New Resources for Learning about Shared Kitchens and Food Business Incubators

Shared-use commercial kitchens, kitchen incubators, and other food business programs build entrepreneurial opportunities in local food systems by providing affordable commercial kitchen space. These for-profit and nonprofit facilities have been sprouting up around the country in response to the growing market for local, artisan foods. Exciting new business models are emerging and many planners are eager to learn more about them and the regulatory questions they raise. We would like to highlight a couple new resources that may be beneficial to APA members interested in the topic:

NICK Summit is an upcoming gathering of some of the nation’s leading shared kitchens and business incubators that will explore successful incubation programs and kitchen management strategies. The day-long Summit by the Network for Incubator and Commissary Kitchens will be held on October 10, 2018, at The Good Acre in Falcon Heights, MN. The day will include a keynote on kitchen innovations, a panel of impact-driven programs, exciting quick fire sessions, and opportunities to discuss sticky kitchen management issues with peers and experts in the industry. This inaugural event is a collaboration of The Food Corridor, Grow North, The Wallace Center, The Good Acre, and Fruition Planning & Management. Attendees can also take advantage of exciting events at The Inaugural Food | Ag | Ideas Week and Twin Cities Startup Week.

A new reference guide, the Shared Kitchen Toolkit: A Practical Guide to Planning, Launching and Managing a Shared Use Commercial Kitchen, was published earlier this year by The Food Corridor in partnership with Purdue University Extension, with funding from the USDA North Central SARE. This comprehensive resource provides guidance on definitions, business models, funding sources, planning considerations, and daily operations. The Toolkit is available as a free downloadable PDF or wiki.

Growing Local: Strengthening Food Systems Through Planning and Policy


Local governments are becoming increasingly involved in planning and policy making for community food systems, both as leaders and as partners with the private sector. Often responding to community pressure, in some cases they are the driving force, motivated by a desire to strengthen local economies, improve food security and nutritional outcomes, and to support agriculture and preserve farmland…

For the entire blog post, check out the American Planning Association’s website here.

Request for Information from Organizations Interested in or Operating Mobile Produce Markets

The University at Buffalo in partnership with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University and Nutrition Partnership’s Veggie Van program are developing a toolkit and technical assistance program for new mobile produce markets across the county. We are looking for mobile produce markets at different stages of planning and operation to both assist with the toolkit development (for more established mobile markets) and to potentially receive technical assistance (for new or developing mobile markets). We anticipate that funding will be available for organizations at both levels.

If you represent an organization that is planning or operating a mobile produce market, please complete this brief survey to help us better understand the types of mobile market programs that currently exist and to identify potential partnerships.

Link to survey:

Please note: For the purpose of this survey, a mobile produce market is defined by sales of fresh produce at multiple non-permanent locations (or delivered to people’s homes) by an organization that is not the primary producer (i.e., farmer).

For additional information contact: Lucia A. Leone, PhD

Assistant Professor of Community Health and Health Behavior

School of Public Health and Health Professions

University at Buffalo, State University of New York

Postdoctoral Position in Global Health and Food Equity – Available Immediately

(reposted from

The University at Buffalo invites outstanding candidates to apply for a postdoctoral position in food equity to join the university-wide Community on Global Health Equity

About the position

Applications are invited for an outstanding postdoctoral scholar to join a university-wide interdisciplinary research initiative on Food Equity and Global Health. Joining an interdisciplinary team of faculty, post-docs, graduate students, and research staff across multiple schools, including the Schools of Public Health and Health Professions, the School of Architecture and Planning, and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the selected postdoctoral scholar will focus her/his research on alleviating food and nutritional inequities by harnessing the power of non-health disciplines including architecture, applied economics, engineering, international development, social work, urban, regional and rural planning and policy, and related disciplines. The candidate will join the Food Equity project, and develop a research portfolio working under the guidance of faculty mentors in the School of Architecture and Planning, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and the School of Public Health and health Professions.

