Policy Director, and moved the position to the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services. Reporting to Deputy Mayor J. Phillip Thompson, the food policy director works to “increase food security, promote access to and awareness of healthy food, and support economic opportunity and environmental sustainability in the food system.”
Unfortunately, as the report notes, more than a decade after its inception, the Food Policy Director’s office “remains understaffed and under-resourced.” The office has had, at most, three full-time employees, and there is nothing in law that will keep the position going should a mayor decide to end it.
Nicholas Freudenberg, professor of public health at City University of New York (CUNY), notes the university’s recent study on the impact of the first 10 years of NYC official food policy found that while interest in food and food policy had increased and moved up the political agenda, childhood obesity and diabetes, among other urban food issues, weren’t significantly impacted.
“These are problems that will burden NYC for generations to come,” Freudenberg tells Next City.
While the City’s report does take CUNY’s recommendations, namely in requiring an implementable and measurable plan via the government, Freudenberg believes “whether it will be successful remains to be seen.”
IN LOS ANGELES, USING PROCUREMENT TO CHANNEL FOOD DOLLARS TOWARD THE GREATER GOOD
The Good Food Purchasing Program (GFPP), started in Los Angeles in 2012, “works with community partners to leverage purchasing power to create equitable food systems for people, animals, and the environment,” says Alexa Delwiche, Executive Director of the Center for Good Food Purchasing, a national network that collaborates with national partners and local grassroots movements on the adoption and implementation of the Good Food Purchasing Plan.
The organization and plan provide a framework, tools, and support that work together to help institutions shift dollars into systems and programs that are in alignment with GFPP’s five values (or, as Delwiche calls them, “guiding stars”): animal welfare, environmental sustainability, local economies, nutrition, and valued workforce.
She compares the program to LEED certifications for green buildings. “We work with institutions to make commitments to each of the five values. There are different levels for each, and we have a different value target for each of the five that inspire the institution to score higher and higher.”
For example, under the value of environmental sustainability, the highest level of certification requires the use of USDA organic and biodynamic foods, with more incremental uses at lower levels of certification.
When the Los Angeles school district and the city of Los Angeles committed to Good Food Purchasing Program in 2012, they committed to the idea that public dollars are spent in support of the five values, says Delwiche.
Since making that commitment, Delwiche says the Los Angeles school district has seen significant change: The increase of wages by 40 percent for 320 warehouse workers and truck drivers in the school district supply chain; the redirection of $12 million into the local food economy; the creation of 220 food processing jobs; the commitment of $70 million towards chicken produced without routine antibiotics; and a supply chain of healthier, smarter food product innovation.
“L.A. has one of the more outstanding programs,” says Mark Winne, author of the forthcoming book Food Town USA. It requires “that all purchases using city funds — schools, jails, et cetera — meet certain requirements, including certain amounts on locally, humanely raised meat, labor and environmental standards, and promoting urban agriculture and tax abatements.”
While GFPP isn’t a formal part of the municipal government, it does work closely with the Los Angeles Food Policy Council (which helped found GFPP) and the city of Los Angeles.
“Institutionalizing the office of food policy is critical to bringing the rest of the recommendations to life,” says Delwiche. “The cities that are advancing the most comprehensive food policy and action plans are the ones that have invested in having someone in the city make sense of all the ways to impact food systems work that they are connected to and can have impact on.”
Austin, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Oakland, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., have all adopted GFPP.
Back in NYC, in recognition that the Department of Education has the largest public school food service in the United States, the Growing Food Equity report does recommend adopting GFPP, noting New York City’s “significant buying power… Each year, 11 City agencies serve almost 240 million meals and snacks in a variety of settings, including senior centers, schools, after school programs, public hospitals, and correctional facilities… By using its economic power, the City can further its food policy goals.”
As for Los Angeles, it will need more than GFPP if it truly wants to address hunger and food equity. After all, the city has seen the numbers of residents experiencing homelessness increase more than 15 percent from 2018 to 2019, and nearly 30 percent of L.A.’s households experienced food insecurity in 2015.
IN BOISE, A HOLISTIC APPROACH TO LAND USE, HOUSING, FOOD AND TRANSIT
Beyond a robust urban food policy and a living wage are other systemic barriers to equitable food access, including land use, housing, and transit. Winne points to Boise, Idaho as a fairly progressive city in the middle of one of the reddest states in the country.
Elaine Clegg is city council Pro Tem for the City of Boise and has served for 15 years on the city council. She is also Program Manager at Idaho Smart Growth, a state-wide organization operating at the intersection of land use and transportation.
As a person passionate about land, the environment, food and transportation, Clegg has been a driving force for shifting development in Boise, including making fallow city-owned land available to community members, refugees, and non-profits for food-producing community gardens.
Boise is also known for its development deals and zoning, unheard of in present-day New York City, such trading six acres of downtown real estate for a 20-acre ranch just four miles from downtown Boise’s center.
The ranch, previously slated for development of low-density housing, will instead be preserved by the city for urban farming, its original house rehabbed and made into space with a commercial kitchen (“value-added for producers,” says Clegg), its grounds around the house and barn used for events and a farmer’s market, and the rest of the land used for agriculture, including a farm and an orchard, and a community garden.
The city is even keeping, restoring and reusing the original irrigation system.
