Planning for Equitable Urban and Regional Food Systems

About this issue

Issue number
Volume 43 – Number 3


How does and can planning and design enhance the freedom and wellbeing of marginalized actors in the food system – low-income residents, people of colour, small-holder farmers, and refugees – the very people the alternative food movements purport to serve? That is the question of concern in this special issue in which authors from across the Global North and South explore the role of planning and design in communities’ food systems, while explicitly considering the imbalances in equity, justice, and power.

Food has captured the imagination of planning and design professions and disciplines across the globe as evidenced by the growing body of food-related scholarship (Moragues-Faus and Morgan, 2015; Pothukuchi and Kaufman, 1999, 2000), practices, pedagogies (Whittaker et al., 2017), and policies (Hodgson, 2012; Neuner et al., 2011). How does this burgeoning work on planning and design of food systems tackle issues of equity, inclusion, and justice? Who frames the problems? Whose voices are leading, amplifying, and engaging in planning and designing solutions? Drawing on Sen (2009), we suggest that equity and justice must be understood and judged in the light of the actual experiences of the lives of people – their wellbeing and freedom. We contend that planners’ and designers’ engagement with the food system must propel cities and regions towards conditions where the marginalized lead fuller, richer lives, not only as beneficiaries of a better food system but as those who articulate its problems and define its solutions. How does and can planning and design enhance the freedom and wellbeing of marginalized actors in the food system – low-income residents, people of colour, small-holder farmers, and refugees – the very people the alternative food movements purport to serve? That is the question of concern in this special issue.

Scholarship on city and regional food systems over the last two decades has documented the negative impacts of malfunctioning food systems, such as persistence of food insecurity, spatial disparities in access to food retail (Raja et al., 2008), increase in diet-related disease, and environmental degradation due to excessive use of fossil fuel based inputs (Canton Campbell, 2004; Pothukuchi and Kaufman, 1999, 2000). Scholars and activists called on planners to use their talents to address problems in the food system (Pothukuchi and Kaufman, 2000), and in the last two decades planners have responded to this call. Local and regional governments in the Global North – particularly in the USA, United Kingdom, and Canada – as well as in the Global South – particularly Brazil, South Africa, and Argentina –have adopted and implemented plans and policies to strengthen city and regional food systems. Data from the US-based Growing Food Connections project suggest that more than 200 food-related plans and policies have been adopted by local and regional governments in the United States alone ( Globally, about 148 cities with nearly 470 million inhabitants have signed on to the 2015 Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, an international declaration in support of sustainable food systems that are inclusive, resilient, safe, and diverse ( Further, the New Urban Agenda, adopted at the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) in Quito, Ecuador in 2016, makes multiple references to the importance of promoting food security, and explicitly endorses the use of food systems planning in one of its principles (UN-Habitat, 2016). In short, food is no longer a stranger to the planning agenda (Pothukuchi and Kaufman, 2000).

City and Regional Food Systems (CRFS) enable food to flow from source to plate across cities and regions, drawing on material, cultural, and political actors, networks, and resources. The system and flow depend on inter-linked food-related practices including the growing, processing, distribution, and acquisition, preparation, and consumption of food, and management of food-related waste, all of which unfold spatially across the built environment. Well-functioning CRFS are often portrayed as enhancing food security, and having the ancillary benefits of promoting economic, social, health, and overall well-being in communities. Yet, thoughtful critique by food justice scholars notes that food systems are steeped in institutional racism, alternatives to fix them fail to interrogate the role of race and class, and that efforts to rebuild urban and regional food systems must look beyond food itself (Alkon and Agyeman, 2011; Passidomo, 2013).

Mainstream planning and design practice is sidestepping normative and empirical questions about equity and inclusion in urban and regional food systems – a central concern of the articles in this issue. We note three major oversights in planning practice. First, efforts to strengthen food systems through planning and design rarely confront historical trajectories, disruptions, and tensions within a community’s food system. In the United States, for example, contemporary planning discussions about ‘fixing’ the food system rarely acknowledge the role of failed public policy and planning in marginalizing black communities within food systems (Reynolds, 2002). For example, from 1920 to 2007 the number of farm acres owned by black farmers in the US declined precipitously by 80 per cent while acreage owned by white farmers increased slightly by about 4 per cent (Tyler and Moore, 2013), in part due to failed public policy. Yet the predominant contemporary narrative about food systems and black communities revolves around their poor diets or other individual behaviours – and planning solutions focus on bringing food to black communities. A national shift in narrative has turned black communities from being producers of food to those who must be fed. Contemporary efforts and solutions to plan and design urban and regional food systems must interrogate the historic basis for both articulation of problems and solutions.

