University of Maryland Extension

Community engagement, if you want to do something about food deserts

Neith Little, Extension Agent, Urban Agriculture

Urban Ag home | Table of contents

Many people get into urban agriculture because they have a deep desire to solve problems they see in the world, particularly the paradox of hunger in the midst of plenty. Different people call this problem by different names: “food deserts,” “healthy food priority areas,” “food swamps,” “food apartheid,” “food mirages.” These different terms are part of an on-going conversation about the history and causes of why some communities have grocery stores full of staple foods and fresh produce and some communities do not.

This conversation has been explored more thoroughly by others and additional reading is recommended at the end of the chapter, but it is important to recognize that the existence of hunger in the United States is a complex social issue that goes far beyond access to grocery stores. A common first instinct is to think “I will grow more food, and sell it, and that will help solve the problem of food deserts.” But in 2019 in the United States we produce plenty of food. Food deserts are not caused by a shortage of food, but by much more complex interactions of who owns land, who has access to education and jobs, and the history and politics of how things got that way. So if an urban farmer’s primary goal is to address food access in a community that does not have it, they will need to do more than just grow food and sell it, they will need to work on community economic development and community empowerment. That requires real community engagement work.

The first challenge someone embarking on a community engagement effort will encounter is that other people are people. Anyone who cares passionately about their community will already have their own ideas about what it needs, and will probably already be working towards the changes they want to see, investing their limited free time in their own community work. So it is unrealistic, to say the least, to expect to find engaged community members who will take up your ideas and invest their time and energy into making them happen as you envisioned them.

Community engagement, honestly undertaken, means recognizing other people’s agency and being prepared to build something together that will surprise you. It’s hard work, it takes time, and it requires very different skills from those needed to grow food or run a business. Cooperative community development is the kind of work Extension has done for the past 100 years, and our colleagues who take this part of our work most seriously have written down how they do it. Rutgers has a particularly helpful collection of training materials on how to conduct collaborative community assessments, which is a great place to start:

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