In addition, Clegg notes the city has done a couple of neighborhood plans that preserve low-density areas of the city in return for small-scale urban agriculture production on the neighborhoods’ larger lots, intentionally keeping the zoning low-density.
“We also adopted an aggressive urban farming ordinance that allows chicken, goats, and small pigs on certain sizes of land. You can have a chicken on any lot,” says Clegg, quickly adding, “You just can’t have roosters.” (Presumably because of the noise potential.)
Clegg says the ordinance also allows active beekeeping in urban core. “And we introduced the idea that if you allow that kind of use, you need to allow for sale and trade of the products. We allow temporary stands in places where there is active urban agriculture on a sizeable scale.”
Churches and immigrants, says Clegg, often take advantage of this opportunity.
“The city of Boise has several Memorandums of Understanding with Global Gardens, which is a CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] organization that serves refugee farmers,” notes Clegg. Global Gardens, she says, also helps farmers who are growing for markets and for restaurants. “They oversee the umbrella agreements to use the land and the water that goes with it. The city provides that land and water.”
Clegg says Boise is also working out incentives for affordable housing, for 80 percent and below AMI, as well as land trusts that will reduce cost of redeveloping lands in the city and help residents build equity. “We’re in the process of putting that together,” says Clegg, noting projects that have already been completed include supportive housing for veterans.
Addressing housing is an important part of any city’s meaningful anti-hunger strategy. “If there’s not affordable housing, people aren’t going to have the income to spend on food,” notes Freudenberg.
Clegg says the developments in Boise need to be accessible for the kinds of jobs that are nearby. She also acknowledges that the growth rate of Boise is among the highest in the nation, and therefore affordable units are getting harder to come by—yet, compared to New York City of San Francisco, rents are “very reasonable,” with one- and two-bedroom apartments running less than $1000 per month.
Like much of America, Boise has challenges in infrastructure and transit: “We have the added burden of not owning and operating our own roads. We have a regional agency and legislature that’s been unwilling to raise a dedicated funding source for transit.”
Clegg stresses that transportation is an important component of any holistic policy: “You can give people access to things with good transportation choices.”
Yet, “with what few tools we’ve had, we’ve attempted to address land use policy and housing policy, food policy and transportation policy,” says Clegg, noting that Boise is only now starting to put the data together on the impact these policy shifts have had.
TO END HUNGER, WIDEN THE LENS AND REFRAME THE SOLUTION
Still, “There’s no better strategy,” to ending hunger, says Delwiche, “than a job that pays a living wage.”
“The nature of hunger is such that it requires an immediate response,” writes Fisher in The Big Hunger. “Going beyond poverty, scholars have identified the causes of hunger as linked to misogyny, racism, domestic violence, and a high cost of living (such as lack of affordable housing), as well as to broader issues related to a lack of human rights, even powerlessness and scarcity of democracy… [the] anti-hunger industrial complex keeps attention focused on the hunger problem without pursuing the necessary steps to truly end it.”
Call it the “perpetual poverty machine”—a term credited to Warren Buffett’s son, Peter.
Meaningful addressing of hunger and striving for food equity means looking at all of the root causes of hunger and inequity in the first place. “All of the food systems problems that have manifest are symptoms of much deeper problems,” says Delwiche.
In New York, the recent re-zoning under mayors Bloomberg and de Blasio has led to the closing of small community grocery stores and the opening of high-end brand-name stores such as Whole Foods, and along with that, accelerated gentrification. “The up-pricing of food goes along with housing gentrification,” notes Freudenberg. “Even if [neighborhood residents] are in rent-stabilized housing or public housing, they still don’t have enough money for food.”
“The food issues won’t be addressed if redevelopment, development and affordable housing aren’t addressed,” Freudenberg notes. “We feel very strongly that the public sector in food, SNAP, and public markets are important strategies for making healthy food more available and affordable.”
These issues are too often compartmentalized and rarely assembled into a holistic plan. NYC’s omission of affordable housing and development, among other issues, from their food equity plan is a glaring example of this. With a growing population of people experiencing homelessness, development meant for the wealthy, and massive tax giveaways — on top of longstanding systemic issues — it’s hard not to see how New York City’s food equity plan is a Band-Aid on a large open wound rather than a viable solution.
But, notes Winne, “you’ll find elements where cities and states will raise the minimum wage,” which NYC has done. “It’s the little things,” Winne says, that can add up to make a difference.
“There is no silver bullet,” he continues. Winne says that the issue of hunger might be too big for the individual to take on, so people say, ‘I can start a farmers market,’ or ‘I can start an urban garden.’
“Realistically, having a few more gardens, bees or chickens isn’t going to change food access. But it gives people a way to move forward that is hands-on, and that is fundamental in our economic system,” says Winne.
“If we wait for the minimum wage to go up, we’ll still be suffering. I don’t think you’re going to find a place that says we want to reduce food insecurity, so therefore we’re raising taxes, raising the minimum wage, et cetera,” he adds.
“What’s interesting and compelling about food is we have an intimate connection to it,” says Delwiche. “We do it every day. It’s a starting point for bigger conversations around strategy and what fundamentally needs to change. A lot of our partners think this is a way of beginning to build power.”
As Johnson notes, “Food is power. And we want that power in the hands of the people.”
Despite what the New York City Council Speaker’s report is lacking, it does offer a place to start.
“We can’t expect to address the underlying causes of hunger that don’t get to the root cause,” Winne notes. “But we work with what we have.”