Eligibility requirements

Candidate must hold a doctorate in the following or related fields: urban and regional planning, international development, food systems, engineering, and/or public policy.  An eligible candidate’s dissertation and research interests should be related to advancing food equity and public health in a global setting, preferably in low-resource communities.

Skills and experience

Experience in conducting interdisciplinary research on food systems, food equity, and nutrition-related issues are essential. Supervision of graduate student research will be helpful. Candidates with quantitative or qualitative methodological strengths are welcome to apply. Familiarity with use of spatial analysis using Geographic Information Systems is welcome. Applicants from engineering disciplines will need to demonstrate capability in modeling complex systems; dealing with large quantity of data are a plus.


Selected candidate will conduct independent research with guidance from Drs. Samina Raja, Li Lin, Korydon Smith, and Pavani Ram. Candidates are encouraged to identify a principal mentor among this faculty group. Candidate will also collaborate closely with faculty aligned with the Food Equity Project within the Community of Global Health Equity. The department home for this position will be Urban and Regional Planning.
The candidate will be expected to contribute intellectually to the research portfolio of the Food Equity Project of the UB CGHE through research-related activities, including generating original scholarship and contributing to ongoing research through the UB CGHE.

About the UB Community of Excellence in Global Health Equity

The grand challenge of global health inequity is one of the defining issues of the 21st century, attracting unprecedented levels of interest and the attention of thinkers who are concerned about the underlying social, economic, political, and environmental factors of this challenge, in addition to the biomedical manifestations. The UB Community for Global Health Equity (CGHE) was established in July 2015 to bring the strength of UB faculty across many disciplines to bear on this most vexing of world problems. The UB CGHE advances global health equity by harnessing the power of interdisciplinary scholarship and action spanning architecture, planning, engineering, social sciences, and supportive disciplines (APEX disciplines). Read more about UB CGHE here:

The selected postdoctoral scholar will be from an APEX discipline, and will join a team of faculty and researchers across multiple disciplines including public health and APEX disciplines.

The WHO defines health inequity as “unjust differences in health between persons of different social groups.”  These differences between one population (and group) and another are due, in part, to one or more of the following systemic barriers:

  1. gaps in foundational science (e.g., lack of drug discovery to treat neglected tropical diseases)
  2. socio-cultural barriers or phenomena (e.g., gender gap in provision and utilization of healthcare)
  3. ineffectual and/or unjust public policies (e.g., land-use policies that (inadvertently) limit people’s access to nutritious foods)
  4. ineffective practices or unequal access to best practices (e.g., lack of safe construction practices in hard-to-reach rural areas)

Low resources and/or low capacity for change at global, social, and/or institutional levels exacerbate these systemic barriers. This Community’s aim is to “influence the influencers,” the leaders, organizations, and policy makers that can reduce or eliminate barriers to improved global health and well-being for all in settings around the world:

  1. research bodies (e.g., universities or funding agencies)
  2. facilitative/dissemination organizations, including international organizations (e.g., state agency providing assistance to refugees or international organization promoting child health)
  3. policy makers and implementers (e.g., ministries of rural development)
  4. professional/practitioner organizations (e.g., urban planning organizations or organizations providing healthcare)

Application review, deadlines, and remuneration

Applications are being accepted on a rolling basis. The position is for two years. Salary and benefits are competitive and commensurate with experience. The University at Buffalo is an equal opportunity employer.

Apply online via the UB Jobs interface:

About the University at Buffalo

The University at Buffalo is a premier, research-intensive public university dedicated to academic excellence. It is the flagship and the largest and most comprehensive campus in the 64-campus State University of New York System. With 27,000 students, the University at Buffalo is a Carnegie Class I research university and a member of the Association of American Universities (AAU). The university offers 83 Ph.D. and 190 master’s degree programs, and has outstanding supercomputing, library, and research facilities, including numerous interdisciplinary centers and institutes for faculty collaboration. The University at Buffalo has three campuses: UB South campus, UB Downtown campus, and UB North Campus.

The post-doctoral position will be housed in the Community of Excellence in Global Health Equity located in historic Hayes Hall on UB’s South Campus.

