Author:DePasquale, Dan
Position:Colloquium: Taking a Bite out of the Big Apple: A Conversation About Urban Food Policy

Introduction 910 I. The Unsustainable, Inequitable State of the United States Food System 912 A. Inequity in Food Access 912 B. Employment Conditions in the Food System 914 C. Environmental Impacts of the Food System 915 II. Food Justice 915 III. Cooperatives and Food Justice 918 A. History of Cooperatives in the United States 919 B. How Consumer Food Cooperatives Further Food Justice 920 C. How Worker Cooperatives Further Food Justice 924 IV. Challenges That Cooperatives Face 926 A. Areas Where Food Sector Worker Cooperatives Need Support 927 1. Raising Awareness of Cooperatives 927 2. Increasing Access to Financing and Managing Risk. 928 3. Increasing Access to Technical Assistance 932 4. Increasing Access to Affordable Land 934 5. Supporting Democratic Self-Management 934 B. Areas Where Consumer Food Cooperatives Need Support 935 V. Policies and Solutions 937 A. State Cooperative Corporations Laws 937 B. International Examples 939 1. Italy 940 2. Quebec 941 C. Other Solutions and Policies 942 1. Technical Assistance 942 2. Public Funding and Incubation 943 3. Federal Grants and Loans 943 4. Private Investments 944 5. Youth Education 944 6. Land Trusts 945 D. New York City Initiatives 946 E. Policies Designed to Promote Consumer Cooperatives 948 1. Wholesale Buying Clubs 948 2. Subsidized Cooperative Membership 949 Conclusion 950 INTRODUCTION

In the United States and New York City, low-income communities of color have unequal access to healthy and nutritious foods. Federal programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program ("SNAP") have proven inadequate in the face of such fundamental injustice, especially in light of President Trump's recent proposals to cut SNAP benefits. (1) As a result, low-income communities of color find themselves in the unenviable position of having to forge alternative avenues to achieve food equity--cooperatives may act as one such avenue.

Cooperatives have a long history in the United States and New York City, and people of color have used them to further their economic self-determination since at least the 1930s. (2) In addition to advancing economic justice and food access, cooperatives also provide other benefits for workers and communities, including attractive work cultures, (3) conscientious environmental stewardship, (4) and the capacity to act as local food hubs. (5) They can also serve as community-based alternatives to the global, industrial food complex. (6) This Article proposes that cooperatives may serve as a means of furthering food justice because they can simultaneously promote economic development in low-income communities of color and increase access to affordable and desirable foods in those neighborhoods.

Cooperatives can support economic development by putting the food system back into the hands of communities that can better serve their own needs. This Article asserts that, for cooperatives to transform the urban food ecosystem, state and city officials must develop policies to further their growth. Part I of this Article provides an overview of the food system today and the ways in which it perpetuates social and environmental harms. Part II outlines the food justice movement and how it seeks to remedy these inequities and hazards. Part III proposes that cooperatives further food justice by providing an alternative to the capitalist food system model. Part IV examines the challenges cooperatives must overcome to increase their role in the food system. Given these challenges, Part V offers policy solutions, including those derived from domestic and international models, to facilitate the expansion of cooperatives to advance food justice.


    The food system in the United States comprises a complex set of interconnected processes that deliver food for consumption. The Farmland Information Center explains that this system "includes all processes involved in keeping us fed: growing, harvesting, processing (or transforming or changing), packaging, transporting, marketing, consuming and disposing of food and food packages." (7) The food system has tremendous implications for human health and well-being, the U.S. economy, and the environment. An examination of the food system's influence on all three of these spheres reveals that there exist vast inequities among who is able to access healthy food, jobs in this sector are low-wage and fraught with labor abuses, and current methods of growing and transporting food deplete natural resources and wreak havoc on the environment.

