Re-thinking Healthy Food Access

Using Buffalo, New York, as a case study, Governing emphasizes a new approach to improving access to healthy food for low-income individuals and families.

The publication states, “53.6 million people [in the United States] live outside an easy walk or drive to a full-service supermarket.” In response to its many neighborhoods facing similar barriers, Buffalo has adopted a “collaborative approach that favors a network of community-led projects over one-off public investments.”

The approach represents a marked shift from initiatives across Maryland to lure grocers to underserved areas, including personal property tax credits and small loans. Coincidentally, a recent Maryland Matters opinion piece concerning Prince George’s County’s most food insecure communities suggests the state “incentivize stores to operate in food deserts by offering higher tax credits to grocery stores operating in food deserts.”

Contrary to modern orthodoxy, Governing suggests financial incentives bringing grocers closer to underserved communities rarely work because they “have little direct impact on the shopping habits of nearby residents.” In its piece, a Brookings Institute researcher suggests people rarely shop at the grocery store nearest them, regardless of income. Moreover, while new grocery stores may improve access to healthy foods, overall nutrition does not necessarily improve.

Rather than incentivizing large grocers,

researchers and policymakers have increasingly embraced a web of interventions that grow resident purchasing power, foster community ownership and improve public infrastructure that contributes to food access, such as public transit and broadband networks…

More than 300 cities also have adopted local food councils in recent years, said Anne Palmer, a researcher and program director at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, and roughly two dozen have appointed a food policy director to local government. Some of those cities are now experimenting with their own new approaches to affordability, nutrition and disinvestment, from raising the minimum wage to transferring vacant land to Black farmers and growers who want it.

Likewise, the Maryland Matters piece mentioned above also advocates for “the expansion of urban gardens and farmers markets so that all Marylanders can enjoy fresh local meat and produce.” Several counties have taken notice of this best practice – Prince George’s County’s Urban Farm Incubator Initiative was awarded a federal grant to expand its work in 2021, Baltimore City provided a grant award to the Farm Alliance of Baltimore’s Urban Farmer Academy, and Howard County will soon be home to the largest urban farm in the world.

Moreover, several counties have focused on furthering their communities’ purchasing power, supporting significant expansions of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. Additionally, with the recent partial restoration of Highway User Revenue, Maryland’s counties may soon have the resources to make their communities more food secure through public transit. Although more investment is needed, Maryland appears to be on the cutting edge of food policy.

Read the full Governing article.