This article features a Milwaukee farmer, Will Allen, who, through hard work, natural charm, and, of course, ability, sustains a thriving farm a mile away from a Milwaukee housing project.
My heart gets all melty on the subject of our failure to provide quality food to the poor - not only because of the tragedy of people in poor areas having access only to the crappiest of food and sometimes dying because of it, but until recently, I found it hard to believe that obesity and other problems related to eating poorly are sometimes out of the control of people who suffer from it. Turns out not everyone lives in the suburbs near a grocery store and owns a car.
First, the disbelief. It used to be the case for me that when I saw obese people, I assumed not that they were malnourished, but that they were simply eating too much - of whatever, I didn't really know or care. But often what is actually happening is that they are not eating the right foods because they can't afford to buy the right foods. In the Will Allen profile, Mr. Allen claims that the Pick n' Save nearest to the housing project is a three-mile trip. If you don't have a car, you're going to march to the nearest place, which is likely to be a fast food joint or convenience store. Imagine making meal after meal of 7-11 products. You'd get few vitamins and you'd probably put on a few pounds. But when we see an overweight person, the first thought for many of us is not usually, "you need to be eating more foods that are good for you." It's "you need to eat less."
Also, I think our country has kind of a screwed up political narrative about this. For example, I've heard it argued (but am too lazy to do the actual research to confirm) that food stamps largely cover not-so-nutritious food. If that's true, I think it's because of tax-haters and also because the words associated with "urban farming" are not "healthy," "job creating," and "fun," but rather "out-of-touch," "liberal" and "organic." So, if someone were to buy locally-grown organic romaine lettuce at a farmers market with food stamps, a politician may get up on a dais and scream, "This is an excess and an outrage. I pledge to save the taxpayers of this great state millions of dollars by reforming the program so that we all have to make sensible choices." Or, "providing children with free and reduced lunch is a waste of taxpayer dollars. We need to take responsibility as a society and pack nutritious meals for our children, or pony up the cash to buy them." Meanwhile, parents working for low-wages and long hours do not have time to pack their children healthy meals, and corporate suppliers are paying and lobbying the same characters to guarantee that their white bread and peanut butter are food-stamp-eligible and/or sold in public schools.
What I find most disheartening is the child obesity risk presented by unequal access to healthy food, because it leads to horrible problems like heart and kidney disease. But as demonstrated above, it's not always a matter of "laying off the cookies and chips." It's often an access issue, and that's what farmers like Will Allen are trying to get to - access.
It would be an interesting experiment to use state or federal funds, or even private grants to start up more urban farms in currently vacant lots in Detroit, Philadelphia, Jackson, and elsewhere. It would create jobs, a marketplace, healthy food, and a great sense of community.
Other than that, much better qualified people than myself have proposed policy solutions. Organizations like Grist, Wholesome Wave, and the Philadelphia Food Trust seem to be doing a lot of interesting and good work towards equity and access to healthy food.