A new report by PolicyLink, Michigan State University, and the Fair Food Network, Healthy Food For All: Building Equitable and Sustainable Food Systems in Detroit and Oakland, documents the inadequate food systems of Detroit and Oakland and proposes a series of policy recommendations to improve food access. The study was based on focus groups, interviews with food system experts, and scans of the activities underway and organizations in place to build more sustainable food systems in both communities.
The findings of the report will be familiar to those who have been active in food planning and policy. The focus group participants were well aware of the need for healthy food, what a healthy diet consists of, and cooked most of their meals at home. However, they were stymied in their efforts to eat healthy food by the dearth of retailers selling such food in their communities. The residents who participated in the focus groups were eager to have greater food access, preferably through the availability of established grocers in their neighborhoods, whereas advocates were interested in developing a range of food distribution methods, from CSAs to farmers markets. Detroit and Oakland have networks of food system activists, yet financial support remains a formidable obstacle to scaling up the innovative, successful models of food production and distribution being developed in both cities.
The report concludes with five specific policy recommendations that the authors suggest will lead to improved food access and more equitable food systems:
• Policymakers (e.g., City Councilors and administrative agencies) should participate in existing community based food system organizations to implement recommendations that emerge from these groups. In cities in which no such organization exists, the report suggests that policymakers should establish them.
• State and local governments should replicate programs that provide financing and other financial incentives to food retailers, such as Pennsylvania’s Fresh Food Financing Initiative and New York’s Healthy Food/Healthy Communities Initiative.
• Policy makers should focus on developing better transportation services to enable residents to travel to quality food retailers.
• Agencies that are not explicitly involved in food production or distribution but which affect the overall food system, from city planning departments to housing and economic development agencies, should work together to improve food access through the policies and programs they control.
• Food policy councils should be nurtured to foster policy coordination among those agencies and sectors that might not otherwise work together to address problems in the food system.
While Healthy Food For All does not break ground by proposing new policy measures to improve urban food access, it does provide additional evidence that coordinated policymaking, involving disparate agencies and effective citizen participation, is essential for improving food access and equity. The report makes a cogent argument for engaging urban planners and planning agencies in the effort to build equitable and sustainable food systems.