Food in the Public Square

The Collective Human Experience

Tag: B.R. Cohen

Food Justice and Flood Zones

I was caught off guard this summer when a reporter called to ask why a new public market in Easton did not solve the food desert problem. My first reaction was to admit I didn’t know it was supposed to solve that problem nor that it, alone, could. The reporter’s angle was that a number of merchants in the market were high-end vendors. The developers should have rented the spaces to farmers and sellers who had more affordable food and wares. The implication was that that would’ve solved the food desert problem. By adding a new market, the community would overcome the deprivation of a deserted area. Or, to play the metaphor out with actual deserts, it would be to put a water fountain in the Sahara.

In fact, the question had me thinking of a different water problem, flooding. Bear with me for a moment so I can make sense of how I want to jump from one topic to an ostensibly different one.

Easton is a flooding city. It sits at the confluence of the Delaware and Lehigh Rivers. Four times in ten years the Center Square that hosts the farmers’ market was underwater during storms. The Delaware itself has flooded eight times in twenty years.

One might suggest that the city could solve the flooding problem by stacking sandbags along the intersection of the two rivers. Maybe the city government would do this, maybe a non-profit, maybe both. They would go about it by building a small wall to keep the water out. Maybe they’d get funding to add 1000 or 10,000 bags. In fact, they wouldn’t measure it by number of bags. It would be a five-foot wall that was three feet thick, perhaps. Or an eight-foot wall five feet thick. And so on.

When a flood came around and it over-topped the sandbags, would we sit around and ask, Why didn’t that small stand of sandbags solve the flooding problem?

I doubt it.

More likely, we would recognize that that was one small effort in what would have to be a host of initiatives. Rather than a stack of sandbags, we would likely wonder about the degree of water flow, asking if it was produced by rain, a hurricane, an up-river event, the intensification of impervious pavement (paved surfaces) that has increased water flow into the river over the decades. We might ask if water control in northern Pennsylvania or near the source of the Delaware in New York had influenced the flow downriver. We might ask about recreation along the river, the ways boats use it for commerce and cities control its course, how the river is a habitat, the ways the integrity of the river banks maintain how well the river holds or shifts its place and direction. We might ask about water management policy. We might wonder if climate change is affecting the possibilities of flooding. And so on.

In effect, with even minor deliberation we would pull back to recognize that flooding issues at one spot along a river are produced by conditions far greater than that singular location alone. Nobody would say a stack of sandbags could have solved the flooding problem. That would be to suggest a singular, schematic solution. It might help, to be sure, but it would be one part of a collective approach, it would aid the more sufficient response to flooding policy is that assumes it is a complex environmental and political problem.

So too for “food deserts.”

Those working for healthier and more equitable food systems have been using the concept of food deserts for the past fifteen years. The USDA defined it as “a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store,” even providing a mapping service to help people visualize the desert locations. In one sense, it is encouraging to find that a concept aimed at questions of food justice has gone from obscurity to the local news as something everyday citizens need to pay attention to. That is to be applauded. The reporter is making food deserts a point of obvious concern.

Yet as food justice advocates argue, the problem brought to light by food deserts is not one of individual consumers, but one about food policies. Addressing food deserts through stores is only one element of addressing a more complex policy problem. Like flooding, even minor deliberation should have us pulling back to recognize that inequitable food systems in one town are produced by conditions far greater than that singular location alone.

To assume the food desert problem is one of individual access is to assume consumer interaction is the thing to address. That’s certainly and obviously part of the issue. But we have food deserts for reasons beyond just consumer practices. We also have them because of land use patterns, urban planning, community organization, and the like, all factors that influence the foods that are possible in certain places. If there aren’t regional farms to produce food for urban markets, then how will we stock their shelves? If there aren’t sustainable means to distribute food, beyond long-haul trucking or refrigerated rail cars or inter-continental air traffic, then how could the market options be healthy for people or the earth? This is to say, we also have food deserts because of flaws in the distribution and production of food, not just its purchase and consumption. Thus it is true: a new public market will not on its own solve the food desert problem. Assuming so would be to adopt a strictly individual consumer-side perspective. The market-based component must instead be part of a broader approach to a systemic issue that is fully cultural, political, technical, and environmental.

