Good Food, Good Jobs: Turning Food Deserts into Jobs Oases

By / 5.5.2010

The Progressive Policy Institute today hosted an event at Foggy Bottom FreshFarm Market featuring Joel Berg, author of the PPI Policy Report “Good Food, Good Jobs,” and Tom Colicchio, “Top Chef” judge and 2010 James Beard Outstanding Chef. For event details, click here.

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Tens of millions of Americans need more nutritious, more affordable food. Tens of millions need better jobs. Just as the Obama administration and Congress have supported a “green jobs” initiative to simultaneously fight unemployment and protect the environment, they should launch a “Good Food, Good Jobs” initiative. Given that large numbers of food jobs could be created rapidly and with relatively limited capital investments, their creation should become a consideration in any jobs bill that Congress and the president enact.

Our hunger, malnutrition, obesity, and poverty problems are closely linked. Low-income areas across America that lack access to nutritious foods at affordable prices — the so-called “food deserts” — tend to be the same communities and neighborhoods that, even in better economic times, are also “job deserts” that lack sufficient living-wage employment. A concurrent problem has been the growing concentration of our food supply in a handful of food companies that are now “too big to fail.” A Good Food, Good Jobs program can address these intertwined economic and social problems.

In partnership with state, local, and tribal governments, nonprofit organizations, and the private sector, the federal initiative would bolster employment, foster economic growth, fight hunger, cut obesity, improve nutrition, and reduce spending on diet-related health problems. By doing so, not only could government help solve a number of very tangible problems, but it could fuse the growing public interest in food issues with the ongoing efforts, usually underfunded and underreported, to fight poverty at the grassroots level.

A Good Food, Good Jobs program could provide the first serious national test of the effectiveness of such efforts in boosting the economy and improving public health. The new initiative should:

  • Provide more and better-targeted seed money to food jobs projects. The federal government should expand and more carefully target its existing grants and loans to start new and expand existing community food projects: city and rooftop gardens; urban farms; food co-ops; farm stands; community-supported agriculture (CSA) projects; farmers’ markets; community kitchens; and projects that hire unemployed youth to grow, market, sell, and deliver nutritious foods while teaching them entrepreneurial skills.
  • Bolster food processing. Since there is far more profit in processing food than in simply growing it (and since farming is only a seasonal occupation), the initiative should focus on supporting food businesses that add value year-round, such as neighborhood food processing/freezing/canning plants; businesses that turn raw produce into ready-to-eat salads, salad dressings, sandwiches, and other products; healthy vending-machine companies; and affordable and nutritious restaurants and catering businesses.
  • Expand community-based technical assistance. Federal, state, and local governments should dramatically expand technical assistance to such efforts and support them by buying their products for school meals and other government nutrition assistance programs, as well as for jails, military facilities, hospitals, and concession stands in public parks, among other venues. Additionally, the AmeriCorps program — significantly increased recently by the bipartisan passage of the Edward Kennedy Serve America Act — should provide large numbers of national-service participants to implement nonprofit food jobs efforts.
  • Develop a better way of measuring success. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) should develop a “food access index,” a new measure that would take into account both the physical availability and economic affordability of nutritious foods, and use this measure as another tool to judge the success of food projects. All such efforts should be subject to strict performance-based outcome measures, and programs should not be expanded or re-funded unless they can prove their worth.
  • Invest in urban fish farming. Given that fish is the category of food most likely to be imported, and given growing environmental concerns over both wild and farm-raised fish, the initiative should provide significant investment into the research and development of environmentally sustainable, urban, fish-production facilities.
  • Implement a focused research agenda. The government should enact a focused research agenda to answer the following questions: Can community food enterprises that pay their workers sufficient wages also make products that are affordable? Can these projects become economically self-sufficient over the long run, particularly if they are ramped up to benefit from economies of scale? Could increased government revenues due to economic growth and decreased spending on health care and social services offset long-term subsidies? How would the cost and benefits of government spending on community food security compare to the cost and benefits of the up to $20 billion that the U.S. government now spends on traditional farm programs, much of which goes to large agribusinesses?

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. This comprehensive proposal accomplishes those objectives. Moreover, in the best-case scenario, it could create large numbers of living-wage jobs in self-sustaining businesses even as it addresses our food, health, and nutrition problems. But even in a worst-case scenario, the plan would create short-term subsidized jobs that would provide an economic stimulus, and at least give low-income consumers the choice to obtain more nutritious foods — a choice so often denied to them.

Download the full report.