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Joel Berg

Joel Berg

Posted: December 8, 2009 01:30 PM

Turning Food Deserts Into Jobs Oases

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This holiday season we note the sobering reality that more than 49 million Americans live in households that can't afford enough food. Locally, according to a new study by the organization that I manage, New York City Coalition Against Hunger, there was a 21% jump this year in people forced to use food pantries and soup kitchens. www.nyccah.org
Soaring unemployment and underemployment are exacerbating the problem.

Even worse, many New Yorkers also live in "food deserts" - neighborhoods in which, even if they could afford them, the healthiest foods are scarce or non-existent. These areas also tend to lack living-wage jobs.

For instance, in the 16th Congressional District in the South Bronx, from 2005 through 2007, the official unemployment rate was 13.9 percent, and 35 percent of able-bodied adults remained outside of the workforce. Bronx Community Board District One had a poverty rate of 45 percent - and did not contain a single supermarket of 2,500 square feet or more. Yet convenience stores, bodegas, and fast food restaurants were plentiful. In the 10451 zip code there were three McDonald's. It's no wonder that hunger and obesity are flip sides of the same malnutrition coin.

To tackle our interconnected food, nutrition, and poverty crises, the federal government should launch a "Good Food, Good Jobs" initiative.

Modeled after the "green jobs" concept, "Good Food, Good Jobs" would create jobs through projects and businesses that bring healthier food to low-income areas. Food and job deserts could become new oases of economic recovery and healthy living. I detail my proposal in a new paper published today by the Progressive Policy Institute: http://www.progressivefix.com/joel-berg-good-food-good-jobs

This effort should build upon the burgeoning community food security movement, which is strengthening regional food connections with projects that are effective, but are currently too far small-scale to feed the masses. My home borough of Brooklyn, New York is a hotbed of such activism, with numerous food-related businesses and projects - ranging from fish farm experiments in a basement of Brooklyn College to a company trying to entice landowners to allow others to garden on their land in exchange for a cut of the produce grown and cash collected.

Citywide in New York, the Speaker of the City Council, Christine Quinn, has just launched a visionary Food Works plan to help further build upon such efforts: http://council.nyc.gov/html/releases/foodworks_12_7_09.shtml

The federal initiative I am proposing should begin by increasing funding for food systems projects of proven effectiveness, such as community and rooftop gardens, urban farms, food co-ops, farm stands, community supported agriculture (CSA) projects, and farmers' markets. Other important policies should include: expanding community kitchens that combine rescuing excess food with training people food-service jobs; helping new supermarkets locate in low-income areas and existing supermarkets thrive; and hiring unemployed youth to grow, market, sell, and deliver nutritious foods, while teaching them entrepreneurship skills.

The initiative should also take bold new steps. It should provide wage and even commuting subsidies to help current U.S. residents find living-wage work at regional and local farms, reducing the impetus for growers to exploit immigrant farm laborers. Since there is far more profit in processing food than in growing it, the initiative should focus on supporting food businesses that add value year-round, such as neighborhood food processing plants; businesses that turn produce into ready-to-eat salads and sandwiches; healthy vending-machine companies; and affordable and nutritious restaurants and caterers.

In contrast to making inconvenience a virtue in food preparation, this initiative should help working families by creating new types of ready-to-eat or easy-to-prepare foods that are nutritious, sustainable, and convenient. It should also support the construction and maintenance of community exercise and nutrition education centers, which would provide free or low-cost services to low-income community members, and subsidize those activities by charging more for higher-income families. And given the growing concerns over the world's fisheries, it should also provide a significant investment into the research and development of environmentally sustainable urban fish-production facilities.

The Obama Administration should forge a partnership with state, local, and tribal governments, nonprofits, and the private sector to scale up such projects. Just as the federal recovery bill invested in the idea of "green jobs," a new "food jobs" agenda could spur not just economic stimulus but fight hunger, cut obesity, improve nutrition, and help reduce health costs.

The President, the First Lady, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack have pledged to end U.S. child hunger by 2015 while also tackling obesity. Those objectives, combined with the need to jumpstart the still sluggish jobs market, make a "Good Food, Good Jobs" initiative a promising idea. 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 the worst case, it 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.