Fortunately, beyond just the new public market, Easton is host to a number of activities to do just that, working toward healthier and more equitable food systems through a variety of efforts. The NEH-funded “Food in the Public Square” that hosts this website is one of them, as it strives to bring together people from all walks of life to collaborate on problem definition in our food system. I wrote previously about a project in Easton’s West Ward led by the West Ward Neighborhood Partnership that Sophia Feller, Lynn Holden, and Larry Malinconico started four years ago. It has sought to build community strength by bringing together neighbors through fresh food distribution. The Kellyn Foundation is making strides with the Two Hearts Foundation to introduce even more mobile market options throughout Easton. The new Lehigh Valley Food Policy Council is working on developing broader policy initiatives to help similar issues.

The new public market will not solve the food desert problem, just as the thriving farmer’s market half a block away has not solved it, just as a new grocery store alone in the West Ward would not solve it. Yet as I wrote in my prior post, I would avoid either/or scenarios to recognize that the work for healthier and more equitable food systems is the work of pluralism, a pluralism grounded in seeing the problems not as individualist issues—just buy better food, just put in a store—but of political action and policy innovation.

B.R. Cohen, Lafayette College

Forests and Trees, Food Policies and Individuals

“Certain forms of knowledge and control require a narrowing of vision,” writes the agrarian studies pioneer James Scott. We have to choose to see and define things narrowly and if we want to control them. We have to choose to think of a forest as so many boardfeet of lumber to cut and sell, for example. Not a habitat for birds or insects, not erosion protection, not shade for rest or to burrow, not a food source for other animals but a stand of trees that can be cut into planks. Not the forest, but the trees. It leads to problems because it reduces our view. We may narrow our vision of the problems at hand, but only at our peril (that was Scott’s point). A more ecological view—which is wider, complex, and interrelated—would help us build a healthier world.

This narrowing tendency is true in the ways we talk about food issues too. It’s not a good idea. For instance, we can think about food and food choices as consumers. We can think of food issues by considering producers, the manufacturers that make most of our food, or the farmers before them, or gardeners. We can think of the processors who take harvested crops and convert them into aisles of processed goods. We can talk about kitchens and cooking as places to look if you want to address food problems today. We can focus on community, or family, or tradition. But we don’t think of all of that. It’s too hard. I get it. It’s too difficult for me too.

One thing people can do is to keep working on better ways to talk about things. So we can come up with better ways to think about things. So we could have a society that is wider, complex, and interrelated.

The Food in the Public Square keynote speaker Julie Guthman is a great example of someone helping point out what we lose when we frame things one way over another—when we narrow our vision. In this case, much of Guthman’s work reacts to a narrow sense of justice or culture or community. Consider that she’s cracked back at Michael Pollan, or at least at a certain narrowing of vision that can come from reading his work. More recently, in Weighing In, she’s argued against the ease of body mass index (BMI) and claims about obesity. BMI is another case of narrowing our vision of who we are as people, as bodies, as eaters. You are not a fully embodied person. You are a measure of body mass index. That reduces who you are as a person.

In most cases, probably all, Guthman has made the point that our food and politics are about more than just individuals. Which means the ways we address food concerns can’t just be about what we choose to do as individuals. I think it’s a narrowing of vision that leads us to think that the way to a better food system is through better individual choices. One of her articles, If They Only Knew , speaks to that misperception. She questions who “they” are, who says so, and whether simply knowing where your food comes from makes a healthier person. It’s more complicated. It isn’t so narrow.