The UB South Campus, home to the School of Public Health and Health Professions and the School of Architecture and Planning, is located in the University Heights neighborhood with coffee shops, eateries, bookstores, and a full array of commercial outlets and services. The campus is highly accessible, situated on a subway and other transit lines. Housing opportunities are abundant and affordable. With a combined population of 9.7 million, the binational Niagara region of Western New York and Southern Ontario offers a high quality of life and an exceptional setting for engaging planning issues. The region spans an international border, and includes large cities, varied suburbs, dramatic landscapes, and quiet villages. For additional information about the University at Buffalo and the community, see

Contact information

Dr. Samina Raja, Associate Professor and Community for Global Health Equity faculty

Urban Food Planning: Seeds of Transition in the Global North



Rooftop Farm in Brooklyn, NY. Photo by Rositsa Ilieva.

Bridging community food systems and urban planning matters, now more than ever. Over the past fifteen years, more than 100 scholarly publications on the topic have appeared in architecture and urban planning journals worldwide and over 90 local food systems strategies have been released by local administrations in the Global North alone. On October 15, 2015, the first international urban food policy agenda – the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact – was signed by more than 100 cities and set a precedent, charting a new avenue for sustainability-minded planners. Unsurprisingly, thus far, research has not kept the pace with these innovations, leaving many opportunities untapped and the limits and promises of urban food planning insufficiently understood.

Against this backdrop my research, and my new book “Urban Food Planning: Seeds of Transition in the Global North” (Routledge, 2016), seek to lay the groundwork for urban food planning scholarship and practice from a global perspective. A central goal of this endeavor is to systematically assess and celebrate the emergent food systems planning initiatives and support the work of an increasing number of researchers, community advocates, and policymakers striving to advance sustainable cities and community food systems in tandem. To this end, I examine emergent urban food planning innovations through the lens of theories of sociotechnical transitions which enable me to discern the nonlinear dynamics of socio-spatial change and identify levers that can help steer future urban and food systems transitions. While the boundaries of the field are still in the making, it is fair to say that it encompasses both efforts to facilitate alternative practices, like urban agriculture and shopping at farmers markets as well as efforts to address anomalies in the mainstream food system, such as unequal access to fresh food retail, disproportionate urbanization of prime agricultural land, wobbly disaster preparedness of food distribution and transportation networks, and inefficient or nonexistent organic waste recycling infrastructure.

The practitioners behind innovative urban food planning practices are a broad constituency of urban food policy “entrepreneurs” having the common goal to make the urban food system work in the public interest to generate healthy, prosperous, and ecologically sound human settlements. Urban planners are just one group of practitioners across the many private practice professionals, activists, and government officials from a wide range of economic sectors and disciplines at the forefront of its development. Planners have, however, played a key role in advancing the urban food planning agenda by developing dedicated policy guides on the subject, creating working groups in their professional and academic associations on both sides of the Atlantic (e.g., the Food Interest Group of the American Planning Association [APA-FIG] in the US – the authors of this Blog, and the Sustainable Food Planning group of the Association of European Schools of Planning in Europe), and popularizing the topic through scientific journals, books, and academic conferences.

The evidence shows that urban food planning has grown into a new niche for social innovation, research, and practice and there are plenty of reasons and unique opportunities for planners to make a difference, while doing what they already do, only better. Planners who see food as priority in their work are still a minority, however, the public understanding that food is an urban system and that ensuring its sustainability is part of the responsibilities of local governments, in both developed and developing counties, has started gaining prominence over the past decade. In “Urban Food Planning,” I argue that there are at least 10 good reasons why now, more than ever, it is in planners’ interest to engage with urban food planning. Among these, are a rapidly expanding food systems planning community of practice to work with, a rising demand for expertise in urban food planning from both public, private, and civil society sectors, the potential for increasing the legitimacy of planning interventions, and the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) mandated by the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Urban food planning – the bundle of government, business, and civil society practices aimed at building sustainable cities and food systems in tandem – is a “hybrid” social niche in-the-making, encompassing a host of creative conceptual, analytical, design, and organizational responses to fundamental questions such as: What’s wrong with the urban food system? Why should we care? How do we fix it? and Who is in charge? In fact, urban food planning is both a distinct practice and a bundle of place-based practices (e.g., community food security assessments, mapping existing and potential sites for urban agriculture and current demand, conducting regional foodshed analyses, devising comprehensive food systems strategies and plans, among many others). Local government provisions, such as zoning and financial incentives for fresh food stores, bans on fast food outlets in school districts, removal of building code barriers for rooftop greenhouses, or reducing restrictions for onsite processing and selling of produce, are also part of the bundle. Thus, differently from other niches for social innovation, like the UK-based Transition Towns movement for instance, urban food planning novelties stretch beyond the circles of citizens’ groups and community advocates alone.

