All good in the food: improving access to nutrition in cities

By Francesca Perry

The part food plays in the urban system, and how food can shape cities, has been the focus of much discussion – see Hungry City for an illuminating read, one which ends by asking ‘how we might use food to re-think cities in the future – to design them and their hinterlands better, and live in them better too’.

Recently we have seen problems like ‘food deserts’ emerge – places where access to healthy food is limited – as well as creative and financial initiatives to combat them, from mobile grocery trucks and targeted grants to a large and growing urban agriculture movement.

Food deserts are somewhat of an American phenomenon – the US Dept of Agriculture has even created a ‘Food Desert Locator’. Despite the ongoing debate that it is a problematic and US-specific term, it’s plain to see that in many places, lack of access or proximity to fresh and healthy food is taking its toll on the diets and lifestyles of citizens: some argue that lack of healthy food access correlates with high rates of obesity and diabetes.

Efforts to relieve this problem – to fill the so-called ‘grocery gap’ – are emerging in the US. David Bornstein discussed an array of them, including New York City’s Green Cart initiative, which secures permits for hundreds of street vendors who can sell only raw fruits and vegetables in areas of the city that have been designated as in need of them. As the article explains, ‘the idea is to harness the enterprise of small-business people to mitigate a social problem in a sustainable way’.

The self-perpetuating cycle of food deserts caused by lack of supermarkets, and supermarkets unwilling to open in food deserts – due often to problematic financial security and complicated regulations – was assessed in a recent project I helped on called ‘Funky Fresh‘, a collaboration between NYC high school students and a wonderful organisation called the Center for Urban Pedagogy.

The project investigated supermarket provision in New York City, asking who gets them and who doesn’t, and why – culminating in the production of an accessible booklet teaching others about urban supermarket access and strategies to improve this. In order to break the cycle, it often relies on imaginative grants and initiatives such as Healthy Bodegas Initiative, the Healthy Corner Store Initiative, and Obama’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI), which itself supports projects that increase access to healthy, affordable food in communities that currently lack it.

Another solution to the ‘grocery gap’ can be found in the form of mobile grocery stores, a new way of improving access to healthy food in the city. Freshmobile, literally a mini supermarket in a trailer in Wisconsin, started earlier this year, aimed at bringing more fruit and vegetables to communities with limited access to them. Fresh Moves, a Chicago non-profit which launched a mini grocery store on a donated city bus, currently serves Chicago’s West Side neighbourhoods. Its website explains how such ideas take seed: ‘national chains have difficulty finding large parcels of affordable urban land to support their high costs of operation, independents can’t gamble on unproven locations…the answer? Put the whole thing on wheels!’

Mobile provision seems to be the wisest choice in cities , as demonstrated by the Green Cart Intitiative as well as these vehicular grocery stores. Whilst the concept of farmers markets in cities is brought up in Bornstein’s article as another way of achieving this, it’s hard to think of any in London that are truly affordable: where I live, we’re all more likely to  go to Ridley Road market than Hackney Homemade to buy groceries. But then again, Hackney is far from a food desert.

Though that term has not been applied to places in the UK, through my work I have identified subtler forms of ‘food deserts’, even in central London. The community of Waterloo particularly have voiced the lack of affordable and healthy food, expressing the need for ‘something between Greggs and the posh deli’. Many mums indeed do shop at Iceland – because it’s the cheapest. But surely there should be affordable groceries that aren’t frozen? It’s not just about grocery stores though. Young people want affordable eateries that aren’t McDonalds. And Jamie Oliver might have taught us that the real food deserts are sometimes found in schools.

TV chefs aside, it seems that initiatives such as the Empty Shops Network could be the most appropriate ways to get both healthy food shops and affordable start-up eateries (don’t make me say pop-up) into those neighbourhoods that might need it. Though it might not be a perfect solution, as far as struggling high streets are concerned, temporary is better than totally empty.

A highly sustainable and forward-looking way to expand on healthy food provision in urban areas is, of course, urban agriculture. This is a widespread and developing movement. You only have to think for a second about food miles to know that growing food in our own cities is the best move. Allotments are a well established feature for many communities, but new creative initiatives see the access to this urban produce expand: I have a great local example, FARM:shop (and their affiliated FARM: urban network). This brings agriculture and sustainable, healthy food-growing to an urban context, whilst also making a community hub.

Going back to Hackney, I did my research and found that Growing Communities do some pretty good things – they have set up urban market gardens, where they grow produce for sale through an organic fruit and vegetable box scheme. The urban growing sites also provide training for apprentice growers and volunteers. All their projects embody the organisation’s aim of creating ‘a more sustainable, re-localised food system’.

Other creative interventions in London have promoted urban food production in collaborative ways: Somewhere’s ‘What Will The Harvest Be?’ (2009) revived Abbey Gardens, a neglected piece of land in Newham, London, into an accessible Harvest Garden for the community.

The film “Edible City“, which documents the popular urban farming movement in the San Francisco Bay Area, explains how urban farming addresses significant urban problems such as food scarcity and obesity; how it is a revolutionary model ‘for a healthy, sustainable local food system that’s socially just, environmentally sound, and economically resilient’. Urban farming certainly thrives across America, especially in Detroit – where numerous initiatives including the project for the largest urban farm in the world are making productive use of derelict land – and New York, home to more than 700 food-producing farms and gardens. In July this year, the Design Trust for Public Space, an organisation dedicated to improving New York’s public spaces, released Five Borough Farm: Seeding the Future of Urban Agriculture in New York, a detailed survey of New York City’s urban agriculture movement which acts as a guide to expanding urban agriculture citywide.

Such a positive and sustainable solution to healthy food access in cities does not come without its problems, but it’s obvious that encouraging urban food production is necessary as well as beneficial. Cities grow larger by the day and desperately need to be more self-sufficient. In fact I need to get myself an allotment – now.

So, going back to Carolyn Steel’s question of how we might use food to re-think cities and live in them better, it seems clear that to promote sustainable urban food production and support other initiatives bringing healthy food to all neighbourhoods is a good first step. Beyond this, however, there is also the role food can play in bringing life to urban public spaces, into the grain of the city itself. Food is not just about access – it is also about consumption. Street food maximises the former in exciting ways to enrich the latter.

Expanding on the urban idea of mobile provision of good food, so well demonstrated by initiatives mentioned above, street food represents a creative way to bring life and activity into public space as well as bring fresh and diverse independent food to people in a mutually beneficial situation: supporting start-up food traders, and offering high quality healthy food for decent prices. Like everything else, it can suffer from complicated and restrictive legislation. But in the UK, it is kicking off more than ever now, thanks in large part to my friends behind KERB, who are really pushing things forward.


So, support the street food traders and eat yourself silly (healthily, of course), become an urban farmer, put a supermarket on a bus – these are all great ways to allow food to shape our cities for the better. But in terms of access, you probably have a supermarket round the corner. The problem is, not everyone shares the same corner.


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