Planning and Community Health Center

Planning for Food Access: A National Scan and Evaluation of Local Comprehensive and Sustainability Plans

Project Background

Alongside air, water, and shelter, food is a basic necessity for life. Food plays a role in our health, economy, and culture and is a critical part of a sustainable community. The World Health Organization and the United Nations consider access to safe and nutritious food a basic individual right, however many rural and urban residents have limited access to fresh produce and other healthful foods.

Disparities in food access are influenced by geographic, economic, and social factors, but also by a community's food production, processing, distribution, consumption, and waste recovery policies and practices. Food access is not simply a health issue but also a community development and equity issue. For this reason, access to healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food is a key component not only in a healthy, sustainable local food system, but also in a healthy, sustainable community.

There are many tools a local government can use to address complicated societal issues, such as food access, and plan for the future of a community. Municipal and county planning departments prepare a variety of plans to assess and address challenges in areas ranging from housing and economic development to land use and transportation. Food access and other food system issues, however, are often missing from local planning processes.

The comprehensive plan is a leading policy tool with legal significance and the sustainability plan is an emerging and innovative policy tool with promising influence on local government sustainability actions. Both types of plans are increasingly addressing food access and other food systems issues as important plan components.

Planning for Food Access and Community-Based Food Systems

A National Scan and Evaluation of Local Comprehensive and Sustainability Plans

Access to safe and nutritious food is considered a basic individual right by the World Health Organization and the United Nations. However, many residents in low-income neighborhoods — both rural and urban — have limited access to fresh produce and other healthful foods.

National Research Study

With support from the Healthy Eating Research program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the American Planning Association's Planning and Community Health Research Center conducted a multi-phase research study to identify and evaluate:

  1. the development, adoption, and implementation of food related goals and policies of local comprehensive plans, including sustainability plans, across the U.S.; and
  2. their impact on local policies, regulations, and standards for the purpose of reducing food access disparities among children, adolescents, and adults and improving community-based food systems.

This research provides a better understanding of how and why some local governments have addressed food access and food system issues in the comprehensive or sustainability planning process and identifies common themes and innovative features for implementing plan policies and achieving plan goals.

The free, 175-page report is divided into four main sections and provides detailed results and analyses for each phase of the study:

Plan Identification

In 2010, APA's Planning and Community Health Research Center conducted a national, web-based survey of planning directors and other individuals responsible for planning at the local government level to identify and inventory draft and adopted comprehensive and sustainability plans that explicitly address food access and other aspects of the food system. A total of 888 valid responses from local governments in the U.S. were collected regarding: the location of the food system components in the plan; data and data collection tools used to identify and understand the extent of food systems issues; level of involvement of stakeholders in food systems planning; successes and challenges in developing the food system components of the plan; and impact of the plan on food access and the larger food system.

Approximately 12 percent of respondents indicated that their local government's comprehensive plan (80 jurisdictions) or sustainability plan (25 jurisdictions) explicitly addressed an aspect of local or regional food systems. The five most-cited food system topics in the identified comprehensive and sustainability plans were rural agriculture, food access and availability, urban agriculture, food retail, and food waste. Respondents reported that the food system-related goals, objectives, and policies of adopted plans had positive impacts on the community, including the creation of new community gardens, grocery stores, and farmers markets, as well as changes in land-use regulations and the promotion of locally grown food.

Plan Evaluation

A sample of plans (13 comprehensive plans and eight sustainability plans) was selected for in-depth plan evaluation. Plans were evaluated for how they support and advance principles of a healthy, sustainable food system; how they promote access to safe, nutritious, affordable, culturally appropriate, and sustainably grown food; how they address implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of the food-related goals and policies; and the overall quality of food-related goals and policies.

The top five highest scoring plans in our sample included Marin County, California's comprehensive plan, Philadelphia's sustainability plan, San Francisco's sustainability plan, Sacramento, California's comprehensive plan, and Baltimore's sustainability plan. All of these plans addressed food access and its connections to the larger food system, but also addressed how to implement the food access policies outlined in the plan and how to track progress in achieving the plan's food access goals.

Case Studies

The research team also conducted and recorded semi-structured, key informant phone interviews with local government planners and other stakeholders from 15 of the 21 selected plans to learn more about the food access and food systems planning process.

Common themes emerged, including: the importance of good baseline data to understand the food systems issues and track progress in achieving plan goals over time; the value of working with local nonprofit organizations such as universities to develop and implement food system plan goals and policies; the focus on low-hanging fruit, such as regulatory, policy, and administrative review and reform, in cases of limited implementation funding; and the impact plan development had on the public's and local officials' understanding of food system issues in their community as well as how food system issues relate to other urban systems.

Recommendations and Sample Plan Language

The final section of the report provides recommendations for municipalities and counties that are engaging in (or beginning to engage in) food access and food systems planning, and sample plan language of food systems related vision statements, goals, policies, action items and implementation mechanisms, as well as data collection and assessment tools to monitor and evaluate changes in the local food system over time.

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

This project was funded by a grant, awarded by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation through its national program Healthy Eating Research. The program supports research on environmental and policy strategies with strong potential to promote healthy eating among children to prevent childhood obesity, especially among low-income and racial and ethnic populations at highest risk for obesity.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses on the pressing health and health care issues facing our country. As the nation's largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to improving the health and health care of all Americans, the Foundation works with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, meaningful and timely change.

For more than 35 years, the foundation has brought experience, commitment and a rigorous, balanced approach to the problems that affect the health and health care of those it serves. When it comes to helping Americans lead healthier lives and get the care they need, the foundation expects to make a difference in your lifetime. For more information, visit