Healthy urban food systems seeking committed local leaders

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In celebration of Earth Day, Grist magazine highlighted 40 people working to “redefine green” in their communities. The list contains a diverse range of entrepreneurs, community activists, scientists, and venture capitalists yet what is perhaps most striking is that a third of the people featured are “altering the green landscape” through food. One of these individuals even ran for and was elected to public office to expand access to urban agriculture in the Town of Carrboro, NC.

Issues of food access and quality have been receiving a lot of attention in the past few years, and more recently have been bolstered by First Lady Michelle Obama’s focus on ending childhood obesity and reality shows like Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. This burgeoning interest in locally produced food has already expanded beyond community gardens and farmers markets to include urban livestock. Chickens, bees, even goats have been making their urban debut in a small but growing number of cities.

With this growing interest in healthy, fresh, and locally produced foods, there is a clear opportunity – in fact a great need – for local leaders to become more actively involved in community food systems. It is curious however, as the American Planning Association has pointed out, given the level of government intervention in other basic needs (i.e. housing, public safety, education) and role in ensuring quality and access to clean air, water, and soil – that a similar priority has not yet been given to the safety and availability of healthy foods.

Even though community food systems directly contribute to issues important to cities, such as public health, community and economic development, food security, and environmental integrity, it is an area that has largely fallen to community advocacy groups, concerned individuals, and small businesses to support and maintain. And while the commitment and vision of community members can have a transformative impact, rarely is a local food movement able to thrive without the involvement and support of the elected leaders who can remove barriers and increase opportunities particularly in regards to production and distribution.

Certainly there is not a dearth of local leadership: Cities such as Cleveland, Boston, and Escondido, CA have facilitated the creation and expansion of urban agriculture by amending zoning codes, creating policy, providing incentives, or adopting ordinances favoring this type of land use. Many other cities have begun to sponsor local farmers markets and some are even targeting small business development programs to support local food entrepreneurs. Few however have formally incorporated a commitment to food access, quality, or security into their long-term planning.

In addition to local benefits, food systems present an excellent opportunity for regional collaboration and appear to be capturing the attention of investors. Urban agriculture has been discussed as a possible revitalization strategy in shrinking cities such as Detroit, and is being floated as the next “green” frontier among venture capitalists in Silicon Valley. While the prospect of mass-produced urban agriculture currently raises more questions than answers, it seems likely that the cities with experience in local food systems will have an added advantage in this potential new marketplace.

As cities’ commitment to sustainability continues to grow so too will the need for leadership surrounding community food systems. While some cities have gotten an early lead, there is still much work to be done and endless opportunities for cities to alter their own green landscape.