Why Local Food Systems Should be Part of Regional Planning

Community gardens, urban agriculture, and increasing residents’ access to fresh produce have traditionally been outside the purview of most urban planners. Despite clear links to land use, city planners typically consider the food system as the territory of the private sector.

But with increasing attention to the benefits of local, sustainable food (to wit: Michelle Obama’s campaign) and renewed interest in regional planning, this may be changing.

Amy Talbot, a planner with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), says their comprehensive regional plan for the Chicago area may be one of the first to identify support for local food systems as a regional priority. GO TO 2040 lists food systems as one of the important factors that will shape livability and quality of life in the region in the coming years.

In an article in this summer’s edition of the American Planning Association newsletter (pdf), Talbot makes a strong case that in Chicagoland with it’s seven counties and 248 communities and where planners are projecting a population surge of over 25% by the year 2040, a more-local food system can help create jobs, support the local economy, and ensure that everyone has access to quality food.

These connections to more traditional indicators of stability and growth are important reasons why food systems should indeed be part of these larger planning efforts. We wrote about CMAP earlier this summer when we covered how foundations were partnering with local government to address poverty in the suburbs. CMAP is addressing allocation of new human services resources in the city, another area not traditionally within the scope of city planners.

Talbot says food can help reinvest important dollars in local communities that have historically been spent elsewhere. Illinois residents spend $48 billion a year on fresh, prepared, and processed food, yet almost all of these dollars ($46 billion) are spent on imported food, outside the state.  Yet there’s evidence that even a relatively small investment in local food production could go a long way. A report on “Local Food, Farms and Jobs: Growing the Illinois Economy” (pdf) found that a 20% increase in food production, processing, and purchasing could generate $20 billion to $30 billion in economic activity for the entire state.

CMAP found that in Illinois less than 1% of the region’s total harvested acres of farmland—and in Illinois there are a lot of acres of farmland– are producing food directly for consumption. And while admitting reforming the global food system is beyond the scope of their plan, Talbot says that asking to increase the amount of food that is produced and consumed locally by small amounts should be a reachable goal for Chicagoland and one that can make a difference.

Talbot says keeping some of these dollars in the state can generate jobs. And she argues a more local, sustainable food system can preserve needed farmland, increase property values by using previously vacant land, build community and regional identity, and help the environment.

But reform, she points out, has to be about more than just growing the food to be successful. Plans must also focus on access. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 23.5 million Americans live in “food deserts” — urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Food deserts are also common in low-income urban neighborhoods, which often suffer disproportionate impacts from lack of investment and poor land use planning. Residents of these communities must rely on the local corner store or fast food restaurants, where fresh produce is often nonexistent or expensive. .

The report outlines three implementation action areas each with recommendations for policymakers:

•            Facilitating sustainable local food production and processing.

•            Increasing access to safe, fresh, nutritious, and affordable foods.

•            Raising awareness by providing data, research, training, and information.

Their recommendations support existing efforts in Illinois to support urban agriculture by updating zoning codes to include community gardens, commercial gardens, and greenhouses and encouraging state agencies and schools with incentives to buy local food.

But one of the most powerful policy initiatives they recommend is a fresh food financing initiative that uses state funding to spur private development of supermarkets in low-income areas and food deserts. As part of her anti-obesity efforts, Michelle Obama recently announced new financing to work with several national and regional food retailers (Wal-Mart, Walgreens, and SuperValu) to expand into a string of supermarkets in low-income areas.

Here in California where I live, the fertile central valley is known as the “greatest garden in the world,” yet nearly 1 million Californians live in food deserts. The California FreshWorks Fund (CAFWF) is a new public-private partnership loan fund to bring grocery stores to communities that lack them.  These efforts are modeled after the successful Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative, which has “turned an initial state investment of $30 million into projects that have increased food access for 400,000 people and created or retained 5000 jobs.”

As comprehensive planning efforts cross traditional boundaries — both city borders and the planner’s traditional scope of work —  coordinating with those working on food access and security will serve all of our communities.

And there are some advocates who argue we need to be looking way beyond grocery stores for meeting the healthy food needs for our regions. In a new book on the food system, Oran Hesterman of the Fair Food Network says we need a redesigned food system centered around equity and diversity while keeping in mind ecological integrity and economic viability.

It’s a tall order for sure. And a passage in a book on the history of Chicago and the enduring nature of the commodity crops of corn and soybeans, sheds light on what an uphill struggle this may be.

In 1893, seeing a ripe opportunity for commerce, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched a PR campaign to overcome the prejudice against corn as food for humans. The Chicago Board of Trade heartily concurred (for good reason, with 255 million bushels of grain coming through Chicago and trading on the floors of the Exchange). The endorsement of corn as food soon spread worldwide. As the Board of Trade’s then secretary, George F. Stone was quoted, corn would benefit the Midwest and “confer a valuable boon upon the peoples of the old world, in giving them a highly nutritious food at economical prices.” And it did. But it also set in motion a dominance that prevails today—a dominance and low cost that sustainable food must match if it is to make a dent.

Photo by Keith Cooper

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