Why Plan Our Food System: What Urban Planners Say about It

A Planners’ Guide to Community and Regional Food Planning: Transforming Food Environments Building Healthy Communities –

A Seminar by Dr Samina Raja

Written by Szilvia Hosser-Cox

April 24, 2009, University of Minnesota – How do we build healthy, livable communities with sustainable and just food systems if urban planners are not recognizing food as a planning criterion? Dr Raja is actively involved in working on this particular hindrance. In her seminar at the University of Minnesota she emphasized the disconnectedness of production, processing, distribution, consumption and its strong implications to our broken food system. Technology and modernism – she says – removed us from getting engaged with our food system. Moreover, the way our food system is organized at a governmental level creates additional challenges: Dr Raja humorously describes the kind of blank faces she received when coming to this country from native India and inquiring which public agency is responsible for food. There is a Ministry of Agriculture, but where is the Ministry of Food?Dr. Raja is points to the faults of the power structure as well: the control of the distribution is in the hands of just a few.

Historically food was somewhat addressed within the field of urban planning. However, the concerns were not about the disconnectedness of the system, rather the focus was on food safety and food distribution issues within a metropolitan area. The solution to these problems was ultimately counterproductive: markets were moved out of the city due to the perceived health risks eventually disconnecting people from their food entirely. Dr Raja believes that Urban Planning needs to recognize the role it can take in the organization of the food in the community. According to Raja’s survey conducted in 2007-08 among Urban Planners, 70 percent agreed that they should be involved in the community planning system, yet only 30 percent could wholeheartedly say that they are involved. There are good recent advancements: the APA (American Planning Association) issued a food policy guide for planners in 2006 and in 2008 called a Policy Guide on Community and Regional Food Planning (available from http://www.planning.org/policy/guides/adopted/food.htm).

Dr. Raja also talked about a study she conducted in Erie County, NY concerning the racial disparities in neighborhood retail food environment. This research showed that although there is enough available food in racially diverse neighborhoods, what is available does shows a discrepancy. 71 percent of places that carry food in those neighborhoods are restaurants (the term restaurants is referred to everything that can be considered “eating out”, including fast food outlets). Black neighborhoods have only half the number of markets that carry fresh produce than white neighborhoods, 1.15 times more grocery stores and 1.37 times more convenient stores. The inequality comes from the fact that 60 percent of the people in black neighborhoods do not own a car and therefore can only eat what is available in these stores in their close vicinity. Another important question focuses on types of food available in poor, minority neighborhoods. Fresh produce is mainly available in supermarkets, less so in grocery stores (i.e. small mom & pop stores), and a very low amount of fresh food is part the offering of convenience stores. Furthermore, prices are higher in convenience stores and grocery stores. Thus, not only is there less fresh produce available in poor neighborhoods, the overall cost of food is higher.

As part of the solution, Raja emphasizes the important role of education and the need for a multi-disciplinary engagement concerning the issue. She is highly involved in connecting people with different disciplines and educating kids by teaching them about a healthy diet and how to grow their own food. As a positive note Dr Raja mentioned some good examples. In Madison, Cleveland and Seattle city planners seem to be starting to realize the importance that food should be an important part of the comprehensive plans. These good examples need to be replicated around the country to reconnect us with our food and relearn what was part of our lives for thousand years.

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