Food for Thought: One Way Cities Can Improve Their Food Systems

The urban food landscape is disorganized and unequal. Cities can take a more direct approach in addressing this by instituting a department of food.

With the U.S. population becoming more urban, the problems that cities face will only become more critical. This is especially true for food insecurity/inaccessibility, which is a past, present, and future problem.

Although this issue has gradually garnered more interest over the past several years, the solutions we currently use aren’t fully addressing food and nutrition inaccessibility. One idea that could help cities tackle this now and in the future: a municipal department of food.

Today we’ll look at the typical food landscape in U.S. cities and options your town could take in making more food accessible to all.

The current urban food landscape

To start, this is not a question of overall food production. If the question were as simple as “Do we have enough food for everyone living in cities/in the world?” we’d say “yes” and pop the champagne. It’s a question of accessyour zip code and income level determine whether or not you can get enough food for you and your family, and whether or not that food is nutritious.

That’s to say that the cost and prevalence of fresh and good food are among the several things that impact food and nutrition inaccessibility. You might not be able to afford any food, let alone the best food in your neighborhood. Or your neighborhood might lack a grocer or corner store that can fulfill this need.

In either case, the urban environment can exacerbate these circumstances and vice versa, meaning food accessibility overlaps with other city policy areas. If you can’t afford the food in your area, you might have to take public transportation to reach a more affordable resource. But this doesn’t always solve the problem. Using public transportation is an additional cost and it takes additional time out of your day.

That’s just one example of how food intersects with other things. You can also trace the line between this and city regulations—certification and inspection costs could be onerous, meaning your local store might need to cut back on higher quality food—as well as property assessment and taxation, zoning, economic investment, and of course public health.

Food access also affects the private sector. Food prices can determine a restaurant’s, grocer’s, or supermarket’s business viability (e.g. how many jobs can they create). Typically, these are collectively a huge chunk of local economies, which transcend sectors.

Cities currently have a patchwork of measures addressing food insecurity, a mix of city-sponsored, nonprofit, and private programs and outlets:

  • Commercial vendors like grocers, supermarkets, and corner stores
  • Charitable or emergency providers like food pantries and food banks
  • Independent or city-sponsored urban farms
  • Community gardens
  • Farmers markets
  • Community-supported agriculture and farm-to-school programs

These all certainly help, though incompletely as we still see serious inequities. Since each action or party largely operates in a silo, the urban food landscape remains grossly disorganized.

How a ‘department of food’ would work

To improve the disjointed and unrefined food systems in place now, cities should take deliberate steps in connecting the dots and shifting the burden of food inaccessibility from individuals and families to the larger community. A new government department—a department of food (DOF)—would achieve this goal.

The concept isn’t exactly new. In a 1999 paper, Dr. Kami Pothukuchi and the late Jerome Kaufman used the term to describe a food-focused government body akin to departments of transportation, housing, parks, etc. In their own words, here is what Pothukuchi and Kaufman list as a DOF’s primary functions:

  • A central intelligence function, to facilitate market operations for different food system functions—from production to consumption to disposal of wastes—through regular issuance of market analyses;
  • A pulse-taking function, to alert the community through periodic reports to danger signs in the economy that may impact food access, hunger and nutrition, population and food business movements;
  • A policy clarification function, to help frame and regularly revise food system functions of local government;
  • A community food security strategic plan function, to phase specific private and public programs as part of a comprehensive course of action towards enhancing community food security for a period of 10 to 20 years;
  • A feedback review function, to analyze through careful research the consequences of program and project activities as a guide to future action.

Basically, municipal staff would be dedicated to managing the city’s food system actors, implementing policies, and coordinating with other city departments like transportation and zoning.

As an example, let’s look at food waste. The U.S. leads the world in tossing food into the garbage; by one account, almost 40% of the country’s food supply each year is wasted. This is a huge burden on waste management systems and a missed opportunity in solving food inaccessibility.

A DOF could play a critical role in turning this from a negative into a positive. By connecting suppliers with excess food to emergency pantries or other vendors, a city could curtail its waste and bolster its food system at the same time. Landfills would shrink while more people would be fed.

Why cities haven’t considered a DOF

Cities in the U.S. haven’t incorporated a DOF for a few reasons, largely due to framing and attitudes toward public spending.

First, food as a policy issue can be tricky to comprehend, as Pothukuchi and Kaufman point out in their paper from ’99. It’s commonly taken for granted by urban residents or just not considered an urgent urban issue. While this still holds up two decades later, food insecurity has become more recognized as a problem thanks to awareness campaigns.

Second, food insecurity is also frequently tethered to poverty when discussing policy interventions, which draws attention away from this particular issue. While this makes sense—the cost of food (and good food) is a primary reason of inaccessibility—it deserves to distinguished from broader anti-poverty dialogue.

Urban food insecurity isn’t simply a result of poverty; it’s a result of dozens of other issues and can also be the cause of continued poverty and inequities. Maintaining this framing means the conversation will remain half-baked and solutions will only continue to return partial success.

The third reason is more familiar: the financial cost. To have a functioning DOF, a city will have to spend some tax money. If city residents are already weary of “government bloat” or if they are less aware of the need for a DOF, gathering support for this move could prove complicated. What’s more, many cities are already cash-strapped thanks to other expenditures. Funding a DOF easily turns into a binary choice between raising taxes or reallocating funds from an existing city service.

That’s assuming a city wants to go all-in on a department of food. However, they do have other options, such as starting small by creating a team within an existing department like public health or planning. A DOF doesn’t have to be big to have an immediate impact.

Outside of a department of food, your town can take other approaches that get food to your neighbors that need it most. For instance, they can create a food policy council, which shares some of the same responsibilities as a DOF, adopt a food charter, or alter zoning laws to allow more community gardens and farms. Each of these would have an impact on the food landscape.

Still, instituting a department of food could sidestep this piecemeal process. Having a central body to connect the dots would undoubtedly have the largest impact of any possible measure. It also would ensure a more rapid and efficient response to events that intensify food insecurity like the ongoing pandemic and recession.

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