Tag Archives: barriers

The Country Farmer from the City

How can everyone eat local? Co-ops, farmers’ markets, and gardening play a big part in the possible answers for that question. But the key part, and one that is often overlooked, is the role of the small, sustainable, multi-crop farm.

To increase the number of local eaters, we need more local farms. It is not going to be possible for large numbers of people to eat locally if most acreage under cultivation are in farms of the gigantic agribusiness mono-culture type. Small-scale farms are incredibly productive per acre, but they also require more labor per acre than huge spreads of wheat.

The obvious corollary, then, is that we need more farmers. And they have got to come from somewhere, so why not the city?


Meet the New American (Zen) Farmer, in the Winter 2008 issue of Edible Portland, profiles novice farmers Michael and Jill Paine. Neither of them grew up on farms. Rather, Michael’s interest in farming grew out of a stint in the Peace Corps in Lesotho, which led working on a farm in Costa Rica, which turned into a Master’s in International Agricultural Development at UC-Davis.

So far, their farm appears to be a success. Five years old, their Gaining Ground Farm operates on the CSA model and has a stall at the local farmers’ market. It’s a small operation; Jill has a full-time day job and the farm has a few summer interns. Even with a solid business plan, Michael and Jill still had a hard time getting a bank to lend them money to buy their land. It’s these kinds of structural difficulties which are the hidden barriers to more farms and more local foods.

An related article in the weekend New York Times highlighted several other young, educated, urban people who are interested in local food, interested enough to pack up from the city and start a farm in the country. Are they farming dilettantes or the shock troops of the re-localization movement? Continue reading


Structural Barriers to Local Food Part II: Urban Food Deserts

Crown heights street

It’s simple logic that local food is not only an individual’s choice, unaffected by structural and economic factors. If there are no farmers’ markets or local CSAs, local food is hard to get. If grocery stores are few and poorly stocked, fresh produce of any kind, let alone organic or local, will be expensive and hard to get.

As Blanchard notes, food deserts are most common in inner-city urban neighborhoods and rural areas. That rural areas should be food deserts is not hard to understand; in any small town far from a metropolitan center it’s not shocking that grocery stores might be far away, expensive, poorly stocked, or all three.

Understanding how an inner-city urban neighborhood could be a food deserts is more complicated. Distance and retailer size, two of the key rubrics used to define a rural food desert, are less useful in urban environments. In an urban environment, the 10 mile distance test is largely inapplicable, as there is certainly a grocery within 10 miles. More importantly, a much greater proportion of urban dwellers are likely to rely solely on public transportation, particularly the elderly, poor and near-poor. This significantly changes the idea of what a ‘nearby’ grocery is. One that is two miles away might be inaccessible, if there isn’t a frequent or convenient bus route. Even then, carrying groceries back to an apartment in bags or a cart is significantly more difficult than just placing them in the back seat and driving home. Furthermore, the idea of what a grocery store is undergoes a significant shift in the urban environment. The store is unlikely to be an enormous Stop and Shop or Food Lion, with 50 or more employees, the kind counted as a supermarket in Blanchard’s study. It’s much more likely that the local grocery will be a small corner store, with a greatly limited selection, particularly of perishables like milk and produce.


Neighborhoods with limited access to full-service grocery stores also have a high incidence of obesity-related illnesses, including diabetes and heart disease. Recent NYC Department of Health studies (available on their website) estimate that while obesity rates among children living in Bushwick and Bed-Stuy are comparable to NYC and the nation as a whole, the prevalence of obesity among teenager and adults living in those neighborhoods is greater than NYC as a whole. More than 9 of 10 adults in Bushwick and Bed-Stuy eat less than 5 servings of fruit and vegetables a day. Obesity rates in Harlem and the South Bronx are also higher than in the city as a whole.

Bed-Stuy and Bushwick also have very few grocery stores. 82% of food stores in Bed-Stuy and Buswhwick are bodegas, while only 6% are supermarkets. This strongly affects what groceries are available: only 33% of bodegas carry reduced-fat milk, only 28% carry apples, oranges and bananas, and only 10% carry any kind of leafy green. Those aren’t good percentages. The restaurant percentages are similar: 75% of restaurants only sell take-out, mostly pizza, Chinese, and Latin American food. 13% of the restaurants are national fast-food chains.

Interestingly, this lack of healthy foods in bodegas is not restricted to all bodegas. Another study by the Department of Health compares bodegas in the Upper East Side to those in East and Central Harlem. Bodegas in the Upper East Side have a 57% chance of having skim milk, compared to 33% of Central and East Harlem bodegas, and a 20% chance of having leafy green vegetables, as opposed to a 2% chance in Central Harlem and 4% chance in East Harlem.


