EDOs Can Build Food Security for Healthy Communities and Economies

By Melanie Hwang, EDNow Associate Editor. This post was first published on IEDC's members only blog, EDNow, as a feature story. 

The coronavirus pandemic and social justice movements which have characterized 2020 have brought the issue of food insecurity to the fore. Social distancing, shutdowns, rising food prices, and falling incomes have made access to healthy food even more difficult for the thousands of urban and rural communities throughout the United States that were already considered food insecure. What does food insecurity mean for local economies, and how can EDOs build food security in their communities?

What is a food insecure community?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture identified approximately 6,500 “food deserts” in the United States in a 2012 report. The USDA defines food deserts as “areas where people have limited access to a variety of healthy and affordable food.” More than 23 million people live in these areas, which are often characterized by poverty, lack of access to cars and public transportation, and higher minority populations.

Many food insecure communities are the legacy of racist housing policies such as redlining, white flight from racially and ethnically diverse neighborhoods, and decades of disinvestment in low-income communities and communities of color. These communities often fail to attract larger grocery stores because they don’t meet the average education and household income levels that national businesses consider financially viable, explains Ona Balkus, Washington, D.C.’s food policy director.

Building food security is good for local economies

So what does building food security do for economic development?

“Health and wealth go hand in hand,” says Lucas Signorelli, board director of St. Louis MetroMarket, a full-service grocery store on wheels that brings fresh food to low-income areas. “This means cultivating a vibrant food ecosystem that includes grocery retail, food production, processing facilities, and restaurants that are owned and operated by residents of the local community."

Investing in disenfranchised neighborhoods, where jobs and opportunity are needed the most, is the foundation of equitable development.

“If EDOs are not partnering with low-income people in their regions, they really are not doing their jobs,” says Ken Meter, a food system analyst who has performed food system assessments for 14 U.S. states and one Canadian province.

The economic case for building food security can be made by exploring opportunities to stimulate local economic activity as well as measuring educational outcomes and workforce productivity, according to Annika Morgan, co-founder of About Fresh which operates Boston’s Fresh Truck mobile market.

Food insecurity impacts kids’ ability to learn in school, stresses Aparna Raj, communications and marketing manager for DC Greens, which provides locally grown produce to residents in areas with limited fresh food options.

“There is no path to economic prosperity without food sovereignty,” she says.

Steps EDOs can take to build food security

Ask the experts

Raj advises EDOs to build deep relationships with community members and organizations and “recognize the expertise of lived experience.” She gives the example of Congress Heights Community Training and Development Corporation (CHCTDC) in D.C.’s Ward 8, which is 92 percent Black and contains more than half of the District’s food insecure communities. CHCTDC is creating an equitable development plan sourced directly from the community that they can provide to potential investors.

Meter echoes this sentiment: “Often there is a more robust understanding of economic development within low-income communities than among ED staff, because residents viscerally understand the issues and barriers they face.”

Think beyond large chain grocers

Since large grocery chains are often unwilling to invest in the very communities that experience food insecurity, EDOs might have better luck talking to a smaller chain or the owner of a single store to see if there is interest in expanding, says Tracey Nichols, IEDC board member and former director of economic development for the City of Cleveland. Use tax increment financing and tax abatements as well as Community Development Block Grant funds to help reduce costs, Nichols says. Cleveland had success expanding local and regional chains in 2017, winning an IEDC Excellence in Economic Development Award for business retention and expansion.

EDOs can also support smaller food retailers by providing flexible loan capital, low-interest bridge loans, gap financing, impact investments, and catalytic grants, as well as technical assistance in the form of marketing and business training.

The Detroit Economic Growth Corporation’s Green Grocer Project provides new and existing grocers with financial and operational assistance and has been successful in both increasing food access and stimulating local investment since its launch in 2010. Kansas State University’s Kansas Healthy Food Initiative is a public-private partnership that provides funding and technical assistance to improve food access and economic development in rural heartland communities that ironically struggle with food insecurity due to geographic distance.

In Buffalo, N.Y., the Westminster Economic Development Initiative created the West Side Bazaar small business incubator for immigrants and refugees, a population with high entrepreneurial rates that can offer customers culturally relevant foods and a sense of community.

Explore other types of food initiatives

There are many other types of initiatives that can build food security, including farmer’s markets, mobile grocery stores, food co-ops, urban farming and gardening, and vertical farming. Cleveland’s Gardening for Greenbacks program gives grants to entrepreneurs seeking to establish or expand their urban farm and sell their products locally.

A number of these formats are working in Detroit, which has been addressing food insecurity for more than a decade. Eastern Market’s outdoor farmers market is the largest in the nation and stays open in winter. In 2013 the city changed its agricultural ordinance to protect urban farmers, and there are now 1,400 farm plots in the city. A number of organizations help create urban farms while providing jobs to local residents. In addition, a 66,300-square-foot vertical farm recently opened, and there are plans to open more in the region.

“Take an inventory of what you have and then develop the targets of what you need,” says Maureen Donohue Krauss, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Partnership and IEDC board member. “The Partnership’s initiatives are focused on bringing sustainable prosperity and high quality of life for all residents, including access to healthy, affordable foods. We know that a healthy community helps to retain and attract talent.”

Don’t call it a food desert

The term “food desert” is now widely considered to be outdated and misleading (along with a related term, “food swamp,” used to describe areas that not only lack grocery stores, but are abundant in fast food restaurants and convenience stores). Some food justice advocates now use “food apartheid” to highlight that these areas are the result of systemic racism rather than naturally occuring phenomena.

Organizations should stop using “food desert” and find more “asset-based framing,” says Cassia Herron, president and co-founder of the Louisville Association for Community Economics which is opening the Louisville Community Grocery co-op.

“We need to look beyond the term 'food desert' and consider purchasing power,” Morgan agrees.

“Food desert” focuses on a community’s deficits rather than its strengths and casts residents as part of the problem rather than the solution, Meter explains.

The solution must go beyond just supplying healthy food to improving access and education, emphasizes Dan Carmody, president of Eastern Market Partnership in Detroit. This includes expanding where and how SNAP and WIC benefits and EBT can be used, offering free cooking and healthy eating classes for adults and children, and increasing spending power by increasing access to good jobs.

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