Food Access

I must confess that all of the good intentions and thoughtful strategizing by those lamenting “food deserts” in low-income urban neighborhoods across the country has just left me bewildered. The thought process is that there are pockets of real estate where fast food is accessible but fresh fruit is not, so a pox on McDonald’s and bring on the urban gardens. Indeed, in my very neighborhood, at the halfway point on my bike commute from home to my son’s school, is an intersection that has on its four corners a high-rise housing project, a gas station, a Checkers, and a Dunkin’ Donuts. Coastal liberals envision this and keel over with rage.

Yet within two blocks of this corner, albeit in less prominent locations and with less flashy signage, are a produce truck I have frequented for over 15 years, a full grocery store, and at least one produce-only storefront. My own two kids and their friends are admittedly a small sample size, but if you ask them why people pick Big Macs over red peppers, they'll opine that it has nothing to do with access and everything to do with taste; and their parents would add that this is more about acculturation and habit and less about spatial distribution or marketing.

But let’s leave aside people’s motivations and just talk about where produce should be grown. Let me be clear: there’s nothing wrong with encouraging urban gardening, and I love that Michelle Obama has helped make it cool. Kids can only gain from exposure to soil and seeds. If you want to reclaim a vacant lot or bake open space into new development plans, I am behind you applauding.

But understand that, by definition, cities are not the most efficient location for agricultural production. In terms of making the most of the scarce resources that are our land and water, rural farming runs circles around urban farming. If we are worried about the environmental impact of “food miles traveled,” we should be lobbying for a more accurate price on carbon, not necessarily for more localized and smaller-scale production. And if we consider a city neighborhood without a garden to be a “food desert,” then the solution should not necessarily be to move the garden into the desert but to make the residents of the desert more mobile so as to access the garden.

I find it awfully patronizing to think that poor people are different from the rest of us, who don’t limit our day-to-day pleasures to only what we can get to on our own two feet. If we want to facilitate gardening for educational, communal, and supplemental purposes, three cheers. But if we want to garden as a seemingly more righteous alternative to buying produce that was grown in Lancaster, Florida, or (gasp!) Chile, I’d have to run the numbers but I don’t think that is at all a more environmentally friendly way to go. It certainly isn’t the best use of existing agricultural systems, retail infrastructure, or urban land.

And what if, instead of “helping” the poor by keeping them immobile and limiting their choices, we helped them do life like the rest of us do? To provide one small example, though we have made impressive strides in the distribution of grocery stores in urban neighborhoods, there is still a relative dearth of them as compared to the suburbs. People decry this as crippling to the poor, who it is suggested must now rely on corner stores and fast food joints for their food. But what if instead we worked with local elected officials and community groups to get PhillyCarShare pods in low-income neighborhoods, so that families could make grocery runs and capitalize on the remarkable selections and prices that are available there? When the poor are limited by mobility from the same dizzying array of choices you and I have as to where we can buy our groceries, why not, rather than pretending we know what's best and providing a sub-optimal local alternative in response, simply remove the mobility limitation and make available to them the same dizzying array of choices, thus giving them the freedom we have to do what is best for themselves and their children?

When we think about making sure our kids eat nutritiously, we might involve them in a backyard garden project to connect them to the earth, give them a sense of how produce grows, and make eating vegetables fun. But we don’t clamor for existing produce networks to be avoided at the expense of setting up a more localized infrastructure of food production; instead, we get in our cars, tap into whatever grocery store offers us the best goods, and haul them home. Might it be more environmentally friendly and less patronizing to help low-income households get to the same resources, rather than keeping them in place and bringing everything to them?

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