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Photo: Douglas Levere, BA '89
By Samina Raja, Assistant Professor of Urban and Regional Planning
Food sustains our bodies and accompanies our celebrations. Eating and sharing food adds flavor to life’s ordinary and extraordinary occasions. Yet despite its central role in individual and community life, the food system in the United States—or the intricate web of actors, institutions and resources that facilitate the production, manufacture, distribution, consumption and disposal of food—has been neglected by policymakers for far too long. The consequences are serious, especially for people with limited means.
An important factor is that consumers of food are literally and metaphorically removed from their sources of food. On average, food travels about 1,500 miles from farm to fork, resulting in greater transportation costs and energy usage. Agribusinesses, which rely on hyper-industrial models of food production, have replaced family farmers as the dominant player in the American food system.
Meanwhile, higher-calorie, processed and low-nutrition foods are cheaper and more readily available compared to higher-nutrition, low-calorie alternatives. All this has grave consequences for public health. Research shows that to derive 1 unit of energy (measured in megajoules) from cookies we would have to pay about 20 cents on average, whereas to obtain that same amount of energy from carrots we would have to pay more than four times this price.
Also troubling is the spatial dimension that has emerged in U.S. food retail. In some neighborhoods, the number of supermarkets and grocery stores has declined precipitously. Those food stores that do remain offer few healthful, affordable foods, contrasted with the often more plentiful snacks and cigarettes. Living in such neighborhoods—or food deserts, as they are sometimes called—impedes individuals’ ability to purchase healthful foods, especially for those who lack access to personal automobiles.
One way to improve the food system is through a more thoughtful practice of urban planning, given the profession’s role: Farmland preservation impacts where and how much land for food production is protected from development, zoning codes regulate the location of food retail venues, design of mass transit routes impacts whether neighborhoods with low auto-ownerships rates are able to access grocery stores, and so forth.
Yet urban planners in recent history have overlooked this connection, as our profession has focused on other issues. Fortunately, though, a growing movement of community residents, urban planning practitioners, policymakers and researchers is beginning to recognize the urgent need to repair and strengthen a community’s food system.
Documenting spatial disparities in the food environment, its consequences on health and how urban planners can facilitate the creation of an improved community food system are a primary focus of my research. For example, our research team at UB mapped the spatial disparities in the food environment in Erie County using geographic information systems (GIS). We found that predominantly African American neighborhoods have about half the number of supermarkets within walking distance as do predominantly white neighborhoods.
On the other hand, we found an extensive network of small independent food stores in these neighborhoods that currently carry few healthy options. We see these stores as an opportunity, however. If networked with local farms, they could be a venue for healthful produce in underserved neighborhoods. They also can serve as a market for struggling family farmers, who face considerable challenges in keeping their businesses viable.
Rather than chasing after large supermarkets for underserved neighborhoods, it is time to reinvest in the existing food retail infrastructure there, while recognizing the global implications of our present-day food system, a fact that was recently brought home by the rise in worldwide food prices.
Samina Raja is principal or co-investigator on several studies that test the effects of the built and food environments on health. She has written extensively on food security and health, and community food systems and urban planning.
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