THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Fat and Fated? The Changeable State of Low-Income Communities, Part III

Despite the potential that farmers' markets and community gardens have for changing eating habits and consumer behavior, they need government support in order to succeed, especially in low-income communities and in neighborhoods where they have never existed. Unlike large-scale farms that receive massive government support, and whose output ends up dispersed through a vast web of products and national grocery stores, small-scale farmers sell their produce and livestock directly, without manufacturing, processing, or middle men--and largely without the help of Uncle Sam.

Growing crops to be sold directly does not offer much margin for error, in the form of bad weather or lack of attendance at the farm stand or farmers' market. In order to encourage small farmers to keep growing, and to encourage community members to patronize them, local governments should support small-scale farmers through subsidies, easily obtainable grants and free training to use the equipment necessary to sell efficiently to the public--such as the EBT machines required to accept food stamps. Farmers' markets should be clearly marked and advertised, and public transportation should be provided on days when the market takes place, so that everyone can have a fair shot of benefiting, both from the producer and the consumer side.

Unfortunately, small farmers do not receive the kind of aid their larger competitors often enjoy. In fact, rather than facilitating the growth and success of small farmers at farmers' markets, state, local and large-scale government often impede their growth. The same goes for community gardens: a variety of bureaucratic forces are at work in many states, keeping communities from growing their own food, or from buying it from each other. Changing this could be a key element in changing the way American neighborhoods--especially inner city communities--perceive their food, with the overarching goal of improving America's health.

While farmers' markets across the United States are experiencing a renaissance, virtually all are the result of grassroots community support. This is appropriate, given their value in creating and representing community, but support from state and local offices could vastly improve their reach and efficiency. Take Houston, for example. It is not difficult for many of the city's affluent shoppers to drive to a variety of farmers' markets and pay the higher price for local foodstuffs. But for lower-income residents, shopping at the many weekday and weekend markets can be impossible: not only are the markets not advertised in these neighborhoods, but public transportation is spotty. Few people will walk or bike to markets when they have to return home with bagfuls of produce, eggs or cheese--especially not in 100 degree weather. Ultimately, these shoppers are often priced out anyway.

One of our local markets recently attempted to become more accommodating to poor consumers, but was denied a grant by the USDA. Sadly, this rejection will prevent that market--as well as the city's other markets--from using food stamps. Why? Because the USDA mandates that people running farmers' markets receive proper training in order to operate the expensive EBT machines. But people cannot afford either the machines, or the cost of the training, without a substantial grant. Now, all of the local farmers who sell to that market will continue to reach only the clientele that can afford to buy fresh produce at the cost and inconvenience it takes to buy locally.

Even worse, states often prevent their residents from selling produce they grow: community gardens are not to be used for commercial gain in many municipalities, and neighborhoods are often prevented from growing anything on vacant lots. This is enough to discourage anyone, but is particularly detrimental to individuals living in inner city communities who are more likely to have vacant lots in their neighborhoods and to want to make their growing efforts economically viable. Cities should make it possible for communities to grow their own food and sell it for profit. Not only does community gardening have the potential to make neighborhoods physically more healthful, more engaged, and more economically stable, they also turn abandoned, otherwise dangerous areas into beautiful, communal spaces.

In order to make farmers' markets and community gardens a feasible economic option for all of the community's residents, cities and states should help these projects receive the funding, attention and legal help necessary to move forward. Farmers' markets should be advertised and clearly marked, with special attention placed on community centers, medical centers and in low-income neighborhoods. Cities should make transportation to these markets easy and efficient so that individuals who don't live within walking distance are not alienated. This doesn't require building a new subway system or implementing a different bus route: shuttle services could easily be provided within the hours of market operation, at relatively low cost.

Ultimately, such a system--if properly advertised--would pay for itself. As individuals pay local farmers, the regional economy will only be strengthened. Finally, state and local governments should ensure that the proper training is given to those who want to accept food stamps from their consumers--driving low-income shoppers away by not offering food aid would be detrimental not only to the physical health, but also to the social well-being of those communities. Everyone should be enfranchised and welcomed where fresh, healthy food is concerned.

Empowering communities to seek out healthy food and to participate in the communal act of growing or procuring such food is the bottom line where food issues (both financial and health related) are concerned. People building communities around sustainably grown, harvested and distributed food is an essential factor to changing the way America's land and animals are treated. More importantly, making healthy, fresh food available to all groups of the population--not just the privileged few--will change the way American people are treated.