A Walmart Manager, a Farmer, and a Bodega Owner Walk into a City Planner’s Office: Food Deserts, Urban Agriculture, and Nutrition in the City

by Scott Baumgartner
November 11, 2010

The first Walmart in the city of Chicago opened in 2006 following a bitter fight between supporters, including Mayor Richard Daley, and opponents, including the zoning board, who showed their opposition by passing a bill that would have required Walmart to pay its Chicago employees a base wage of $13 per hour. Daley vetoed the measure and the Walmart was approved over the board’s objections1.

Yet this July, the Chicago zoning board unanimously approved a second – and then a third – store. What changed? For one, union supporters and Walmart struck a deal in which the discount department store chain promised to pay employees at least fifty cents above the minimum wage. Another reason, however, was that the city had begun focusing its attention on the problem of food deserts – swaths of city blocks that lack local, healthy food options for their residents due to a dearth of grocery stores, adequate public transportation and a high number of fast-food restaurants and carry-outs.

The recently approved Walmart, which will be built in South Chicago, will undoubtedly improve access to food in underserved neighborhoods, providing some residents with their first walking-distance grocery store. Detractors, however argue that urban Walmarts and the like will kill local business and supply only low-skill, low-wage jobs2. In their eyes, initiatives to improve food options in inner cities should target local grocers and support a truly local, healthy, and sustainable food supply. As more and more cities address their food deserts, both camps are seeing progress in bringing food to underserved neighborhoods through a wide variety of local policies and programs across the country.

“Sets of Deliberate Choices”: New York City’s FRESH Initiative, the FEED DC Act, and the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative

The 2006 report “Good Food: Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Chicago,” commissioned by the Chicago-headquartered LaSalle Bank, found that people living in food deserts were almost exclusively black and poor. Moreover, individuals in these areas experienced diet-related diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity at higher rates than individuals with access to healthier food options.3 The report identified numerous food deserts across the city of Chicago and recommended a “set of deliberate choices” be made to improve access to healthy food options, including changing zoning laws, providing subsidies and tax credits, and securing favorable financing for developers4. Since the publication of “Good Food,” other cities and states have undertaken studies of their own food deserts and developed initiatives to eradicate them.

New York City’s FRESH initiative provides zoning incentives that encourage mixed-use development – putting grocery stores on the ground floors of residential buildings – and reductions in parking requirements. Both have the added benefit of promoting less car-dependent urban environments5 . In addition to the zoning incentives, New York’s FRESH initiative gives grocery store owners tax exemptions and reductions for building in underserved areas, identified through a 2008 study of food deserts and diet-related diseases in New York City6. With particular emphasis on small grocers and corner stores, the FRESH initiative requires an eligible grocery store to be at most 6,000 square feet, or about one-eighth the size of the average supermarket7.

In Washington, D.C., a report by the group DC Hunger Solutions found that, despite a provision on the books that gives supermarkets ten years’ grace on property tax for building in the city, five of the eight city wards had an inadequate number of grocery stores8. To combat the District of Columbia’s food desert problem, Councilmember Mary Cheh has introduced the FEED DC Act, which provides incentives for building supermarkets in low-income areas and creates a separate program in the mayor’s office dedicated to providing and managing grants to build supermarkets in underserved areas9. Additionally, the bill would create a Healthy Food Retail Program to provide financial assistance and tax breaks to corner stores and farmers markets, provided that they accept WIC and food stamps and employ District of Columbia residents10.

The Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative is a public/private partnership that has provided grants to build eighty-eight grocery stores in food deserts and underserved areas across the state11. With a bigger purview, this program targets underserved areas beyond urban centers and reaches into suburban and rural environments12.

These tax incentives can be a powerful tool to promote food equity, but cities will have to ensure that the requirements for program eligibility are based on up-to-date demographic data13. Both Pennsylvania’s Fresh Food Financing Initiative and Washington D.C.’s decade-old supermarket tax exemption rely on income data provided by the Census,14 which became problematic in the District recently when the city council voted to extend the tax credit to an organic grocer trying to open a store in Columbia Heights. This gentrifying area of the city had undergone vast changes in the decade since the last Census, and was already well-served by grocery stores15.

When hearings were held on the FEED DC Act in October 2010, it was criticized for defining the underserved areas it targets using language in the 13-year old Taxpayer Relief Act of 199716. These areas, known as “enterprise zones,” extend beyond the District of Columbia’s food deserts and into areas already well-served by grocery stores17. Had this definition remained in the bill, developers could have reaped the tax benefits of building a grocery store in an enterprise zone without actually increasing healthy food options in underserved areas. The most recent draft of the bill instead limits eligibility for tax incentives to only grocery stores in census tracts eligible for low-income housing tax credits18.

