Food as a Centerpiece of Public Policy

By / 12.11.2009

The following is an excerpt from Joel Berg’s “Good Food, Good Jobs: Turning Food Deserts into Jobs Oases,” a new policy report from PPI.

The former chair of the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Kiki de la Garza (D-TX), used to quiz audiences with a riddle: “When does a nuclear submarine need to rise out of the water?” People would guess that it would rise when it needed air, but he explained that it could turn the water into oxygen. Others would guess that it would rise when it ran out of fuel, but he would then explain that the nuclear fuel would last for years. When no one could guess, he would answer the riddle: “When it ran out of food.”

Given that food is a basic human need, it is amazing that people almost always failed to figure out his riddle. More broadly, it is astonishing how often food is overlooked in so many vital policy discussions. (The neglect spills over into pop culture: In the earliest version of the classic computer simulation game SimCity, you could decide where to put a football stadium or museum but not where food stores or markets should be.) For most of U.S. history, urban planners have usually ignored food issues in their grand schemes.

We need an entirely different mindset. Food should be a central organizing principle for neighborhood development, uniting residents through community gardens, farmers’ markets, supermarkets, food cooperatives, and food-related small businesses. Community gardens can reclaim empty lots from drug pushers. Food businesses can create jobs and raise community income. Farmers’ markets can give neighborhoods central gathering spaces and nurture a feeling of the “public commons” that is so often lost in today’s society. This new mindset will benefit both our economy and public health.

For a community to have good nutrition, three conditions are necessary: food must be affordable; food must be available; and individuals and families must have enough education to know how to eat better. If you don’t have all three legs of this stool, it will collapse. Yet all too often, projects only focus on one of the three. Many provide nutrition education, lecturing people that they should eat better, but make food neither more available nor more affordable. Sometimes, food is brought into low-income neighborhoods, but at prices too high for most people to afford. That won’t work either. The only way to truly succeed is to focus on all three aspects of this problem at once.

To read the executive summary, click here. To download the report, click here.