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Shouldn’t Access to Healthy Food Be Considered a Human Right?

It’s a problem in urban and rural areas alike, but the greatest impact is in cities where it amounts to “food apartheid.” Our best chance of solving it is to get our communities engaged in creating solutions.

The closed Walmart grocery in Atlanta’s Vine City neighborhood.
The Walmart grocery in Atlanta’s Vine City neighborhood. It closed two years ago following arsons at two of the company’s Atlanta stores and amid complaints of lower-than-anticipated profits but is scheduled to reopen next month. (WXIA/11Alive)
Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development arm, recently solicited input and ideas from developers and retail grocery operators to improve and increase residents’ access to healthy foods. This request for information was issued in support of Mayor Andre Dickens’ goal of having 85 percent of the city’s residents living within a half-mile of affordable healthy food options by next year. Atlanta joins a growing list of cities that are trying to address their food deserts, including Asheville, Buffalo, Chicago and Detroit. Roughly two dozen cities have appointed food policy directors.

Food deserts are by no means only an urban problem — plenty of rural towns grapple with it as well — but it’s in cities where the greatest numbers of people are affected. An estimated 53.6 million Americans live outside an easy walk or drive to a full-service supermarket. Too often the impact is greatest in low-income communities and communities of color, in what is coming to be described as “food apartheid.” Access to healthy food should be considered a human right.

When I was an Atlanta city councilmember in the 1990s, I was one of the loudest voices calling for the city to pay more attention to healthy food options in its strategies to redevelop underserved communities. I was on to something then, but neither the city nor I had the experiences to know what solutions worked best. Cities have had a lot more experience with the issue since then, and they can learn from others.

Part of our strategy then was to revitalize the city’s historic Westside by bringing in amenities such as a major food retailer to meet the fresh food needs of communities like Vine City, an underserved neighborhood close to downtown. The city convinced Publix to open a store in Vine City in 2002, but it closed after seven years, citing lower profits than expected. Walmart took over the space that Publix had occupied, but it closed two years ago following arsonist-set fires in two of the company’s Atlanta stores and amid complaints of lower-than-anticipated profits. It promises to reopen next month with a police substation onsite, but who knows if it will make a better go of it this time around.

Reflecting on our thinking at the time, I see the shortcomings of our vision for addressing the problem of food insecurity. We assumed a major retailer like Publix would inherently be superior to a local, minority-owned firm with a track record and commitment to community engagement like Atlanta’s Wayfield Foods. Today, we know this is not necessarily the case. If a major retailer is to be successful, that grocer must be as concerned about becoming a part of the community as turning a profit. This, as we all understand, proposes particular challenges for for-profit business models.

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson and other city officials have been dealing with this problem in the Englewood neighborhood on the city’s South Side. Whole Foods opened a store there in 2016 with great fanfare, but it closed six years later after Amazon purchased the natural-food chain. The manager who headed up the store in the beginning told the city and customers he was committed to operating at a lower profit margin. But Amazon executives obviously had a different idea.

When supermarkets close in fragile neighborhoods like Vine City and Englewood, it leaves a major vacuum and limits options for loyal customers who have become dependent on those businesses. Chicago and some other cities are exploring what Governing's Alan Ehrenhalt has suggested might be dubbed “supermarket socialism”: opening city-owned grocery stores as a public utility or providing subsidies to traditional retailers. Both options may work in certain situations, but given Atlanta’s experience with Publix and Walmart, I would caution against directly subsidizing major food chains without getting solid commitments up front for levels of service and years of operation.

One additional thing we should have learned since the 1990s: The solution to providing healthy food is more than an issue of just the food. It involves taking a holistic approach to community development and education. Just having access to healthy food doesn’t mean that residents raised on a fast-food diet and processed foods will readily accept healthier food options. Community engagement also entails helping more families establish gardens in their yards, providing them with an opportunity to appreciate how freshly grown vegetables taste versus processed foods. It means inspiring them to want to get their hands dirty and enjoy the sweat equity that comes with a garden-to-table concept of eating.

These activities will often lead to a greater awareness of the importance of larger-scale community initiatives like the development of farmers markets and food cooperatives. There are scores of examples of what works in this space and what doesn’t. The Detroit People’s Food Co-op is an example of a community-building approach that will offer incubator kitchens for startup entrepreneurs, community meeting spaces and offices.

There are other examples. The East Oakland Grocery Cooperative in California is a Black-owned and -run store with the goal of “building community and providing fresh, local and healthy foods and job opportunities.” In Buffalo, supporters of the African Heritage Food Co-Op finally received funding to launch their operation following the murders of 10 African Americans at a local grocery store in 2022. Most food co-ops don’t have tragic murders to motivate funders, but they do have other triggers like the closing of a beloved store or the impact of decades of community disinvestment and redlining.

Rural areas have their own particular challenges. In tiny Emerson, Neb., the Post 60 Market, a food co-op, opened in 2022 after the town’s only supermarket closed. State lawmakers in Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska are considering legislation that would provide grants and loans for small grocers in rural communities, similar to measures already passed in Illinois, Minnesota, North Dakota and Oklahoma.

Public funding will help, but it is going to take far more than financial incentives to overcome food apartheid. There are many lessons to be learned, but our best chance of solving the problem is getting our communities engaged in participatory democracy and proclaiming access to healthy food as the human right that it is.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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