Photo: Rob Nguyen

Too many communities lack access to healthy and affordable food

Access to healthy and affordable food is a challenge for many communities in this region. Nearly half a million people live in food deserts without access to affordable, healthy food options. And although residents may have access to fresh fruit and vegetables, it may not be culturally appropriate or affordable. One million households in the region receive food stamps to help pay for groceries.

Lack of access to healthy food is a critical challenge because a poor diet is related to chronic health conditions such as diabetes and obesity. In the tri-state area, one in three adults is obese and about one in ten adults has diabetes, both of which have grown dramatically over the past two decades, and disproportionately affect people of color.

The food that is available in neighborhoods depends on several factors, including whether a community is designed to include retail, the proximity of wholesale food markets, the cost of commercial rents, and the efficiency of goods movement. Even in an area with good food options, food needs to be affordable, healthy, and varied. The region’s high transportation and real estate costs make it harder for smaller food shops to stay in business. Immigrant food businesses are essential to providing culturally appropriate food to the New York region, where so many immigrants reside. Many of these businesses, however, rely on more informal supply chains that are more vulnerable to disruption and displacement.

Lack of access to healthy food is a critical challenge because a poor diet is related to chronic health conditions like diabetes and obesity. *For NYC, earliest year is 1999-2001 and latest is 2011-2013. Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Adult diabetes prevalence. 

Creating healthy food options in all communities requires comprehensive improvements to supply and distribution systems

Improving access to healthy and affordable food starts with understanding the food supply chain, from farm to wholesale and retail distribution. In places that need greater access to healthy food, community needs should drive planning decisions, as barriers to access to food can be highly individual. Municipalities must support different types of food businesses, while economic-development agencies should partner with planning agencies to preserve and create new space for food distribution.

Conduct local food-needs assessments

National studies have helped public-health and community-development experts understand how to improve access to food, but as every neighborhood is different, we must assess food availability and specific health, cultural, and food needs at a local level. States and cities should provide more resources for neighborhood food-needs assessments. Once the needs have been identified, they should be included in planning initiatives and used to inform public policy and investments. Communities with a higher rate of food-related health conditions and poor access to food should be prioritized.

Support vendor networks providing affordable food

Food is a high-cost, low-margin business, especially in this expensive region. It also requires a complicated network of physical assets, such as large wholesale warehouses, small retail stores, and an efficient transportation network. Local governments can help large and small food businesses thrive in all communities by taking the following actions:

  • Create more permanent public markets. Typically located indoors in spaces with subsidized rents, public markets sell a wide range of foods produced locally and elsewhere. Lower operating costs mean cheaper prices for consumers, and markets located in the urban core can help revitalize downtowns. Cities can promote the creation of permanent food markets by allocating land and subsidizing rental rates for business owners.
  • Adopt mobile vending programs. New York City’s Green Cart program has increased access to fruits and vegetables in food deserts by both making it easier for mobile produce carts to operate and providing incentives such as food storage space.
  • Support new and existing small-scale retailers. Bodegas and small supermarkets, often owned by immigrants, can be sources of healthy, affordable, culturally appropriate food. Local governments can help support them with funding and streamlined administrative procedures for licensing. Any neighborhood anti-displacement plans should include businesses that face displacement pressures.
  • Support food cooperatives. Food cooperatives have been in the tri-state region since the 1970s, offering healthy food at affordable prices. Incentives to create food cooperatives and offer technical assistance will make it easier to start and run these suppliers.

Create regional food warehousing, wholesale, and manufacturing, at different scales, to improve the efficiency of food distribution

The Hunts Point Food Distribution Center, the region’s single largest food wholesaler, supplies about 12 percent of New York City’s food. In New Jersey, there are many national food service distribution centers that move large volumes of food, while most other food wholesalers are scattered all across the region. These wholesalers often struggle with deteriorating infrastructure and high costs, but are essential to smaller suppliers by keeping costs low for them to remain competitive. Some initiatives are already underway to create local food hubs to help farmers get their goods to market, and could be expanded to include other types of food businesses. Funding can come from from federal sources and industrial development agencies.

Preserve farmland and better connect the region’s farmers to markets

Green markets and small retailers play an important role in supplying locally produced food to residents. Better farmland-protection policies can help expand green markets, while also contributing to cleaner air and water, and thereby preserving the region’s environment.

Include food-supply strategies in the budgets of planning, transportation, and economic-development agencies

Industrial policy and goods movement in the metropolitan area are fragmented by state and municipality, and food is infrequently considered by responsible agencies. To integrate food policy, regional economic-development councils and major economic and industrial-development agencies need to develop expertise in all aspects of the local food industry.

The region needs a comprehensive goods-movement strategy supported by the Port Authority and transportation departments. A regional food council, comprising food advocates and policymakers from across the region, could coordinate these efforts. The model for such a food council has worked in places such as Puget Sound, Washington, and in central Ohio, in which various stakeholders including food-justice activists and economic-development agencies establish shared policies to improve the food supply.


The outcomes of these policies would be reduced costs for food suppliers of all scales. This would be particularly important for smaller food chains, leading to more food businesses, and more affordable and diverse food options in more locations. The result would be greater access to healthy food, especially in low-income neighborhoods.

Paying for it

As the food system is embedded at all levels of the region, paying for these investments would be the responsibility of the agency or municipality in every geography and sector. Investments in regional infrastructure such as food hubs could come from federal sources and state economic-development councils. State and local economic-development councils and agencies that support small businesses could help businesses launch. Depending on the location, anchor institutions could support a variety of activities. Additionally, local health departments would receive more funding to promote food access.

1. The Food Trust, “Access to Healthy Food and Why It Matters: A Review of the Research,” 2013
2. Fiscal Policy Institute, “ Immigrant Small Business Owners: A Significant and Growing Part of the Economy,” 2012
3. USDA, “Community Food Systems,” 2017