Each practitioner involved in urban food planning possesses distinct strengths and competitive advantages to advance the global Agenda for just and sustainable food systems. Beginning to map and recognize such strengths, alongside the obvious limitations of working in a niche, is a task that needs to be timely addressed. One of the biggest challenges in trying to map a transition process in its early stages of development, however, is that the speed of change is such that by the time one takes a snapshot of a fragment of the system, the entire landscape has already changed – some novelties have died out, others have moved on, and new ones have emerged. This can be frustrating for the academic investigator, let alone the planner practitioner or the policymaker, seeking to legitimize their research, long-term plans, or policy recommendations. Yet, as food systems planner Martin Bailkey recently put it, not being able to keep up with the pace of innovation in the field is “a good challenge to have.”

A more stable suite of urban food planning practices has the potential to transition urban food planning from an unstable niche to a robust social innovation in the position to challenge incumbent planning and food system regimes, helping local governments and communities to pursue a “bolder vision for the city.” Strategic levers for change include opportunities to strengthen present endeavors to represent, understand, and transform the urban food system, as well as to legitimize city-level interventions in the public domain, but also to question its current assumptions and ideologies. In fact, as the narrative of the book cruises through different food planning novelties, the reader is cautioned that there is nothing inherently good in a new practice per se, nor there is anything inherently sustainable in the scale at which practices are carried out, however, both new ideas and local actions are fundamental in imagining and enacting societal transitions. And we, planners and allied professionals in the Global North, have the moral obligation to be at the forefront of this institutional and environmental transition.

Finally, the focus of “Urban Food Planning” is on experiences from the Global North, not because food systems planning innovations do not manifest in developing economies regions – in fact, they greatly do, but because the impact of rich cities on their local and global hinterlands is so extensive and, at the same time, so scarily well concealed, that every effort to address it offers a rare chance to break the myth that we are living in a benign and harmless cornucopia. Only by making visible and by appreciating the critical mass of city-regional food system innovations, taking place in our own backyards, can we debunk the delusion that food is working in the public interest and it is superfluous in sustainable urban development projects and strategies in wealthy states. The goal of integrating local food infrastructures in and around cities has been in urban planning’s DNA since its inception, but for over a century it has remained suppressed for cultural, political, and economic reasons. There has hardly ever been a better time to restore it.


Rositsa T. Ilieva, Ph.D.
Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy
Parsons School of Design
The New School, New York, NY 10003
@RositsaTIlieva, LinkedIN:

Exploring Stories of Food Systems Planning and Policy Innovation


Growing Food Connections is excited to announce the addition of 5 free publications to the Exploring Stories of Innovation series, a series of short articles that explore how local governments from across the United States are strengthening their community’s food system through planning and policy. These include:

Beginning in 2012, Growing Food Connections (GFC) conducted a national scan and identified 299 local governments across the United States that are developing and implementing a range of innovative plans, public programs, regulations, laws, financial investments and other policies to strengthen the food system. GFC conducted exploratory telephone interviews with 20 of these local governments. This series highlights some of the unique planning and policy strategies used by some of these urban and rural local governments to enhance community food security while ensuring sustainable and economically viable agriculture and food production. The first four articles in the series featured:

For more information and to download these free publications, visit

Growing Food Connections is supported by Agriculture and Food Research initiative Competitive Grant no. 2012-68004-19894 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Food Well Alliance: Changing the Food System from the Ground Up

Food Well Alliance ATL1 Food Well Alliance ATL2

The Food Well Alliance is an Atlanta-based nonprofit organization formed in partnership with the Atlanta Community Food Bank (ACFB) that connects members of the local food movement around building healthier communities, strengthening the local food system and improving lives.   The Alliance amplifies and accelerates metro Atlanta’s local food movement by hosting and organizing events, facilitating working groups and projects, making grants, and providing resources and information to the community at large.