    1. Inequity in Food Access

      In the United States, communities do not share equal access to produce and other healthy foods, which are often acquired at supermarkets. According to a 2009 U.S. Department of Agriculture ("USDA") study, 23.5 million Americans do not have a supermarket within one mile of their homes. (8) Particularly in low-income communities of color:

      Food access is often limited to the cheap, high-fat, high-salt, high-calorie, processed food available at gas stations, liquor stores, corner stores, and fast food outlets... [while] available[] fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products are often of inferior quality and are more expensive at these establishments than in supermarkets and grocery stores. (9) Eight percent of black Americans live in a census tract (10) with a supermarket, compared to 31% of white Americans. (11) Nationally, low-income zip codes have 30% more convenience stores--which are less likely than supermarkets to stock healthy food options--than middle-income zip codes. (12) Ultimately, low-income communities lack viable access to healthy foods and are therefore forced to turn to the unhealthy foods that are within their physical and economic reach.

      In addition to lacking healthy food options in their communities, many Americans cannot afford any kind of food, healthy or unhealthy. In 2016, Americans spent an average of $7203 on food, which constituted 12.6% of their total expenditure. (13) The USDA has found households to be food insecure when their members are unable to access "enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle." (14) The estimated percentage of food-insecure households remained largely unchanged from 2015 to 2016, with 12.3% of U.S. households, approximately 15.6 million households, being characterized as such at some time during the year. (15) While food insecurity affects both rural and urban communities, New York City provides a particularly urgent case given its expensive living conditions. New Yorkers pay notoriously high rent, and researchers have found that "families with housing costs that consumed more than 30% of their income were at greater risk of food insecurity." (16) Furthermore, food prices are often higher in cities, (17) and in New York City, "groceries cost between 28% and 39% more than the national average.' Many of the most vulnerable New Yorkers live in poverty, (19) making local groceries prohibitively expensive. Notably, 15% of city dwellers in the United States are food insecure. (20) These inequities demonstrate the need for meaningful approaches to increase food access and security in low-income and urban communities.

    2. Employment Conditions in the Food System

      Not only is food access a persistent problem, but the current industrial food system also exploits food workers and their families. The food sector makes up the largest sector of employment in the United States, employing 21.5 million workers (14% of the U.S. work force) (21) across the production, processing, distribution, retail, and service sectors of the food chain. (22) Migrant farmworkers, grocery stockers, and fast food cashiers all work in the food sector. While employment in this sector plays a critical role in the national economy, wages remain low; at $10 per hour in 2016, the median hourly wages for workers in the food system were the lowest of the industries measured. (23) A 2016 report found that the food system "is beset by stagnant wages, poor working conditions, a lack of benefits, health and safety issues, and mistreatment at work." (24) Consequently, many food workers struggle to be able to afford food. In 2016, 13% of food workers received food stamps through SNAP (25) and in 2014, almost 20% lacked food security. This data suggests that the people working the hardest to supply the population with food may not be able to afford food themselves.

    3. Environmental Impacts of the Food System

      The industrial food system also has significant adverse environmental impacts, resulting from agricultural production, transportation, packaging, and distribution. (27) Agricultural production can damage the land by introducing harmful fertilizers and pesticides and interfering with biodiversity, soil quality, and water. (28) The processes required to produce food contribute to energy demand and associated greenhouse gas emissions, (29) and landfilled food waste generates methane, significantly contributing to climate change. (30) Industrial agriculture has increased adverse environmental consequences as the United States transitions away from small sustainable farms to large industrial complexes operated by a handful of national corporations. (31) Local community food systems, including cooperatives, may redress environmental harms by creating "shorter distances from the farm to the dinner plate," conserving transportation energy. (32) Recognizing the flaws in the current food system is necessary to build a more just and sustainable model for future generations.


    The food justice movement seeks to redress food insecurity as well as other inequities throughout the food system. Organizations and activists differ in how they define food justice, but, "[b]roadly speaking, food justice encompasses a vision of social, environmental, and economic justice; improved nutrition and health; and community activism." Just Food, a food access advocacy organization...

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