National Food Policy Fails, But These Cities Show the Way Forward

Published Jan 12, 2015

WASHINGTON (January 13, 2015)—Research has found that low-income communities and communities of color have less access to healthy food and less equitable local food systems, forcing residents to rely on convenience stores and fast food restaurants rather than grocery stores and farmer’s markets. These populations also have higher rates of diet-related diseases, such as obesity and type II diabetes. Not only do national policies undermine health in poor communities, but they also fail to offer opportunities for much-needed jobs and entrepreneurship.   

In a new report, “Fixing Food: Fresh Solutions from Five U.S. Cities,” the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) looks at how local governments and community groups are working to make affordable, healthy food available to more people and empower them to build better food systems.

“Access to healthy food matters, and it can matter more for certain populations,” said Dr. Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, food systems and health analyst at UCS and lead author of the report. “People can’t make healthy choices if those choices aren’t available in their neighborhoods. And when you can’t get high quality, healthy food, it increases the risk for diet-related diseases, as well as high health care costs for people who can least afford it.”

The report looks at initiatives, led by local governments and non-profit groups, in Baltimore, Louisville, Memphis, Minneapolis and Oakland. The cities are large and diverse, with higher poverty rates than the nation as a whole, but local leaders have found innovative, community-driven ways to give struggling residents more access to affordable, nutritious food.

The initiatives span the food supply chain:

  • Oakland’s Food Policy Council is improving zoning laws to allow more urban agriculture.
  • A nonprofit farming initiative in Memphis, Roots Memphis, started a program called Farm Academy to train new farmers to grow organic produce, start their own farming businesses, and get their crops to local markets.
  • New Roots, a Louisville nonprofit, supports a network of Fresh Stops Markets in West Louisville and beyond that enable residents to pool resources, including food assistance benefits, to buy local, seasonal food directly from farmers.
  • The Baltimore City Health Department has launched a “virtual supermarket” program, using libraries, churches and other community centers to deliver food in neighborhoods that have historically lacked grocery stores.
  • The Department of Health and Family Support in Minneapolis has instituted a Healthy Corner Store program to help stores in low-income areas sell more high quality fruits and vegetables.

“Our national food system is broken, thanks to outdated policies that make it cheaper and easier for people to eat corn-based junk food than healthy fruits and vegetables,” said Dr. Ricardo Salvador, senior scientist and director of the Food and Environment program at UCS. “National food policies too often work against public health and that puts the burden on local communities to make sure everyone has access to affordable, healthy food and a food system that gives them real opportunity. The cities in this report are rising to the challenge with innovative programs but they can’t be a substitute for better policies at the national level—and local leaders shouldn’t have to undo the damage done by national policies.

“We need to learn from these cities,” said Salvador. “They’re correcting the failings in our food system, and the values that guide these programs should shape our national policies. That’s why we’ve launched a campaign, Plate of the Union, to overhaul our national policies to make our food system healthier and fairer.”