It can certainly be easier to talk about individual choice—pick better foods; go to different stores; grow a lot of healthy things. Those are things someone might be able to do right now, today, after they read this. It is actionable and direct. (I think we can be working on that, by the way. This isn’t an either/or situation.) Yet, when you pull back and say that it’s also about policies and cultural context and economic pressure, it gets harder to know what the One Single Action I Could Do is. We don’t live in a world of unlimited options, so the idea that there are easy answers (narrow ones) is compelling.  To say the opposite—that food issues are complicated and long-term and cultural and political and historical—is a lot less satisfying because you come away not knowing what to do. But we can create ways to work on the harder problems.

Tellingly, Guthman’s work also makes the point that working on the harder problems requires more people, requires us to ask more about people (like me) using the royal “we” in blog posts, and requires a more pluralistic discussion. (I’ve written about this in other forums, asking for pluralism over centralization, asking to avoid narrowing the efforts we make about food in the public square.) Not only would we do better to avoid narrowing our vision of food, we would do better to avoid narrowing the range of people who are in on the conversation about food. I can’t say that’s easy to do, but I do think it’s the problem to address.

– B.R. Cohen, Lafayette College

Food as a means too, not just an end

I came to the Lehigh Valley in 2011 after teaching for a number of years in central Virginia, where there was a thriving local food scene. One basic tenet of the work there was to push for two related ways to talk about food: as a way we connect to nature and as something that brings people together. I was thus happy a few years ago to join my colleague Larry Malinconico at Lafayette to work on what was then called The Veggie Van. Larry and a team of students had worked from 2013 to develop the Veggie Van model as a more effective way to distribute fresh, local produce from community gardens in the West Ward of Easton to its residents. Sophia Feller of the West Ward Neighborhood Partnership (WWNP) had been working with many others in community gardens and new Easton Urban Farm to grow more food neighborhood by neighborhood. It was an effort in urban agriculture dedicated to growing green space, growing food, and growing community bonds. In some circles, they would call it an effort in eliminating “food deserts” by providing better access to fresh, healthy produce for residents.

One difficulty among many in cultivating community gardens is the time and labor necessary to keep them going. This is a problem of social and environmental justice. Therefore, Sophia, Larry, and the team of students sought ways to bring the garden food to residents and not just have residents go to the gardens. The then-called Veggie Van would be somewhat like an ice cream truck, but for vegetables, setting up shop at various points in the West Ward so residents could come by to get produce, donate what they could, and find the funds going back into operating those gardens for more food. After a trial year, the team learned that setting up shop at one location was better, because it provided consistency, reliability, and familiarity. It soon became the Veggie Stand, with weekly set-ups in the West Ward from July to September.

When I got involved with the Veggie Stand in 2014, I was interested to see how it could promote the two mutually beneficial goals I was familiar with from my earlier work. The project was indeed structured for those advantages. It helped promote the health of the land by bringing more urban space into agricultural cultivation, by creating more green space, and by helping people see themselves part, not just at the end, of the food lifecycle (“from farm to fork”). It helped the health of the community by providing more fresh produce, by working to fill in a food desert, and by recognizing that doing so could follow from the choices residents made about the food they wanted to plant, cultivate, and harvest. In other words, it could promote environmental strength by helping the health of the land and the heath of the people at the same time.

The Veggie Stand is now entering its third full season and continuing to bind together the two ends of a food lifecycle, from garden to stand. To help this cause, one key development has been to see how the project is itself a space for community building. This has meant a shift in the mission of the project. It has moved in helpful ways from seeing food as an end in itself—and in this measure, more food means a more successful project—to understanding food as a means to some other end. In the new mission, our goal is build the Veggie Stand as a community space, a place where people gather each week, share recipes, bring dishes, play games, listen and play music, and participate in cooking demos. With that mission, food is a means to the ends of community health. It also shows that the Veggie Stand offers a way for people to connect to nature while building a space that brings people together.

The whole project is an extended test case worth continuing. The kinds of community conversations we have each week at 10thand Pine in Easton’s West Ward are the kinds we would hope to extend with this Food in the Public Square series of conversations.

– B.R. Cohen, Lafayette College