Sprawl into Soil

Food justice, a movement that encourages community-based solutions and incorporates aspects of environmentalism, advocates for community stores and local grocers as a solution to food deserts. For many food justice advocates, a supermarket that sets up shop in a neighborhood, even if it stocks fresh produce, is still a tentacle of the industrial food system that ultimately harms the overall health of the neighborhood. Instead, these advocates offer groundbreaking solutions that are beginning to take effect in some of the most economically depressed cities in the country.

Many cities and some states have formed food councils, which provide a venue for political leaders, citizens, organizations, and players in the food system to coordinate on food policy19. Forums like these have the potential to create innovative policy solutions, such as plans drafted in Detroit to change the zoning restrictions on vacant blocks throughout the city to promote widespread urban farming20. Tax incentives similar to those used for grocery stores in New York City, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia would be provided to startup urban farms, and vacant city land would be sold at a discounted rate if the buyer intended to farm on it. A more ambitious (and controversial) second stage of Detroit’s urban agriculture policy proposal would create zoning regulations for raising animals and livestock.

While innovative, the political viability of such a scheme is still undetermined. Detroit’s urban agriculture policy proposal, which was drafted in March 2010, has not seen much consideration since it became public. While Mayor Dave Bing has been favorable to the goals of food justice, the city’s current master plan does not include any plans to change zoning regulations for urban agriculture21.

Furthermore, even if Detroit sees success with these plans, it is hard to say whether they alone could eradicate food deserts in cities with less widespread vacancies for farming. Nevertheless, the idea of turning sprawl into soil and abandoned factories into greenhouses is an elegant solution to providing low-income neighborhoods with food options. Other cities have already taken note. Formal municipal policies to create special zoning for urban agriculture have been discussed in Seattle, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Baltimore, and Boston22.

For urban agriculture and food justice advocates, the problems with food and nutrition in our cities are more than a localized economic problem. They’re symptomatic of a larger infrastructural issue with the way food is grown and distributed in the United States. Yet the path forward is unclear. Challenging our entire food system might make the whole country healthier in the long run, but it isn’t nearly as immediate or tangible as building a Walmart with a grocery section, especially to those who will finally have healthy food options within walking distance of their houses. Through another lens, the problem is symptomatic of an entirely different structural problem – a question of class, race, and exclusion that a few tax incentives cannot possibly address23. Overall, the devastating public health problems caused by poor nutrition are not likely to be fixed just by building a supermarket or starting a farmers market; proposals need to be enacted on a large scale and managed effectively. Multiple approaches will be necessary – from Walmarts to urban farms and everything in between.

Read More:

  1. “When Healthy Food Is Out of Reach,” a report on food deserts in Washington, DC by DC Hunger Solutions:http://www.dchunger.org/pdf/grocerygap.pdf
  2. “Feeding the City,” a running series about our urban food system and those working to change it, from Grist.org:http://www.grist.org/article/series/food-feeding-the-city
  3. 2010 Food Desert Progress Report for Chicago, by Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group, who produced the first “Good Food” report in 2006:http://marigallagher.com/site_media/dynamic/project_files/2010_Chicago_Food_Desert_Progress_Report.pdf
  4. Mogk, John, Sarah Kwiakowski, and Mary Jo Weindorf. “Promoting Urban Agriculture as an Alternative Land Use for Vacant Properties in the City of Detroit: Benefits, Problems, and Proposals for a Regulatory Framework for Successful Land Use Integration.” Wayne State University Law School. 1 August 2010. Web.http://www.law.wayne.edu/pdf/urban_agriculture_policy_paper_mogk.pdf


