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.