Second, although plans and designs for urban and regional food systems invoke the needs of marginalized populations their voices are often absent in mainstream planning and design processes, as illustrated in several articles in this special issue. As a result, planners overlook the articulation of problems and solutions proposed by marginalized communities. Finally, as noted earlier, planners and designers approach city and regional food systems largely as a space within which planners and designers can affect change, but less as a lever for broader social and economic transformation and equity. For example, food-aware planners concern themselves with plans and designs to bring good, local food to a neighbourhood such as through establishing a supermarket, but rarely with strategies to use the food system as a vehicle for income generation, a far more important and pressing concern in low-income neighbourhoods. At its worst, CRFS undermine the goals of equity and inclusion by becoming vehicles for an exclusive form of green gentrification that masquerades as progressive localism (Morgan and Santo, 2017). Without deployment of CRFS as a lever for equity, broader social benefits are unlikely to be achieved. This special issue is concerned with equity as a central, not ancillary, concern of city and regional food systems planning and design.

This special issue fills a gap in the literature by documenting how the growing engagement of the planning and design disciplines subverts, reinforces, or exacerbates inequities and injustices within territorially framed food systems. Authors from across the Global North and South explore the role of planning and design in communities’ food systems, while explicitly considering the imbalances in equity, justice, and power. In so doing, they draw our attention to city and regional food systems as a space and a lever for equity and justice.

The first paper by Clark et al. lays groundwork for thinking about the capacity of local governments to create, implement, and sustain inclusive food system planning processes. Through examination of Growing Food Connections, a 5-year participatory research, education, and outreach project designed to strengthen food systems for underserved residents and farmers in communities throughout the United States, as well as a survey of political and planning theories, the authors argue that without a commitment to confront and unpack deeper systemic challenges in food planning processes, such as historic and cultural divides, racial disparities, and poverty, leaders are likely to replicate or reinforce inequities in community food systems. Drawing on qualitative empirical work from across the United States, the authors propose a theoretical framework of policy readiness for local governments to develop inclusive planning processes.

As alluded to earlier, local governments across the globe are involved in a wide variety of efforts to strengthen food systems to facilitate food access and healthy eating in their communities. Using an equity lens, a set of papers by Brinkley et al., Bohm, and Meenar challenges popular policy responses in the United States to reducing food insecurity, such as by building supermarkets and promoting urban agriculture. While such policy interventions have been praised for numerous benefits, the authors ask whether benefits are, in fact, accruing to underserved communities.

Brinkley et al. note growing public health concerns from the media, academics, policy-makers, and activists over healthy eating. The authors demonstrate the limitations of focusing on so-called ‘food deserts’ as a problem and establishing supermarkets as a solution to the health disparities found in communities of colour in the United States. Using a mixed-methods approach, the authors demonstrate that diet-related health outcomes are most strongly associated with income and race. The authors suggest new avenues for supporting the provisioning of food centred around existing community-based practices such as farm-to-market and self-provisioning.

The next two papers interrogate the potential of urban agriculture to provide benefits for residents lacking access to fresh, healthy foods. Bohm examines the extent to which urban agriculture in and on buildings (UAB) lives up to its potential as a strategy for promoting food access. Bohm assesses the extent to which UAB project sites are located in low-income communities and communities of colour that face barriers to food access. The author’s qualitative evaluation of nineteen UAB projects across North America suggests that UAB projects are not necessarily located in communities with high food insecurity. Meenar examines the links between urban agriculture (UA) projects and the food security conditions of their surrounding areas in the city of Philadelphia, USA. Meenar uses geographic information systems (GIS) analysis and statistical tests to explore access to UA in neighbourhoods with high food insecurity. Results suggest that there is a spatial mismatch between the siting of UA projects and location of neighbourhoods with prevalence of food insecurity, and that the most unstable or temporary UA projects are located in neighbourhoods with the least food security.

