Greening the Urban Food Desert

When it comes to food, America’s cities enjoy precarious abundance. We take for granted the remarkable system that allows us close proximity to chilled and gleaming shelves, loaded with apricots from Spain, avocados from Mexico, cheese from France, wine from South Africa, chocolate from Belgium, fish that was originally farmed and frozen somewhere in China; pretty much any food we can imagine, from anywhere in the world. By the billions, trucks, trains, ships and planes traverse land, sea and air to bring us a cornucopia of plenty unprecedented in history.

While California is by massive margins a net food exporter, even within the state a gigantic distribution machine is required. Just feeding the 7 million residents of the San Francisco Bay Area requires transporting up to 3 million tons of food per day.

For all its well oiled, atomized and market driven efficiency, the machine isn’t perfect. If the geography of food availability were viewed as a biosphere, most of America’s cities would be lush forests. But in a phenomenon almost perfectly correlated with income, huge swaths of the urban landscape would be what has become characterized as a food desert. Defined as any “area with no ready access to a store with fresh and nutritious food options within one mile,” an estimated 23 million people live in food deserts, and about half of these food deserts are in the heart of America’s biggest cities.

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to determine the consequences of this desertification. Low income households can’t afford fresh organic fruits and vegetables, or grass fed beef and free range antibiotic-free chicken. Often working two jobs and raising children in single parent households, these residents not only don’t have enough money to buy healthy food, they also don’t have the time to travel across town to the nearest supermarket that may be several miles away. A healthy choice is not an option.

Instead they walk to the corner store, where in between the racks of cheap liquor, box wine, and 40 ounce cans of Colt 45, for around $5.00 (much less in a supermarket) they can pick up a 14 ounce can of Chef Boyardee Spaghetti and Meatballs. Get a load of some of the ingredients: Wheat Gluten, Glyceryl Monostearate, Mechanically Separated Chicken, Bleached Wheat Flour, Thiamine Mononitrate, Soy Protein Concentrate, Caramel Color, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Hydrolyzed Corn Gluten, Soy Protein And Wheat Gluten, Ammonium Chloride, Enzyme Modified Cheese, Sodium Phosphate, Soybean Oil. Etc. Yum.

Or, better yet, food desert dwellers buy what we affectionately refer to as “fast food.” Some people call it “junk food.” Both terms are accurate. But boy does it taste good. And it’s cheap.

Imagine that an extraterrestrial, first time visitor to our planet, a humanoid with a physiology and culinary instincts identical to our own and no preconceived biases or preliminary briefings, upon arrival is offered two very distinct meals. The first, a wild caught Halibut, grilled and served with long grain rice and perfectly blanched baby green beans. The second, a MacDonald’s Big Mac, straight from the warming bin, accompanied by a bag of hot and salty, crispy, greasy french fries. Will anyone bet which meal would elicit the most enthusiastic response?

If someone like this, entirely unfamiliar with healthy food, or, for that matter, haute cuisine, traveled to an American city on a mission to identify the finest, tastiest food, they might well render unsettling judgments. Such is the nature of the so-called food swamp, urban spaces where food of all kinds, healthy and unhealthy, fast-food and food requiring preparation, processed food and unprocessed raw vegetables and fruit, is all widely available. But what costs more? The center cut of a wild Halibut filet, or a Big Mac Meal? Clue: If the menu item has the term “AQ” or “market price,” next to the Halibut special, it won’t be a hit with the natives. Equally germane, what tastes better?

It’s easy enough to claim a refined palette, and decry the gauche, insidious, shallow, vapid, cloying vulgarity of fast food flavors, but perhaps one doth protest too much. Who among us, when we’re being honest with ourselves, does not appreciate the slick, lubricious mouthfeel of a sizzling cheeseburger, dripping with saturated fat? In the real world, making the healthy choice is often an acquired taste, from which all but the strongest among us occasionally relapse.

Hence the emphasis on nutritional education. According to the National Institute of Health,
“government programs and community interventions have shown promise through creating supermarkets, farmers’ markets, and community gardens, but health literacy and behavior modification related to meal choices are just as essential.” Despite efforts spanning decades, not all inner-city areas have such programs in place. It’s not easy. Choosing between a pepperoni pizza and a bowl of tofu and quinoa can be a struggle even among people who are hyper-literate regarding food choices. And while the eventual afflictions of gout, stroke, reflux, diabetes, and cancer can motivate any rational person to eat wisely, it’s also very easy to convince oneself that one more slice can’t hurt. Millions of Americans will engage in that reasoning every day for forty years, or until they’re struck down, whichever comes first.

