Can Regional Food Systems Solve Unequal Food Access Challenges?

Yesterday’s list included three-seed bread, tomatillos and maple yogurt.

Living in Burlington, Vermont makes food shopping relatively easy for me. In two minutes, I was at the local food co-op where I was able to meet my family’s food needs and desires. In addition to the co-op, if I want to diversify my market trips, there are summer and winter farmers’ markets, an abundance of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) opportunities, ethnic markets, supermarkets, small corner stores, bakeries, healthy food markets and discount food stores, all within close range. This is the local food Mecca that people frequently conjure up when they imagine Vermont, with maple syrup and artisan cheese available on every street corner. Owning a car and having adequate financial resources makes just about anything accessible.

Flash back to last week.

I was in a small, rural Vermont community talking with residents about food options at their local, independently-owned grocery store. Because selection is limited, they drive to a larger supermarket regularly, but it’s not so bad since it’s just 19 miles up the road, they said. Just 19 miles! I didn’t know that “just” could go with that distance when it comes to food shopping. But, they seem to take it in stride. It reminded me of a conversation I had a couple of years ago with somebody from another Vermont community. She told me that she and her friends loaded into the car and drove two hours each month to go food shopping at a discount store.

Having to go some distance to access healthy, affordable food is not a problem unique to Vermont. According to a 2009 USDA report, 23.5 million people live in low-income areas that are more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store, many of whom have limited transportation options.

I am repeatedly struck by the fact that there are such unequal food access opportunities across our beautiful, agricultural state. I am reminded that I am completely spoiled and so privileged. And of course, access is not all about location. While Vermont leads the country in per capita expenditures on local food, nearly 15% of our neighbors are food insecure. When resources are limited, access to healthy, affordable food is not so easy, no matter where you live.

Back to the flashback: I was talking with these folks in the rural community because we are working on a project to figure out how to get more healthy, regionally produced, affordable food into remote or underserved food marketplaces (for more information on this northeastern U.S. project, Enhancing Food Security in the Northeast with Regional Food Systems), and we wanted to know what kind of food they want, but can’t get.

Understanding their desires is the easy part; the real challenge is solving the problem when the causes are so systemic. Distributors delivering food to these communities are few and far between, so options in the stores are limited. The storeowners frequently say they have limited space and can’t always count on the shoppers to purchase the healthy foods they make available. The food shoppers say, “if only the healthy food was more affordable, then I would buy it.” Bottom line, the food system in these communities, and across our country, is often broken, and the consequences can be huge.

Many creative solutions have emerged to address this endemic problem. Farmers’ markets are flourishing across the country, as are community gardens and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms that incorporate options for lower-income families, youth agriculture programs, and more.

But the problems persist. At UVM’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture we’ve been thinking about the ways that different food system sectors might contribute answers.  We recently interviewed farmers to learn more about the unique roles they play in addressing food insecurity. Next, we are planning to talk to other food system stakeholders, such as food aggregators and distributors, to get their take on the matter.

Lots of people wonder whether the best solution to this seemingly intractable problem comes from trying to work within the dominant food system to make change, or establishing alternative approaches, such as mobile farmers’ markets, to meet the needs.

What’s your thought?


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