An Interview with Nevin Cohen: A Tale of Two Cities
I research and teach about urban food policy at the CUNY School of Public Health. CUNY is very much part of the city, with 274,000 students reflecting New York City’s diversity and facing many of the same challenges of the wider population, including food insecurity among an estimated 15% of our students.
Towards social justice
I research policies to make the urban food system more just and more healthy. With a background in urban planning, I’m particularly interested in how the tools of planning can be used to increase access to healthy food, especially to the most economically vulnerable. Much of my work has focused on the role of urban agriculture in promoting health, sustainability, and social justice.
I co-authored a comprehensive look at urban agriculture in NYC, called Five Borough Farm, which identified policies to support, expand, and justify investments in urban agriculture in NY. This was followed by a book, ‘Beyond the Kale: Urban agriculture and social justice activism in NYC,’ co-authored with Kristin Reynolds, that showed how urban agriculture is about much more than growing leafy greens. It has been practiced in communities of colour for many generations but often is portrayed as something new and innovative, “discovered” by young, affluent, often white, tech-based urban farmers. The book profiles farmers and gardeners, including many women and people of colour, who are using their farms and the practice of growing food to advance deep social justice issues like race, class and gender equality.
Access to land and funding are barriers to expanding urban agriculture in densely populated, wealthy cities. A key to urban agriculture’s success is ensuring equitable access to resources for both conventional, soil-based farms and gardens as well as for advanced technologies aimed at commercial production. And community based non-profit urban agriculture projects can provide young people with skills to move into commercial ventures.
One example is a farmer named Paul Philpott. He learned how to farm while working with a non-profit called Green City Force, which built and runs six large (0.5 hectare) farms on the grounds of high rise social housing developments. After leaving Green City Force, Philpott set up his own hydroponic farm (‘Gateway Greens’) at an urban ‘farm’ called ‘Square Roots’ that is composed of a cluster of shipping containers fitted out to grow produce.
Re-thinking Food deserts
In the US, attention has focused on the need to increase access to healthy food in low income communities that suffer from high rates of malnourishment and diet-related diseases. Urban agriculture can play a role, but policymakers have framed access as the lack of nearby supermarkets, justifying policies subsidizing supermarkets as the solution to food access.
A recent article, ‘Let them eat kale’ (I like kale!) shows that when new supermarkets are built in so-called food deserts, they do not significantly change shopping patterns, diets, or health. My co-author and I call for food policies to move “upstream,” addressing the social determinants of poor nutrition – low wage jobs, insufficient affordable housing, inadequate social welfare – rather than on “downstream” interventions like new grocery stores. In the current political climate in the US, cities are often on the leading edge of these efforts. For example, NY has increased the minimum wage, committed to building affordable housing, and adopted protections for low-wage workers.
What I’m looking for in the next generation of public health graduates is greater attention to upstream issues and who view the food system as a means to advance social justice in addition to a means to ensure nutritional health.