But nonetheless, even if there are enlightened consumers who live in a food swamp, fortified with sufficient willpower to consistently reject sweets, grease, and problematic chemical additives, can they afford to eat the good stuff? Maybe. Frozen food, which will keep indefinitely and can often include minimally processed ingredients, is surprisingly affordable. Target, for example, sells several relatively healthy frozen entrees. They offer “Carbon Neutral” Butternut Squash and Sage Ravioli, 310 calories, for $4.29. Pesto Tortellini “made with organic wheat and basil,” 530 calories, for $5.89, “Plant-Based” Frozen Mandarin Orange Crispy Chick’n, 520 calories, for $4.99, and Vegan Frozen Natural Foods General Tso’s Tofu, 370 calories, also for $4.99.

One may argue these are not entirely healthy choices. But how affordable is affordable? MacDonalds may no longer have items for one dollar on their “Dollar Menu,” but they still offer their McChicken Sandwich, packing 400 calories, for $1.99. On Fridays, or “Fry Days,” they’ll throw in a medium order of fries for free. Ditto for the “McDouble,” formerly known as the Double Cheeseburger, which will sluice another 400 savory calories into your gut for a mere $2.59. What are you going to eat, when time is short and money is shorter? General Tso’s Tofu, or, for half as much money, a McDouble?

And then again, what the corporation giveth, the corporation taketh away. In September 2023 Target announced the closure of nine locations in New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, citing theft, and saying “its business had been hurt and the safety of employees and customers was at risk.” Government incentives can mitigate, to a point, financial risk. But if the neighborhood around a large retailer is mobbed with stupefied addicts, methamphetamine addled psychopaths, if feces and syringes litter the sidewalk, and unpredictable and traumatic events repeatedly occur where terrifying smash and grab gangs brazenly steal merchandise, customers will stay away and employees will quit. Before a food desert can be irrigated, the locusts must be brought under control. Order must be restored.

Another way to deliver healthy food in America’s inner cities is to grow it on site, and in an intriguing twist, some of the urban gardens springing up are leaning into the street culture and thrive under an apparent truce. In South Central Los Angeles, a self-described rebel by the name of Ron Finley, dubbed the “Gangster Gardener,” has transformed vacant lots in his neighborhood into community gardens. Finley, and the beneficiaries of his efforts, no longer have to “drive 45 minutes just to get a fresh tomato.”

In Oakland, Miguel Altieri, an Agroecology professor at UC Berkeley, has analyzed the potential in that city to green its food desert through urban farming. He determined that “Oakland has 1,200 acres of undeveloped open space – mostly public parcels of arable land – which, if used for urban agriculture, could produce 5 to 10 percent of the city’s vegetable needs. This potential yield could be dramatically enhanced if, for example, local urban farmers were trained to use well-tested agroecological methods that are widely applied in Cuba to cultivate diverse vegetables, roots, tubers and herbs in relatively small spaces.”

Around the U.S. similar research and projects are transforming vacant urban land into farms. A 2011 study of urban farming potential in Cleveland found that if 80% of every vacant lot were converted to agricultural use, it would “generate between 22% and 48% of Cleveland’s demand for fresh produce (vegetables and fruits) depending on the vegetable production practice used (conventional gardening, intensive gardening, or hydroponics), 25% of both poultry and shell eggs.”

There’s plenty of places where this could work. Consider suburban Detroit, a city where in just a few decades the population has dropped from nearly two million to less than 700,000. A city where decaying roads now bend past groves of cottonwood, oak and silver maple, where deer and jack rabbits now forage in tall grass. Until you pass a burned out ruin of a home, not yet removed, obscured by greenery, it is difficult to imagine that these neighborhoods once were filled with homes, set 35 feet apart and carpeting the land for mile after mile. Why not farm this land?

When considering the sustainability options for inner cities that confront what has been referred to as an economic doom loop, as they are hollowed out by COVID, crime, remote work, and in some cases, overpriced and unaffordable real estate, urban agriculture is a fascinating opportunity. If urban gardens grow on vacant land in cities that are restructuring economically and decentralizing geographically, greening the food desert is an apt metaphor, but it also is a welcome aesthetic reality. Along with the warm embrace of new buildings constructed using cross-laminated timber instead of concrete, troubled urban cores and the surrounding neighborhoods can become inviting spaces. With the potential for indoor agriculture to utilize urban structures that are no longer viable as commercial office space, it is possible that urban food deserts can indeed turn green.

An edited version of this article was published by the Pacific Research Institute.

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