Food deserts are a very real problem for the United States. The USDA defines this as “Food deserts are defined as parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas. This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers.” To punctuate this human impact of these deserts, according to Feeding America, 1 in 8 Americans faces the stress of hunger. Cultivating an urban food forest better not only connects people to their food – both the effort it takes to produce and harvest it as well as its origins – but this effort also helps fill the gaps in that food desert map. From a city perspective, urban food forests solve land use quandaries, left over from vacant and abandoned properties that bifurcate communities, contribute to making our available public spaces more productive and more accessible while fostering a healthier ecosystem.
In order to better understand urban food layers it’s important to know what they are and why they are important. Analysis of food deserts alone present an incomplete picture of food sources and their impact on a community. An urban food layer is a lens to explore different food options for an urban area. Mapping these layers, at the global scale that Falling Fruit addresses and the local scale, helps highlight relationships and better connect those layers to community context. Overlapping the various layers helps to inform future planning decisions (both municipal and commercial) that bring sustainability to the food system.
Food layers include urban agriculture elements like public and private gardens (unity gardens, community gardens, and yardens), as well as food forests (public fruit trees and private orchards). Food layers also include farms, grocery stores, farmer’s markets, and co-ops. South Bend’s farms include, among others, Thistleberry, Prairie Wind, Bertrand, and Kane’s. Grocery stores include Bamber’s El Paraiso, Saigon Market, Purple Porch, Martin’s, and Big Box stores like Target, Meijer, and Walmart/Sam’s Club. Other food layers include restaurants, temporary or pop-up food options (food trucks/carts), and quik marts/gas stations.
As you can well imagine, not all food options within each layer are created equal. This leads to the next level of understanding and measurement of the food layers: accessibility. Access to the different elements within a layer is rated by aspects of proximity (walk zone coverage, distance from TODs and residential zones), affordibility, hours of operation, menu/available dietary options, age restrictions (bars vs pubs), awareness (connectivity and delivery options). In other words, access is predicated on knowing about the options and the ability to take advantage of those options. Too much friction (too far, too expensive, limited options, too unhealthy) restricts the available market and lessens the sustainability and success of each layer; both dynamically and systemically.
This is why it’s important to overlay the various food layers: determining strengths and weaknesses of the systems. This understanding will lead to a healthier, more sustainable, and certainly a more economically viable city.