Melissa Vatterott croppedBy Melissa Vatterott, Chair, St. Louis Food Policy Coalition (STLFPC)

Over one-quarter of St. Louis City residents are food insecure: they face uncertain access to nutritious food. An even higher percentage face low food access, which means they lack grocery store options that are close to home or accessible given the transportation available to them.

Food insecurity and low food access in St. Louis stem from institutional problems related to government policies, race, economics, and transportation infrastructure that prevent residents from accessing nutritious foods. Local NGOs are working to address these problems, but we need our City government’s support.

We must prioritize better food policy in the St. Louis region, especially when it comes to food access for our most vulnerable residents. Living wages are crucial for nutritious food access, and a higher minimum wage in the City of St. Louis would empower more households to access and afford healthier foods. Improving public transit routes, adding more routes, and increasing service frequency would also increase city residents’ access to nutritious food.

Ultimately, though, we need policy that incentivizes bringing grocery stores back into disinvested communities. Without it, we cannot effectively fight obesity, diabetes, malnutrition, and other diet-related illnesses in our city. Given the health disparities between black and white city residents, this is especially critical from an equity standpoint.

The St. Louis MetroMarket, a St. Louis Food Policy Coalition (STLFPC) member organization, bypasses the barriers created by limited transportation and grocery store access with their converted Metrobus market, which brings fresh food directly to the JeffVanderLou neighborhood. They and other food access organizations recognize, though, that approaches like the MetroMarket are just temporary fixes, not long-term solutions. Communities need access to permanent healthy food outlets.

We recommend incentivizing the establishment of new grocery stores that provide fresh nutritious foods in food desert neighborhoods—perhaps through a partnership between the Mayor’s Office and IFF, which works with grocery stores to locate in neighborhoods like these, or by involving the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability in this environmental and social justice-focused concern.

There is another dimension to the issue of food access in St. Louis. While we work to invest more resources and infrastructure into underserved neighborhoods, the City must also empower residents to use vacant lots to feed themselves and to cultivate economic opportunities through food and farming enterprises.

The number of teen employment opportunities focused on food production is growing. Organizations like the St. Louis Green Teen Alliance, STL Youth Jobs, and the St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment (SLATE) have capacity to employ more youth with increased funding. With the City’s financial and political support, these groups could foster a generation of St. Louis youth working in local food production and entrepreneurship.

We can use vacant lots as a tool to both employ youth seeking green jobs and meet regional demand for local sustainable food. The results of our 2016 urban agriculture survey—taken by 850 residents—indicated broad support for food growing activities. In fact, 97 percent of respondents supported using vacant lots in their neighborhood for urban agriculture and 77 percent of respondents would like the City to make it easier to acquire land for food production. If residents were incentivized to grow food on vacant lots, they could increase food access for themselves, their neighborhoods, and local organizations working on emergency food access. The Mayor’s Office should support the Land Reutilization Authority (LRA) in developing a new process that makes it easier for residents to buy land for food production, with priority given to residents who live near the lot they want to purchase so that any food production movement is community-driven.

We also recommend that the Mayor’s Office appoint a cabinet member specifically tasked with advancing food system issues in St. Louis. STLFPC conducts outreach and community education on food system issues and has identified priorities for our city through engagement with stakeholders, aldermen, and City departments. STLFPC and other stakeholders should meet regularly with the City to improve food access policies.

At STLFPC, our goal is to create a thriving local, sustainable, and equitable food system for St. Louis. With the right policies and priorities in place, we’re confident we can get there.

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Melissa Vatterott is the Food and Farm Coordinator at Missouri Coalition for the Environment (MCE). Since writing MCE’s St. Louis Regional Food Study published in 2014, Melissa has worked to support environmentally responsible farming practices and healthy local food systems across the state, which includes directing the St. Louis Food Policy Coalition (STLFPC). STLFPC’s mission is to promote a thriving local food system that supports the health, community, environment, and economy of the Greater St. Louis area. Melissa received her law degree from Michigan State University College of Law with an emphasis in natural resource law and her B.S. in Environmental Science with an Agricultural Economics minor from the University of Missouri.

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Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri-St. Louis.