How we talk about food system “problems”

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A final, reflective post from Global Food Fellow, Austin Bryniarski, Yale College ’16. The Yale Sustainable Food Project’s Global Food Fellows Program funds students who have proposed an innovative research topic or internship, pursuing ideas that could overturn the ecological, social, and economic deficiencies of today’s predominant food system.

How we talk about problems with the food system — or anything, for that matter — often color the way in which we go about trying to solve them.

Food security is no exception. It’s an issue that’s hard to define, since there are a slew of issues that people who are food insecure face, and they can’t be reduced to one. One resident of a food desert might not own a car, and thus might not be able to physically get staple foods. Another might have the ability to walk into a grocery store or shop, but not the time or money to make the purchase. There are so many reasons that contribute to the outcome of low food access. Here’s how the USDA defines a food desert:

…urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options. The lack of access contributes to a poor diet and can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.

Here, the solution seems simple. Build more grocery stores and make it easier to access food. But if you build it, will they come? Not necessarily. Researchers are finding that simply supplying food is not going to change eating behavior, and that more interventions must be taken not only increase the supply of healthier foods, but demand as well.

These are the ideas I was wrestling with this summer as I worked on a report about healthy corner store initiatives. Healthy corner store initiatives across the country seek in increase access to healthy foods by providing storeowners incentives to stock them. That might look like a grant check to pay for a new refrigeration system, or marketing materials to display in a corner store. Some cities have paired their programs with policies that would mandate the stocking of healthier foods by requiring that stores meet certain healthy food standards if they want a grocery license. Some cities have amended their zoning laws to make it easier for developers to include supermarkets and small grocery stores in areas near residential areas. Policymakers use land use law and municipal codes to their advantage when they want to create a healthier food environment.

How, then, can a program increase consumption of healthy foods in addition to increasing the supply? This is where an intervention becomes more involved; if a city changes the laws and policies to set the scene for a healthy corner store initiative, how well those laws are executed depends on program implementation. After all, what good is a zoning law that allows for sidewalk displays of fruits and vegetables if storeowners are ill equipped or unsure of how to market their wares in such a way? Storeowners can also increase the amount of produce people purchase through programs that match a customer’s entitlement dollars up to a certain amount so that he or she can spend twice the amount of money on healthy staple foods. Unfortunately, due to the most recent farm bill, it is harder for municipalities to equip businesses with Electronic Benefits Transfer machinery, but government agencies can serve as hubs for storeowners to gain information and resources when converting to stock healthier options.

Our original definition of “food desert,” then, is incomplete. Food deserts are measured by their proximity to supermarkets, which are an important part of the food access picture, but still make the metric with which the USDA is measuring food deserts incomplete. Craftier ways of supplying food – like improving the infrastructure of existing corner stores to serve a similar means – are becoming more and more prevalent alongside supermarkets in the way city planners are going about tackling problems of food access. What’s less clear is whether these interventions are having the intended public health effect of decreasing rates of obesity and related diseases, but the fact that programs like healthy corner store initiatives foster a more equitable distribution of healthy food is a promising first step. What we need now are better metrics and ways of talking about the problem of poor food access that can more carefully evaluate and account for whether the solutions are working.

Austin Bryniarski ’16 is a senior in Calhoun College majoring in Environmental Studies. This year he’s spearheading a joint position between the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy and the Yale Sustainable Food Program, and is working with Yale Law students to found a society for food law at Yale. 

Read more by Austin:

Yale Herald Archives

Yale Daily News

Read more:
Americans spent $18.8 million in food stamps at farmers markets last year

Original Source: YSFP Tumblr, Oct. 13, 2014, “A final reflective post from global food fellow” >>