While bodegas make up about two-thirds of the food stores in East and Central Harlem, they make up only one-third in the Upper East Side, half the proportion. In contrast, 19% of the food stores in the Upper East Side are supermarkets, more than double the 8% of East and Central Harlem. Unsurprisingly, the NYC Department of Public Health considers the Upper East Side a site of much greater healthy food availability than East and Central Harlem.


The urban food desert is certainly not limited to New York. A 2006 briefing paper by the food-access advocacy group Hartford Food System shows that supermarkets space per capita is by far the greatest in average-income suburban areas, one third greater than is found in rural areas and double the amount found in urban areas. According to their data, 50 Connecticut town don’t have a supermarket at all.

CT town without grocerys

This correlation between poor access to healthy food, obestity-related illnesses, poverty and race is not limited to New York. Consultant Mari Gallagher has conducted a number of studies of food deserts in Chicago, Detroit and Louisville, KY.

Increasing access to healthy food is a tricky thing, full of overtones of central planning and moral superiority. This ‘we know best’ implication is particularly loaded, at least in New York, where the areas with the least access to healthy food also tend to be low-income and non-white. There are a number of initiatives which show promise, including increasing the numbers of ‘green carts’ in NYC neighborhoods with poor access to fruits and vegetables, a rise in city CSAs, and an initiative in Hartford to identify retailers that sell affordable, healthy food. These efforts, coming from disparate sources, promise greater attention to the problem of making healthy food, and local and organic food, both available and affordable for more people. Organic and local food shouldn’t be just for the food snob elite, and thinking about how and where people get their food is a crucial part of making the local food impulse into a broad-based movement.

Structural Barriers to Local Food Part I: Rural Food Deserts

Earlier this week I talked about the problems of framing the local and organic food movements as an individual moral choice. As Mark Winne’s work in Hartford, Connecticut demonstrates, awareness of and desire for local and organic food is not limited to the Whole Foods shopper buying expensive cheese, but is common among all racial, ethic and socio-economic groups. Most people want to be able to choose organic and local food for themselves and their families, for a host of reasons.

The crucial difference between those who buy organic and local and those who do not, but would like to, is access. Barriers to access can include both time and money. However, the most important limiting factor is a clear lack of grocery stores and other retailers within a reasonable distance who carry affordable, healthful products and produce.

This lack of retail sources for healthy, local or organic food is one of the biggest sticking points for the spread of the organic and local foods movements, and is related to our national crises of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Time can be reallocated or shortcuts in food preparation found, buying in bulk and on sale can trim costs, and evolution in food stamps and WIC are beginning to support eating produce. But none of that will help if there’s nowhere to buy fresh produce, let alone organic or local fruits and vegetables.

A “food desert” is an area where residents have limited access to supermarkets and supercenters where a variety of groceries and produce can be found. Some researchers draw a distinction between “food deserts”, where all of the population has low access to supermarkets, and “low-access” areas, where more than half the population has limited access to supermarkets.

The term “limited access” in this case is generally defined as being over 10 miles from the nearest supermarket. Obviously, this limitation will vary in severity depending on the area in question. However, it is clear that distance from grocery stores will most strongly affect low income individuals, those with disabilities and the elderly, who are far more likely to be reliant on public transportation. Low-access areas and food deserts in the United States are shockingly widespread, and are found in both urban and rural areas.

A study by Troy Blanchard, Assistant Professor at Mississippi State University and Lois Wright Morton, Assistant Professor at Iowa State University, quantifies this problem.

Low-access map

National Food desert map

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Rhetoric vs. Pragmatics in Eating Locally

Organic produce

There’s an enormous problem with the local food movement- the lack of access. Eating organically and locally is a choice, but it’s not a choice only the well-off should be able to make.

Often, eating locally, like eating organically, is framed in almost purely moral terms. One must eat locally to save the small farmer, sustain a local economy and sense of community, remain in touch with the seasons, re-learn what is available in a given area and when to expect it, to save the planet from ‘food-miles’. You must eat organic to protect your vulnerable children from harmful chemicals, to reduce pollution and run-off and soil erosion, to improve the health of the (often migrant) farmworkers, to eat more wholesomely, more naturally, more purely.

That’s all great. Any reason is a good reason to eat organic, or even better, to eat locally. However, in our focus on the individual and their reasons for choosing organic or local produce, there is rarely a larger discussion of why eating organically or eating locally, is predominantly framed only as an individual choice. (In particular, it is often framed as a mother’s choice, but that’s a discussion for another time.) There is generally only a limited discussion of the necessary food and infrastructure framework that enables that choice to be made.

Eating organically and locally is often discussed as an option that is only available to the well-off, not those struggling to put food on the table or work two jobs. No discussion of gentrification would be complete without a jab about how the organic and specialty markets have followed the gentrifiers to a neighborhood. And often, that’s fairly accurate. It is a lot easier to buy organic if you have disposable income, and to buy locally if you have spare time.

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