John C. Jones, MPA, PhD

Category: Public Policy

The Importance of Framing Food System Development from an Economic Development Perspective

Most scholars and advocates frame narratives of why urban food system development is important using either a) moral/ethical arguments (e.g. food justice or food sovereignty), such as all people deserve healthy, culturally appropriate foods; or b) public health arguments under the social determinates of health theory, that healthy food is one factor that underpins good health. Often, these two narratives are conjoined.

Both of these narratives are valid and important. However, these scholars and advocates may miss the mark because their narratives for public-sector intervention lack political viability. This critique is likely true for interventions across all levels of government, but my experience working in politics and government suggests this is most true at the local-level. Many of the local-level officials I have spoken with in my research tend to agree with both the narratives I have noted above, however these local-level elected officials and senior administrators face strong pressure to generate short-term results with only limited staff and resources.

Working towards either of the above narratives creates a messaging problem for local-level public decision makers, as they are focused on measurable, short-term success. Progress towards greater food justice/sovereignty in any community is difficult to measure even under the best scholarly circumstances. Improving overall community health through a better food system is more measurable, but the time required to document improvement is normally beyond the next election cycle or the next contract negotiation. This pressure to deliver short-term results is a problem of democracy at the theoretical level, and far beyond the ability to people interested in promoting better food systems to overcome.

One potential response to this conflict with democracy is the addition of an economic development lens in the two narratives noted above. Uses an economic development lens provides local public decision makers with more easily quantifiable results for their next election, contract renewal, or performance evaluation. Some examples might include: increased number of micro/small businesses, additional jobs created, additional pounds/units of food grown/produced, or increased property values. However, the addition of this lens requires that scholars, entrepreneurs, and community advocates conceptualize their local food system from this lens, and to collect data in support of this framing.

I am sensitive to the criticism that adding an economic development frame reinforces the neoliberal desire to shrink government’s role in broad-based social policy, especially at the local and urban spheres. I view my rhetorical point as a response to neoliberalism, not a reinforcement of that idea. Federal and state policy strongly shapes, mostly in a restrictive manner, the potential policy playing field for local public decision makers interested in building healthy food systems. Local-level officials interested in improve community food systems need sufficient longevity in their positions to affect the mid-to-long term policy changes necessary. Using economic development framing can help them win reelection or a contract renewal so they can continue their broader work using food justice and social determinate narratives.

Identifying Public Land for Transitive vs Transformative Uses by Urban Agriculture

One of my dissertation’s major themes is that the local and state governments need to act intentionally regarding urban food enterprise development. My research found many examples of how local and state policies unintentionally negatively affected the ability of entrepreneurs to grow their operations. One example of these unintentional policies I commonly observed is when local and state governments provided urban farmers access to publicly owned, vacant land under less than ideal conditions. In these cases, government officials sought to utilize urban agriculture as a short-term stop-gap for a piece of land until development pressure for a higher and better use (e.g. an residential or commercial building) for that land returned. Often this manifested as short-term leases (e.g. six month or one year leases), which farmers noted prevented them from investing in infrastructure, such as soil improvement or water access, to improve their farm’s economic viability. However,some officials I spoke with said they would like to provide longer-term access to publicly owned land that faces less development pressure in the short-term so that farmers would have more flexibly to develop infrastructure.

I believe that urban agriculture generally, including both commercial farming and non-commercial gardening, can play a role in providing short-term uses for land that will be developed in the near future. I refer to this as a transitional use. However, I also believe that urban agriculture, specifically commercialized farming, can potentially have a transformative effect on the surrounding neighborhood if farmers have the proper infrastructure and time to develop their farms. I refer to this as a transformative use. Government officials seeking to engage urban agriculture for either use should intentionally identify public land that would be well suited to short-term land access as well as long-term land access. However, to avoid potential accusations of being arbitrary or capricious through land access programs, officials should utilize an empirical system to determine which land should be targeted for transitional use and which land could be targeted for transformative use. Land Evaluation and Site Assessment (LESA) is a spatial analysis technique that uses geographic information systems (GIS) technology to generate a score for all potential land in a given community or neighborhood based on a number of variables. Officials could then make land that scores high for transitional or transformative uses available to urban farmers. The score produced by a LESA can also include physical or spatial characteristics of land that are likely to encourage urban farmers to succeed in developing economically.

I have recently thought about what variables might be important for such a LESA. Here are a few examples:
a) soil type (assuming original soil)
b) land slope
c) access to water infrastructure
d) road distance to closest food hub or regional aggregation point
e) likelihood of development pressure in next 3-5 years

I found Tulloch, Myers, Hasse, Parks, & Lathrop (2003) provided a good overview of the general LESA technique, but others likely exist as well. If your jurisdiction or organization is interested in this type of LESA for your community, I am capable of performing this analysis on a consultant basis. Please contact me for more details.

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