Burga and Stoscheck investigate how language focused on food justice and equity is integrated into local government plans through a content analysis of the Minnesota Food Access Planning Guide in the state of Minnesota, United States. The authors illustrate how policy recommendations and strategies can include but also exclude, co-opt, replace, and erase food justice and equity terms in the guise of progressive planning policies. Specifically, the authors find that issues of equity are framed through a narrow focus on health outcomes rather than critical race and class analysis. The analysis also reveals how food justice and equity may be complicated concepts to operationalize in planning and design practice.

Planning for urban and regional food systems leaves out important voices. In particular, the field fails to consider family farmers (in the Global South) and refugees (in the Global North), two groups that are confronting challenges within the food system and yet are left out of food planning and policy processes. The future of small-scale family farming remains uncertain in many communities across both the Global North and South despite a focus on food systems localization. Vasile and Duncan use a case study of Porto Alegre, Brazil to interrogate the ways in which structural inequalities limit family farmers’ participation in food governance. The authors find that top-down Brazilian regulation for organic food, and the policies and provision of technical assistance, are not designed to fit the local context nor the needs and circumstances of farmers. The authors caution that systematization of local food practices – such as through standards and regulations – may threaten the autonomy of farmers and dampen innovation in the food system. The authors offer guidance for inclusive engagement processes to enable city and regional food systems planning to reduce structural inequalities. Judelsohn et al. examine the ways in which refugees from Burma (Myanmar) experience a new food environment in Buffalo, New York, and the ways in which planning and public policy responds to the new arrivals in largely ‘food blind’ ways. While some studies in public health have focused on the challenges faced by refugees in navigating new food environments upon resettlement, there is a large gap in the planning literature. Drawing on qualitative interviews with refugee households, the authors articulate a set of ideas for the future that seek to redress this literature gap, but concentrate on practical applications for local government action.

Large-scale food systems transformation in the face of rapid urbanization and globalization is creating new challenges, the full impacts of which are yet unknown. The papers by Battersby (South Africa) and Soma (Indonesia) examine food system transformations in the food supply chain in the Global South where rapid urbanization is creating unintended consequences in the food retail and food waste management sectors, respectively. Both papers call for a purposeful re-examination of local government engagement in the food system. Battersby uses a case study of the changing food distribution system in Cape Town, South Africa to evaluate the role of local government planning in shaping community food systems throughout African cities. Although local government has no formal mandate to address the food system and is not engaging in food systems planning, Battersby argues that it is nonetheless playing a profound role in reshaping the food system through non-food policies focused on urban development objectives. Battersby urges local governments in Cape Town and other African cities to engage in food systems planning to understand the food security challenges and opportunities in their communities in accordance with the New Urban Agenda.

Similarly, Soma observes the recent transformation of food retail in the Global South as well as the missed opportunity for local government planners to address simultaneously food systems issues and urban development priorities. Soma draws on interviews with key food systems stakeholders in Bogor, Indonesia to investigate the role of urbanization and urban development policies in transforming food consumption and the management of food packaging waste. Land once used for food production by low-income residents in the city has been lost to urban development, with negative impacts for residents’ food security. Furthermore, the new food acquisition and consumption practices of higher-income residents, fuelled by rapid development of supermarkets in urban areas, is creating challenges for lower-income residents in the form of increased food waste in their neighbourhoods. The author observes that the negative environmental impacts of food waste and its associated packaging are ‘distanced’ from those who are privileged, and brought nearer to those who are marginalized within the food system. Soma identifies avenues for local government planners to intervene in the community food system to overcome challenges around food waste and reduce broader inequities exacerbated by urban development.

