Skip to content

Emily M. Broad Leib, All (Food) Politics is Local: Increasing Food Access through Local Government Action, 7 Harv. L. & Pol'y Rev. 321 (2013).

Abstract: Our national and international food system has implications for a wide range of issues that are important across the political spectrum and include improving health outcomes, reducing environmental impacts, increasing social justice, fostering economic development, and even improving homeland security. This article focuses on healthy-food access, one of the most urgent food policy issues because of its social and economic effects, as well as its public health impacts. In 2010, thirty-six percent of Americans were obese and another thirty-three percent were overweight, while eight percent of Americans were diabetic and thirty-five percent suffered from pre-diabetes. Though food access is not perfectly correlated with public health outcomes, those with limited access to healthy foods often suffer most acutely, as people living in areas with access to a supermarket exhibit a twenty-four percent lower prevalence of obesity than those living in areas without supermarkets. Increased food access has been linked to results as diverse as improved educational outcomes and crime reduction. Local governments have been particularly attentive to food policy concerns. Thirteen cities in North America now have a paid local food policy director or coordinator, and more than 130 cities and counties in the United States and Canada have local food policy councils, comprised of diverse stakeholders interested in improving the way food is produced and consumed. Municipalities have enacted a range of food policy reforms, such as increasing governmental procurement of local or healthy foods, improving access to food in schools, and incentivizing consumers to purchase healthy foods. Many recent local actions focus explicitly on increasing healthy-food access, including amending zoning codes to increase urban agriculture, creating new mobile vending outlets, and enhancing transportation routes to healthy-food retailers. In January 2012, the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) convened its first ever Food Policy Taskforce, which immediately identified increasing access to healthy foods as one of its primary areas of concern. Local governments are also beginning to acknowledge that each locality faces its own food-system challenges with differing policy solutions, meaning that local responses to local issues can be more successful than federal or state approaches. This article aims to encourage those localities not yet active in food policy to join the field. The discussion focuses on methods of fostering access to healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and other unprocessed, fresh products. Local governments are particularly well suited to increase food access because they have the unique ability to identify areas of need and then work with local constituents to craft targeted responses. Part II explains the concept of “food deserts,” or areas that lack healthy-food access, and provides historical context about their development. As described in Part II.A, the federal government has attempted to respond to the problem, but its efforts have suffered as a result of its narrow food-desert definition and limited ability to work directly with affected communities. Instead, as explained in Part II.B, local government is better suited to address food access because food is such a cultural and community-based issue, and local input is vital to successfully expand food access. This section identifies steps that local governments should take to engage the community and identify appropriate solutions. Part III highlights policy responses taken by localities around the country and across the food system, illustrating that despite the similarities in the problem of limited food access, local governments have a variety of tools to address this issue and can and should tailor responses to their specific needs in order to achieve success.