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The Hustle for Good Food: Dispatches From the Bronx Food Summit

07/06/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

New York City is one of many cities around the country that is placing a renewed emphasis on food access. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn has launched the FoodWorks initiative to address production and distribution, while Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer has announced FoodNYC to reform food policies in the City. Both of them showed up on Saturday for the Bronx Food Summit, an event organized by Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., who of all the political leaders there probably has the most at stake in bringing healthy food into the city: his constituents live in a neighborhood that is both the nexus of New York City's produce markets and home to a population suffering the consequences of limited access to that very produce.

The beautifully diverse group - kids from the neighborhood coming in with their skateboards, urban farmer and activist Karen Washington, Chris Grace of New York State Department of Ag & Markets, among a few hundred others - gathered for the Summit at Hostos Community College. The event gave voice to the anger and hope, frustration and deliberation, need and intention that surrounds the question of food in the City's poorest borough. In her opening remarks, Majora Carter of Sustainable South Bronx described her hope for high-yield urban agriculture, which she intends to support through her newly launched American City Farms program. Her vision is to make starting urban farm models as simple as opening a fast food franchise, but with wildly different health outcomes. She calls such efforts "monuments to hope and possibility" for this neighborhood.

What's gone wrong in the Bronx to make a conference about food access necessary? The easiest answer is decades of disinvestment in a low-income neighborhood by traditional investors that has made the neighborhood unappealing to large grocers, but that misses the point. There are two more significant things happening: availability of financing and poverty itself.

When there is a need but no one to fill it, entrepreneurs tend to step up to the opportunity. However, because in the South Bronx access to capital is limited (as Judi Kende of the Low Income Investment Fund pointed out, even a non-profit lender has trouble approving a loan to a first-time business owner with little in the way of a borrowing track record) it's difficult to fund even a fruit cart or small food retail space. Furthermore, the structure of poverty reinforces demand for the least expensive, highest calorie foods. What you do with the last three dollars you have today when you are hungry now contributes to perceived demand for cheap, easy food. The response to this demand is, of course, more fast food than fresh.

There are alternatives like the South Bronx Food Coop and some grocery stores (though residents claim the chains in their neighborhood have far inferior produce to their neighboring stores in Westchester and Riverdale). New York City has initiated the FRESH program, which provides grocery stores incentives to establish and expand their presence in underserved areas. Yet residents are stunned that even a company like FreshDirect would deliver to zip codes that require their trucks to drive through the South Bronx, but do not bother to take orders for delivery there.

As one woman, who lives in the neighborhood and shops at the Coop, exclaimed, "We have to hustle to make sure we have access to good food... We have to depend on us." For some in the neighborhood, the hustle involves shopping once a month at a grocery store in Manhattan, paying for a taxi or schlepping a heavy load all the way home, and supplementing their stock with intermittent stops at the corner store. For others, it means making due with low-quality fresh food. And for others, it means foregoing healthy options almost entirely. Perhaps what motivates the Bronx to hold this Summit is knowing no one is going to fix this for them.

The question of what to do about food access in the South Bronx comes down to how you move a market. Is it demand-driven, policy-driven, or supply-driven, or does it require some combination of all three? From the energy and commitment I witnessed on Saturday, I expect demand isn't enough or we wouldn't have had anything to talk about - these people want better food badly. I also don't believe policy is enough; we're talking about changing entrenched processes, decision-making mechanisms, and incentives for human beings that want food and companies that could supply it, and unless there is an accompanying emotional, physical, or economic under-pinning, food choices are unlikely to change.

I believe we need to rethink the paradigm of how we get food into dense urban areas. Perhaps instead of relying on thousands of square feet, millions of investment dollars, and countless hours to make the change happen, we should start thinking about using the organizing capacity, information systems, and distribution tools we have today to get creative with how we move healthy, affordable food into the areas of our cities that need it most.