Food Well Alliance serves three primary roles: to connect, to promote, and to mobilize. One of its main purposes is to create a space for nonprofits, community organizers, educators, entrepreneurs, and growers to learn about what others are doing around local food in Atlanta and how the community can align its efforts, identify challenges and barriers, and work collaboratively to strengthen the local food system.  Food Well Alliance provides opportunity to use the collective impact model to hear the local food community’s voice, cooperatively design a solution or program, and then mobilize the resources and funding to implement those solutions.

Young as the Alliance may be, it is deeply rooted in Atlanta’s food system.  It’s Advisory Committee includes a veritable who’s who of Atlanta area food systems, including Bill Bolling, Founder and former Executive Director of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, representatives from the Atlanta Botanical Garden, the Atlanta Regional Commission, Captain Planet, Georgia Organics, and many others (for a full list, click here).

The Alliance has been working hard to assess the needs of the local food community and recently celebrated its first year with a Healthy Soil Festival.  Hundreds of people attended, celebrating efforts to provide greater access to healthy food and learning about the importance of healthy soil – the foundation of a sustainable garden and good food production.

The festival was part of the Alliance’s Healthy Soil, Healthy Community initiative – a series of workshops, demonstrations, soil testing, and other activities organized in partnership with numerous community organizations to support the growth of community gardens and raise awareness about the importance of healthy soil and composting. The initiative offered 30 free public workshops across 5 counties of Metro Atlanta to educate gardeners on the elements of living soil and methods to build soil.  The partners jointly designed a resource guide for Healthy Soil, provided composting signs and bins, and distributed local compost to over 50 community gardens in the region.   Click here for a list of partners.

To strengthen and expand the capacity of local food innovators and entrepreneurs, the Food Well Alliance has partnered with Atlanta’s Center for Civic Innovation to create the Food Innovation Network – a formal network of entrepreneurs, educators, and community organizers dedicated to growing and using local food, starting a food business, nutrition and health, and food access.  The network offers events, trainings, one-on-one advising, and encourages participants to share resources and ideas to help build a stronger Atlanta food system.


Connection to Food System Planning:

Food systems planning will be critical to the success of Food Well Alliance.  An assessment of the current landscape is needed in order to have baseline data, to evaluate and measure impact, and to create a roadmap for going forward.  But first, Food Well Alliance is working to convene all of these organizations and people together to explain how collective impact could work in this context, how it serves their needs, and how to best align efforts to bring greater participation and investment to the local food movement in Atlanta.

Throughout the course of its first year, Food Well Alliance discovered a common obstacle to improving food systems: the silo effect. So many people diligently working with local food know that they are part of an interconnected web of educators, producers, consumers, and distributors but they don’t necessarily see it within a local food system framework.  But rather than view this as a barrier, the Alliance chose to view this as an opportunity – coming to a common understanding of what the local food system is, why each piece is important, and how they are all needed for the whole to be successful.

The Community Gardens working group was the first effort to convene a group around a collective impact approach to assess and prioritize community needs.  This group of 7 nonprofit and education leaders shaped the goals and design of the Healthy Soil, Healthy Community Initiative and will do an evaluation of the process and program this winter.  Other working groups are currently in development for 2016, based on priorities and challenges identified by the community.

To learn more, visit Food Well Alliance or find us on Facebook.


Photos courtesy of Seanna Berry and Food Well Alliance

Seanna Berry works on research and development at Food Well Alliance and has written on food systems issues nationally and in AtlantaPrior to earning her graduate degree in City and Regional Planning from Georgia Tech, she worked in community food systems growing, processing, selling, and distributing fresh local food. She sees great opportunities to incorporate agriculture into how we shape our neighborhoods and regions.

