Planning Magazine

4 Zoning Changes That Boost Local Food Security

Zoning reform isn't only about housing. Municipalities can help increase food access with a few tweaks to local land-use law.

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Marshall Mitchell transplants kale inside a hoop house at Urban Growers Collective in the South Chicago neighborhood. Allowing temporary or small structure buildings in zoning codes is crucial for efficient use of farming spaces. Photo by 2020/Armando Sanchez/Chicago Tribune/TCA.

Since the pandemic began, 10 percent of families with children under five have reported insufficient food access. And according to the USDA's most recent food access report, about 12 percent of the U.S. population lived in a food desert as of 2017.

Food security is a daily problem across the U.S., particularly for low-income households and people of color, impacting their health, quality of life, and the communities around them.

Increasing food security is an interdisciplinary endeavor, and local land-use laws can play a key role. Zoning ordinances can allow and incentivize a range of food sources in or near food deserts by using flexible food purveyor definitions and incentivizing pop-up eating facilities and food trucks.

But one of the most significant ways planners can advance food security for their communities is by promoting local food production. With that in mind, here are four zoning and land-use strategies that can help improve food access and security:

1. Use explicit agricultural terms in your zoning code to permit food production.

Many zoning codes speak generally of gardening or urban agriculture, but providing more explicit and detailed definitions of terms, particularly for agriculture processes, better clarifies what is permitted.

This level of specificity can help potential urban farmers engage in food production
and encourage established farmers to take advantage of more farming-friendly zoning allowances. Ultimately, this increases fresh, local, and affordable food production and access.

The Austin, Texas, code of ordinances has a section specifically defining agricultural uses, including where processes like aquaponic, horticulture, and indoor crop production are permitted, and what is meant by each term. The national Healthy Food Project created a draft guide for municipalities to assist in articulating agricultural terminology for zoning codes.

2. Allow temporary and small structure buildings for agriculture.

Permitting greenhouses, hoop houses, and other smaller structures intended for urban and semiurban farming and small animal husbandry is crucial for the efficient use of farming spaces. Without flexible provisions for such structures, landowners and their farming tenants or partners are unable to accommodate various, higher-yielding crops or maintain appropriate livestock on their urban land without risking code violations.

Philadelphia's zoning, for example, specifically allows agricultural structures of varying sizes depending on the lot size. It also waves all permitting requirements for temporary structures that will be up for 180 days or less. This removes obstacles for farmers who may want temporary greenhouses for winter crops or small hoop houses during frost season.

3. permit on-site sale of produce.

On-site sale of produce significantly improves food access for consumers and helps food producers access markets without costly transportation and "middlemen" fees. While permitting farming in more zones is key, it is significantly more beneficial to also allow for sale and distribution of that farmed food on-site.

Kansas City's zoning code, for example, allows the direct sale or donation of "whole, uncut fresh food and/or horticultural products grown in home gardens, community gardens, and land managed under a community supported agriculture model." Clarifying zoning codes regarding food sales significantly decreases uncertainty and concern among food producers about violating zoning laws and encourages more urban agriculture and food-secure communities.

4. Support urban agriculture coalitions.

Taking the above steps enables community groups to succeed in their efforts to mitigate the negative health impacts of food deserts. But above all else, effective amendments to zoning requires listening to the community.

Oakland, California, models this type of engagement through its thriving Food Policy Council, a 21-member body that effectively voices food-access concerns to city staff and elected
officials. The council, which includes key nonprofit leaders, community members, and food-sector professionals, meets 10 times a year to discuss, advocate, or protest proposed legislation regarding food access and urban farming to ensure the needs of food-vulnerable community members remain at the forefront of the zoning and policy-setting process.

By better understanding a community's unique concerns regarding limits on their ability to grow, sell, and access fresh food, municipal planners can prioritize zoning reform according to those specific needs — and promote greater food equity nationwide.

Gina Hervey is a second-year law student at Pace Law School and research assistant in the Land Use Law Center. This article was reprinted with the permission of GreenLaw: Blog of the Pace Law School Environmental Programs.