The special issue concludes with a paper by Nunes who offers the possibility of a pragmatist ethics in city-regional food systems planning. Specifically, Nunes explores urban food enterprises (UFEs), socially innovative business practices that seek alternative, local responses to conventional food systems, as practical applications of theoretical concepts of social and economic justice in city-regional food systems planning. Similar to other papers in the issue, Nunes asks for a critical evaluation of what ‘doing food justice’ looks like and raises fundamental questions about the relationships between concepts of equity and justice and organizational policies and practices. f

Collectively, the papers in the special issue raise questions about the nature of planners and designers’ engagement in city and regional food systems, and the ways in which such engagement impacts inclusion, equity, and justice. These questions are especially important as municipalities across the world embrace planning for urban and regional food systems such as through the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact. Authors in this issue highlight voices that are excluded in formal planning processes and also the inequities exacerbated through urban and regional food systems planning. Furthermore, authors critique plans and designs that incorporate rhetoric around food justice but fail to provide actionable strategies that consider historical context, local identities, race and class inequities, and other issues of structural and systemic marginalization. The authors raise clear, promising, practical ideas for the future of both food systems planning scholarship and practice that draw on unique perspectives and ideas of a broad range of food systems stakeholders in diverse settings around the globe.  It is now up to the professions and disciplines that shape cities and regions to listen.


  • Alkon, A.H. and Agyeman, J. (2011) Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Caton Campbell, M. (2004) Building a common table: the role for planning in community food systems. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 23(4), pp. 341–355.
  • Hodgson, K. (2012) Planning for Food Access and Community-Based Food Systems: A National Scan and Evaluation of Local Comprehensive and Sustainability Plans. Chicago, IL: American Planning Association.
  • Moragues-Faus, A. and Morgan, K. (2015) Reframing the foodscape: the emergent world of urban food policy. Environment and Planning A, 47(7), pp. 1558–1573.
  • Morgan, K. and Santo, R. (2017) The Rise of Municipal Food Movements. Unpublished working paper.
  • Neuner, K., Kelly, S. and Raja, S. (2011) Planning to Eat: Innovative Local Government Plans and Policies to Build Healthy Food Systems Planning in the United States. Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities Policy Brief 39. Buffalo, NY: Food Systems and Healthy Communities Lab, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York. Available at:
  • Passidomo, C. (2013) Going ‘beyond food’: confronting structures of injustice in food systems research and praxis. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems and Community Development, 3(4), pp. 89–93.
  • Pothukuchi, K. and Kaufman, J.L. (1999) Placing the food system on the urban agenda: the role of municipal institutions in food systems planning. Agriculture and Human Values, 16(2), pp. 122–124.
  • Pothukuchi, K. and Kaufman, J.L. (2000) The food system – a stranger to the planning field. Journal of the American Planning Association, 66(2), pp. 213–224.
  • Raja, S., Ma, C. and Yadav, P. (2008) Beyond food deserts: measuring and mapping racial disparities in neighbourhood food environments. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 27(4), pp. 469–482.
  • Reynolds, B.J. (2002). Black Farmers in America, 1865–2000: The Pursuit of Independent Farming and the Role of Cooperatives (Vol. RBS Research Report 194). Washington DC: United States Department of Agriculture Rural Business/Cooperative Service.
  • Sen, A. (2009) The Idea of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Tyler, S.S. and Moore, E.A. (2013) Plight of black farmers in the context of USDA farm loan programs: a research agenda for the future. Professional Agricultural Workers Journal, 1(1). Available at:
  • UN-Habitat (2016) New Urban Agenda. Available at:
  • Whittaker, J., Raja, S., Clark, J. and SanGiovanni, S. (2017) Planning for food systems: community-university partnerships for food-systems transformation. Metropolitan Universities, 28(1). Available at:


This Special Issue is inspired by the work of Kameshwari Pothukuchi and Jerome Kaufman whose landmark article ‘The Food System: A Stranger to the Planning Field’ in the Journal of the American Planning Association (Pothukuchi and Kaufman, 2000) catalyzed a conversation on food in the field of planning across continents. Articles in this special issue were selected following an open, global competitive call for manuscripts. The number of submissions far exceeded the editors’ expectations. We are especially delighted to recognize the excellent work of early career scholars in this special issue. The editors thank the anonymous reviewers who took the time to review submissions for the issue, as well as colleagues at the UB Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab and the School of Architecture and Planning at the University at Buffalo for their support. This special issue was made possible with the support of a grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) of the United States Department of Agriculture grant no 2012-68004-19894 and the University at Buffalo Community for Global Health Equity (UB CGHE).