Erin Thoresen (@ELThoresen) loves food, travel, and thinks a lot about what makes a “good” place. Her work has brought these interests together in food systems planning – helping launch youth-staffed farmers’ markets with Sustainable Long Island and serving on the Suffolk County Food Policy Council. She now works in transportation at Gresham, Smith and Partners in Atlanta and continues her involvement with food systems through APA-FIG.

The Historic Legacy of the Food-Income Poverty Model

1939 Food Stamp

The first food stamp issued in 1939.

Urban planners depend on the Official Poverty Measure (OPM), but few understand the relationship between the OPM and food budgets. In the 1960’s, Mollie Orshansky, a statistician working at the Social Security Administration, was instrumental in coming up with a scientific definition for what she called the “undoubted poor”. To provide scientific justification for defining poverty, Orshansky argued that a nutritious diet was the most basic need families should not go without. Orshansky used the USDA’s economic food plan, which was considered the minimum budget a family could use to purchase an adequate diet, and the 1955 USDA Household Food Consumption Survey to determine how much the average family spent on food. Together, Orshansky defined poverty as any family that had a total income less than three times the economic food plan. This definition rested on two critical assumptions:

The first assumption set the food-income multiplier at three. Since the average household in 1955 spent one out of every three dollars on food, a family should be able to purchase a healthy diet with a third of their income and have enough money left over for the undefined needs. Today’s OPM still uses a multiplier of three to determine the minimum level of consumption, but based on changes in consumer expenditures, the multiplier should have been four in 1960-61, six by 1988, and around seven today.

The second assumption was that the USDA’s economic food plan would allow for an adequate diet. The economic food plan, today referred to as the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP), was not designed for long-term use, but today millions of households are expected to make healthy adequate meals from an unforgiving budget year after year. In addition, the TFP, which is also used to determine food assistance benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), assumes a household produces no food waste and has an expert food preparer, with excellent menu planning and food shopping skills. The TFP’s historic foundations stressed the need for home food production, health education, and local networks to ensure the affordability of healthy food. The assumptions behind the definition of poverty provide no margin of error and demand that all meals be made from scratch.

Orshansky was the first critic of her measure of poverty and saw the food-income relationship as an “interim guide.” However, Orshansky’s standards for counting the “undoubted poor” have determined six decades of policy. In 1965 the poverty level for a family of four was $60 a week ($1,963 a month in 2014 dollars).The OPM in 2014 was $1,988 a month ($23,850 a year) for a family of four. In 2014 the monthly TFP budget for a family of four was $650, or one third of $1,988.

Since the 1960’s the food system and consumer expenditures have experienced tremendous changes. Changes such as food retail consolidation and the changing role of women in the workforce make the TFP and the food-income multiplier severely out of date. Astonishingly, the OPM can be determined by simply multiplying a 60-year-old food budget by three and adjusting for inflation.

A more appropriate food budget for a family of four would be closer to $1,000 a month and the food-income multiplier should be closer to seven. That means that any family of four earning less than $84,000 a year is probably making difficult choices been purchasing food for a healthy diet and providing for all other needs (housing, education, transportation, health care etc.). For the more than 18 million households living below the poverty level there is clearly no margin for error. In this context, government programs set up an impressive facade that does not address the true costs of poverty and reinforces an impossible food budget that very few families could make work.

What can urban planners do? Here are some recommendations:
1. Become familiar with the USDA Food Budgets
2. Find out which stores in your community provide Market Basket Prices below the Thrifty Food Plan – see an example from Portland, OR – Grocery Cart PDX
3. With an initial focus on the stores with the best Market Basket Prices, find out what the current public transportation options are and conduct a walkability audit. See if there are any immediate ways to improve mobility between people living in poverty and food retailers.
4. Work with local food retailers and local food producers to make affordable, nutritious and culturally appropriate foods readily available.

