Sunday, October 28, 2018

Access to food - Justice in the city

Community gardens in New York public housing - responding to food deserts

by Mateja Mihinjac

When a neighborhood team at our recent SafeGrowth workshop decided to tackle the issue of food access, the topic sparked my interest. As they uncovered the links between food access and food deserts, the conversation quickly shifted toward injustice and social disadvantage and what could be done about it.


It isn’t that municipalities ignore food access. Decision makers have been attempting to address the issues of food deserts and food swamps by introducing new supermarkets into needy neighborhoods. However, simply installing a new supermarket in a deprived neighborhood will not solve inequality. Food access has historic roots in structural racism, segregation and concentration of poverty in pockets around cities, not surprisingly the same neighborhoods where crime flourishes. These are the sparks that ignited the food justice movement.

Detroit church replacing parking lots with gardens 

Activist and community leader Karen Washington talks about food apartheid in African American neighborhoods as a symbol of the inequality that has led to numerous social problems and limited access to affordable and nutritious foods.

The consequences manifest in reduced levels of both physiological and psychological health, so frequently prevalent among the socially disadvantaged. Many of these disadvantaged neighborhoods also suffer from disproportionately high levels of crime and weak social cohesion.


There are well-established correlations between violent crime and socio-economic inequality. For example, research from New York City shows that neighborhoods in the city with the lowest median household income have the highest numbers of food deserts. Unsurprisingly, these neighborhoods persistently suffer from higher levels of crime than other more affluent neighborhoods.

Ottawa apartment towers overlook new public gardens

To the residents on the ground the consequences are dire. As they navigate through high-risk streets – for example, when they get groceries – they are vulnerable to crime. The elderly, especially, are fearful of gang violence simply by walking or using public transportation. To worsen their fears, when they travel to outside neighborhoods they tend to experience discriminatory attitudes and harassment.

As a result, residents end up spending their meager earnings by having groceries delivered despite the additional expense. Too often they must rely on cheaper processed (and less healthy) food options near their neighborhood.

Rooftop gardens in New York - using all available space  

New shop owners are also less likely to invest in these food inaccessible neighborhoods because they don’t consider it economically viable. Not only must they factor the reduced buying power of residents, but they must balance their resources with safety risks and the effects of fear from crime. All too often, these factors do not pass the cost-benefit test of food corporations, thus leaving too many city residents out of the equity equation.

Next blog: Some solutions for a lasting change.