In Baltimore and Washington, D.C., fresh thinking about food

Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh helps with the planting at an urban agriculture event in March. Baltimore is at the forefront of a global movement toward more holistic urban food policy planning. (Mark L. Dennis/Baltimore Mayor's office)

BALTIMORE — How does a city recoup from food emergencies — cutoffs of normal supply triggered by storms, droughts or civil unrest? How does it assure an ongoing supply of healthy and fresh foods, especially for low-income neighbourhoods?

A report released in Baltimore this month takes a fresh look at the issue. It examines threats to Baltimore’s food supply and suggests responses to emergencies, from heavy snowstorms to terrorism, that can easily strangle the flow of food into the city.

Among the recommendations of the report from the Johns Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future is to create neighbourhood centres to store food and serve residents in times of crisis.

It’s not the first time Baltimore has wrestled with the issue. In 2015, this U. S. city experienced a serious food disruption following riots sparked by the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year old black man who was in police custody. Dozens of food stores were looted and barricaded. The city government ordered supermarkets to shut down early. Schools were closed, causing thousands of students who receive subsidized meals to miss them.

The consequences of such events can be serious. In the words of Sarah Buzogany, a Baltimore food access planner: “It doesn’t take a lot to push a family over the edge from hanging in there to food insecurity.”

Baltimore has, however, become a leading U. S. city in taking issues of food access and quality seriously. A city task force recommended, in 2009, not just formulation of a clear city plan for food access but also appointment of a full-time director of food policy within the city government. That person is Holly Freishtat, who now has colleagues in nearly two dozen other U. S. cities, including New York City, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Salt Lake City, that also have hired full-time food-policy directors.

“Food is not in an issue of just one agency,” Freishtat says. “It must be advisory in a city government … to impact offices ranging from planning to sustainability, transportation to ageing.  Name any one of them and there’s a food aspect.”  The danger, she says, is that “our positions tend to go when a mayor retires.”

Hers hasn’t. And Baltimore has continued a clear focus on the topic with a Food Policy Action Coalition that convenes bi-monthly meetings of 50 to 70 officials and community leaders to review city food policy planning and legislation. Awareness is bolstered by maps showing, for each city council district, areas of “food deserts” that lack access to full-service supermarkets and significant offerings of fresh foods. By late 2018, the city hopes to issue an updated disaster preparedness plan that includes community food storage and emergency communication plans.

In the meantime, Baltimore has revised its statutes to permit once-forbidden city agriculture — within limits, residents are allowed to raise bees, rabbits and chickens. The city is providing a 90-percent property-tax credit to city farmers who produce USD 5,000 of crops annually. And at “Real Food Farm”, an 8-acre (3-hectare) operation operated in a blighted neighbourhood by a nonprofit known as Civic Works, groups of students from local high schools and universities are welcomed for briefings on food systems, urban farming and food justice issues.

Global movement

Baltimore’s efforts are part of a global movement of cities working toward more equitable access to healthy foods. Since the 2015 World Expo on sustainable food in Milan, 148 cities have signed onto a set of goals known as the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact. The pact encourages cities to support food banks, peri-urban agriculture and family farmers. In 2016, Baltimore and Mexico City received top honours in inaugural Milan Pact Awards for their urban food policies — Baltimore for its full-time food coordinator and Mexico City for creating community dining rooms serving meals in areas with widespread hunger.

A longtime advocate and leader for effective, community-based food systems is Gus Schumacher, who was a high-level official at the U. S. Department of Agriculture from 1997 to 2001. Schumacher argues world cities are reaching an inflection point for resilient food system policies, with Baltimore and nearby Washington, D. C., emerging as key examples.

Gus Schumacher

Recently, Schumacher took me and my Citiscope colleague Farley Peters on tours of multiple sites in the U. S. capital region in which startup farm operations on the urban outskirts are connected with fresh vegetable and fruit markets in city neighbourhoods. Among them was Parkside, a low-income section of Washington that major grocery chains have historically ignored.

The nonprofit model, dubbed Community Foodworks, recruits people from the neighbourhoods to manage the fruit and vegetable stands. Now working at 15 locations across Washington, the model has been nicknamed the “Pop Up Food-Hub”.

Virtually all new farm stands in Community Foodworks’ network appear to be experiencing strong levels of consumer interest and sales. Low-income customers eligible to receive government assistance to buy food are able to use their benefits, dramatically reducing their cost for fresh produce.

[See: What a city in Spain learned from Sweden about promoting local food]

A number of the farmers supplying these markets are recent immigrants from Latin America who purchased modest farm sites a few hours’ drive from Washington. But now, prospering with their direct-to-consumer sales, several proudly tell stories of dramatically expanding their farm sites and operations.

A longer-term goal, Schumacher explains, is to set up little business stores — modeled on the “corner store” groceries of earlier times. They’d be located in varied city and suburban neighbourhoods that are now shunned by chain stores, with a top mission of buying their vegetables and fruits from farmers in the region.

Health impacts

Schumacher argues the U. S.— and the world — needs innovative urban food system policies now more than ever. A fast-growing share of the global population now lives in cities that are filling with millions of hungry residents. He says major shocks — such as Superstorm Sandy hitting New York City in 2012 — indicate a need for comprehensive city farm policies like Baltimore’s.

There are also major health implications, Schumacher insists. In many parts of the world, the challenge is a lack of agricultural production to feed growing populations, and to provide food security in the case of wars or extreme heat and drought. But in an advanced country like the U. S., the challenge is that a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables in diets has become a major contributor to chronic disease, including heart and kidney failure.

He cites the example of roughly 30,000 U. S. veterans who depend on dialysis to stay alive, at a cost to taxpayers of up to USD 100,000 per patient a year. A disturbingly high portion of U. S. and international agricultural research, Schumacher argues, focuses on such issues as increasing yields for such crops as corn and rice, but very little focuses on improving nutrition through vegetables and fruits.

[See: Lessons from five cities on local food policy]

Schumacher sees city food policies as one key toward healthier diets, reduced illness and health costs. It’s a cause with expanding international constituencies, including the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations and the Resource Center on Urban Agriculture and Food Foundation. The website Wholesome Wave reports it’s seeking to make fruits and vegetables affordable through a campaign to double the value of government food assistance when spent on fruits and vegetables. Another campaign works with doctors to literally prescribe produce as they would medicines.

The organization Food Tank has compiled a list of 12 organizations taking a lead in the push for urban agriculture worldwide, including examples in Bangkok, Budapest, Detroit, Kampala, Milan, Nairobi, São Paulo, St. Louis and Tel Aviv.  But the formula in each city is likely to be challenging.

In earlier years, mayors and city administrations rarely thought they had to deal with such issues as hunger, obesity, climate change, food deserts and urban agriculture.  But now that’s changing — and pioneer cities are showing how acute the issues, and opportunities for timely planning and action, truly are.

Baltimore food efforts touch many issue areas and engage a wide range of stakeholders. (Baltimore Food Policy Initiative)  
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Neal Peirce is the founder and editor-in-chief of Citiscope. Full bio

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