About the Author. Nathanael P. Rosenheim, Ph.D. is Assistant Research Scientist in the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center, College of Architecture at Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas.

Should We Still Be Talking About Food Deserts?

By now, you’ve probably heard about food deserts.  Maybe as part of the First Lady’s Let’s Move! Campaign to end childhood obesity.  Maybe your state has established a task force to investigate food accessibility.  Perhaps you’ve even mapped a food desert in your own town or city, using tools like the USDA’s Food Environment Atlas.  Though the term “food desert” can mean a variety of things, generally speaking, it refers to places with limited proximity to supermarkets and low rates of vehicle ownership, thus making a simple shopping trip more difficult than in better-served areas.  In many cities, the term also describes distinct racial and income disparities in terms supermarket access.  


The term “food desert” isn’t without its own problems.  First, and perhaps most importantly, this neighborhood-based concept doesn’t reflect how people actually live: many shoppers travel beyond the store closest to home, and this includes low-income and limited-mobility households.  By drawing lines around an area (typically using administrative boundaries, like Census tracts), we’re dramatically abstracting the notion of access.

Another issue is that the desert metaphor adopts a deficit orientation.  It’s possible that a neighborhood has a thriving urban garden system, or a robust network of curbside produce vendors, but no supermarket.  By naming a place a food desert, we might overlook or obscure important community food assets.  

Finally, the food desert concept assumes a specific problem and solution: supermarkets are lacking, and should be developed.  Among the many ways to bring healthy, fresh foods to areas without retailers, supermarket development is a large, expensive, and complicated endeavor. To this end, local, state, and federal actors have designed incentive packages to make these projects happen (check out the Heathy Food Access Portal for a variety of examples).

Nevertheless, as a planning researcher, I find some utility in the term.  Many low-income households want to shop at supermarkets, just as higher-income people.  Alternative models, such as farmers’ markets, cooperative groceries, and urban agriculture may all play a role (or, more likely, many roles) in terms of food access, mental and physical wellness, and community development.  Yet, they are hardly a replacement for the supermarket model that most American households use without issue.  The food desert concept can focus attention, and more importantly political, social, and economic capital, to one type of community development.

Indeed, supermarkets are major vehicle of the industrial food system; in many cases, they are also what low-income communities ask for.  This is worth much further exploration, but I offer it here to suggest that these dynamics aren’t straightforward or simple.

Now that I’ve punted on this major philosophical issue, let me offer a couple immediate research questions.  Many supermarket projects already completed, and more in the pipeline, so it makes sense for planning researchers to take stock of these developments and describe their effects.

  • When a new supermarket opens, do smaller stores close?  This is often the fear, and sometimes the case.  If so, what is the impact of these closures, both in terms of economic and social outcomes?
  • This isn’t the first time planners have advocated for supermarkets as elements of downtown revitalization.  What lessons have we learned (or should we learn) from history?
  • What are some of the “false positives” that result from the food desert definition?  For instance, where are places we call food deserts, but, in fact, are not?  Is this because a network of smaller stores effectively fills in?  Do few people actually live there?
  • Alternatively, what about “false negatives?”  Are there areas with supermarkets that are still poorly served?  Is the quality of a neighborhood supermarket so bad that nobody considers it a viable option?  Or, more provocative: how much does access matter when shoppers are poor (i.e. isn’t this just a poverty issue)?


Ben Chrisinger, PhD MUEP, is a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford University’s Prevention Research Center and a member of APA-FIG’s Research Working Group.  You can follow him on Twitter, @benchrisinger.


Request For Abstracts: Health Affairs “Food And Health” Theme Issue

HealthAffairsJournalHealth Affairs is planning a theme issue on food and health in November 2015. The issue will present work that explores the relationship between the food we consume and our wellbeing on the individual, societal, and global levels. Articles will address causes and consequences of dietary excess and insufficiency, analyze policies and programs aimed at influencing these, and explore the roles of public policy, industry, and stakeholder groups in the context of dietary behavior. To be considered, abstracts must be submitted by midnight, EST, Monday, February 23, 2015. For more information, click here.