  1. Patton, Leslie and Matthew Boyle. “Walmart Cracks Chicago by Splitting Union, Non-Union Workers.” Bloomberg.com. Bloomberg L.P., 22 July 2010. Web. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-07-22/wal-mart-cracks-chicago-market-by-splitting-unions-from-non-union-workers.html Accessed 21 October 2010.
  2. Clifford, Stephanie. “Walmart Gains in In Its Wooing of Chicago.”Nytimes.com. The New York Times, 24 June 2010. Web.http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/25/business/25walmart.html?_r=2 Accessed 17 October 2010.
  3. “Good Food: Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Chicago.” Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group:Chicago, Ill. 2006. Web. http://marigallagher.com/projects/Accessed 14 October 2010.
  4. ibid.
  5. “FRESH.” NYC.gov. The New York City Department of City Planning. 9 December 2009. Web.http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/html/fresh/index.shtml Accessed 17 October 2010.
  6. “Going to Market: New York City’s Neighborhood Grocery Store and Supermarket Shortage.” NYC.gov. New York City Department of City Planning. 29 October 2008. Web.
  7. “Financing and Incentives.” NYCEDC.gov. New York City Economic Development Corp. Web.http://www.nycedc.com/financingincentives/taxexemptions/fresh/Pages/fresh.aspx. Accessed 1 November 2010.
  8. “When Healthy Food Is Out of Reach.” DC Hunger Solutions:Washington, DC 2010. Web.http://www.dchunger.org/pdf/grocerygap.pdf. Accessed 1 November 2010.
  9. Committee on Government Operations and the Environment, Washington, DC City Council. “Working Draft: FEED DC Act.” Washington, DC: 20 October 2010.http://www.marycheh.com/images/committee/feeddc/102210%20FEED%20DC%20GOE%20Working%20Draft%20Clean.pdf
  10. “Working Draft: FEED DC Act.”
  11. “Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative.” The Food Trust. The Food Trust, 2004. Web.http://www.thefoodtrust.org/php/programs/fffi.php Accessed 17 October 2010.
  12. “Fresh Food Financing Initiative Program Guidelines.”
  13. Lazere, Ed. “It’s Time to Stop Shopping for Supermarket Tax Breaks.” DC Fiscal Policy Institute. DC Fiscal Policy Institute. 3 November 2009. Web.  http://www.dcfpi.org/it%E2%80%99s-time-to-stop-shopping-for-supermarket-tax-breaks Accessed 17 October 2010.
  14. “Fresh Food Financing Initiative Program Guidelines.” The Food Trust. The Food Trust, 2004. Web.http://www.thefoodtrust.org/pdf/Combined%20guidelines%20and%20application.pdf. Accessed 1 November 2010.
  15. Plotkin, Greg. “Will Tax Incentives Make Food Deserts Bloom?”Greater Greater Washington. Greater Greater Washington. 4 December 2009. Web.http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post.cgi?id=4243 Accessed 20 October 2010.
  16. Cheh, Mary, David A. Catania, Kwame R. Brown, and Tommy Wells. “As Introduced: FEED DC Act.” Washington, D.C.: 13 July 2010.http://www.marycheh.com/images/committee/feeddc/071310%20Feed%20DC%20Act%20as%20Introduced.pdf
  17. Boadi, Kwame. “FEEDing a Healthier DC.” DC Fiscal Policy Institute.DC Fiscal Policy Institute.  20 October 2010. Web.http://www.dcfpi.org/feeding-a-healthier-dc Accessed 20 October 2010.
  18. Roberts, Kristin. “Testimony on Bill 18-967, the ‘Food, Environmental, and Economic Development in the District of Columbia Act’.” DC Hunger Solutions. 22 October 2010. Web.http://www.marycheh.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=185
  19. Trueman, Kerry. “Smart Cities are (Un)paving the Way for Urban Farmers and Locavores.” Grist.org. Grist. 30 August 2010. Webhttp://www.grist.org/article/food-smart-cities-are-unpaving-the-way-for-urban-farmers-and-locavores/P1 Accessed 17 October 2010.
  20. City of Detroit Planning Commission memo to Detroit City Council. Detroit, MI. 18 March 2010.http://detroitagriculture.org/GRP_Website/Home_files/uaw_official_UrbanAgPolicyDraft1-1.pdf
  21. Berman, Laura. “Detroit Farming is Slow to Grow.” DetNews.com.The Detroit News. 17 August 2010. Web. http://www.detnews.com/article/20100817/OPINION03/8170369/1383/OPINION0308/Detroit-farming-is-slow-to-grow Accessed 20 October 2010.
  22. Levenston, Michael. “Zoning for Urban Agriculture, Excerpt from the Urban Agriculture Issue of Zoning Practice.” City Farmer News.City Farmer. 9 March 2010. Web.http://www.cityfarmer.info/2010/03/09/zoning-for-urban-agriculture/ Accessed 21 October 2010.
  23. “Why I Don’t Use the Term ‘Food Desert’.” People’s Grocery. People’s Grocery. 10 August 2009. Web.http://peoplesgrocery.org/blogs/brahm/2009/08/10/why-i-dont-use-the-term-food-desert/ Accessed 20 October 2010.

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