Cities Hire Food Systems Experts To Address Obesity, Food Access
August 22, 2016 | Rachel Cernansky | Civil Eats
Standing at the front of a dimly-lit room inside the National Western Stock Show, a sprawling complex on the north end of Denver, Blake Angelo, the city’s food systems development manager, invited a roundtable audience to speak up about the changes they want to see in their neighborhoods with regard to food. The room was filled with residents of nearby neighborhoods that are predominantly Hispanic, low-income, and where fresh food is hard to come by, and the opinions ranged from support for local entrepreneurs to rejecting big-box stores as the solution to their food desert problem.
Citywide, one in six people is food-insecure, but as in other cities, some communities face more acute challenges than others. Nearly half (49 percent) of the low- to moderate-income Denver neighborhoods lack convenient access to grocery stores. In the larger metro region, about five percent of the population is low-income and has little access to healthy food within a mile from home; in Elyria-Swansea, one of the nearby neighborhoods, that number jumps to 70 percent.
This particular meeting was part of Local Foods, Local Places, a national initiative, but Angelo, Denver’s first food systems manager, had held similar community “listening sessions” all through the spring in neighborhoods around the city. Community residents were invited to propose ways to bring more healthy food to their neighborhoods, and those ideas will eventually help shape the first-ever Denver Food Plan.
The plan is one of the first major milestones for Angelo’s office, and marks the first comprehensive effort undertaken by the city to study, and dedicate efforts to improve, the local food system.
“Cities have not always taken an active stance in really developing a robust food economy,” Angelo said in a small conference room in the Office of Economic Development, where his office is based. “It came out really clearly in a lot of our community discussions, that the city may be the only or certainly the best actor in creating an environment that supports the community’s vision for its food future.”
The very existence of Angelo’s position, created less than two years ago, also points to a national trend. A growing list of cities have established an office within local government dedicated to food, much like they have departments for transportation and education—if smaller in size.
Until recently, the many disparate elements of the food system—from production to land prices, to local distribution challenges, to zoning hurdles for retailers—have often been viewed in isolation. But as more of these positions appear, it may be a sign that cities are beginning to see food in a new holistic light.
The specifics of the food policy positions vary from city to city, with most focused on (and housed in the office of) sustainability or health, while others, as in Denver, are using food as a tool for economic development, and vice versa. The underlying force, though, is the same: Cities are recognizing the chronic health and economic challenges that persist in communities with little access to healthy food, and the fact that local government can play a role in improving the food environment—through policy that impacts everything from land use to transit.
According to Michael Dimock, president of PHI's Roots of Change, a California nonprofit that works on democratizing food policy, designating a person within city government to coordinate food policy is “an indicator of prioritization.” It gets at what he calls “the key issue of our time: How do we make food systems a higher priority in the policy realm?”