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Food system reform: Five cities setting an example

Updated: Mar 18, 2019

Low-income communities often don't have access to fresh food, often resulting in diseases related to poor diet.

Communities all over the United States are battling food systems that leave them perpetually sick because of unhealthy food options. Lack of access to nutritious, fresh food options disproportionately affects communities of color and low-income Americans.

Often low-income communities don’t have access to fresh food, resulting in diseases related to poor diet. One study found that low-income Americans would have to spend 70 percent of their food budget on fruits and vegetables in order to meet dietary guidelines for healthy eating. Low-income neighborhoods usually have greater access to food sources that promote unhealthy eating, like fast food. Often it contributes to diet-related diseases like obesity, diabetes and heart disease, among others.

Five U.S. cities have programs to make healthy food affordable and accessible for their underprivileged residents: Oakland; Memphis; Louisville; Baltimore and Minneapolis. They all have different approaches to combating low accessibility to fresh food. Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit science organization, used these cities as case studies to model how communities can work to improve a broken food system. All the cities have populations between 400,000 and 700,000 people with a higher rate of people living under the federal poverty line than the national average. Here’s our break down of the study:


In Oakland, gentrification led to problems with housing affordability and a general increase in cost of living. The city already had a big urban garden movement thriving without selling food, but $3,000 municipal permit fees created a barrier for low-income residents to start urban gardens. The city and its residents started the Oakland Food Policy Council to help create policy changes. The council launched the “Right to Grow” campaign to allow residents to grow and sell food anywhere except for industrial zones or public parks. As a result, Oakland now has 570 acres of backyard gardens, edible landscape, neighborhood gardens and commercial farms which could contribute to a scenario of 30 percent of Oakland’s food source is regionally sourced.


Tennessee is ranked as a leading producer of tobacco and cotton, but among the bottom states for fruit and vegetable production. Overall, Tennessee’s farming sector is declining. The average age of Tennessee farmers is 59 and younger people are not joining the farm sector due to low profits and big start-up costs. The nonprofit urban farm, Roots Memphis, founded the Farm Academy, a 5-month program to train a new generation of farmers in sustainable farming in an effort to help the declining farming sector. The academy includes classes on small farm business entrepreneurship; planning and management; sustainable agriculture theory and practice; and small-farm production skills. Students must submit a business plan for a small farm before they are eligible to graduate. After their business plans are approved, they manage a quarter-acre farm plot and must successfully demonstrate the capacity to produce the crops from their business plans. Once this task is completed, the Farm Academy helps students secure access to land, start-up funds from community partners, marketing and accounting and other matters. Farm Academy is on track to help train 112 additional farmers in Memphis by 2027.


Access to fresh food is the biggest barrier facing low-income residents in Louisville. New Roots, a nonprofit organization in Louisville, started the Fresh Stop Market Program to increase the affordability and accessibility of local food in neighborhoods with limited access to fresh, healthy food. It’s conceptually similar to CSA programs. The organization launched the program to pool resources -- like SNAP -- and purchase food directly from local farmers at central gathering locations, like churches and community centers. Community members pool money and federal assistance benefits to purchase “shares” of food from local farmers. Deliveries are usually made biweekly and during the evening and each delivery includes a newsletter with recipes. Shares are $12 for participants who qualify for food assistance benefits and $25 for others.


The Virtual Supermarket program is sponsored by the city of Baltimore and aims to expand access to healthy and affordable food for city residents with food assistance benefits. Residents on food assistance can order fresh groceries online from a local grocer and have them delivered to a library or housing complex nearby. Customers do not have to pay for the groceries until they are delivered and can there is multiple payment options -- like SNAP, credit, debit and cash.


In low-income areas of Minneapolis, lack of transportation and access to grocery stores leads many residents to shop for groceries in corner markets, convenience stores and bodegas. As a result, in 2008, the city passed a staple food ordinance requiring all corner stores to stock specific categories of food, such as eggs, dairy, five different types of produce and grains to improve residents’ access to healthy foods. In 2009, city officials realized 75 percent of the corner stores were failing to meet the produce requirements. The Minneapolis Health Department created the Minneapolis Healthy Corner Store program in 2010 in an effort to help store owners reach compliance. The program is a combined partnership among the Minneapolis Health Department, corner store owners and local organizations to try to enhance the appeal of fresh produce by moving it to the front of the stores; arranging “grab and go” baskets at the front of the stores; and placing fresh produce advertisements by the entry of each store.



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