Building a food system that serves all

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The Rochester Food Policy Council faces a daunting task: improving the food system that serves city residents. Launched a couple of years ago, the FPC—Rochester’s fourth attempt at one—expects to share its action plan by the end of summer.

“Our Food Policy Council is a community-led group that is charged with identifying … policy solutions to be able to create a healthier, more equitable food system,” says City Council member Mitch Gruber, a key proponent of the council. Gruber is also chief strategy officer at Foodlink, a Rochester-based nonprofit dedicated to ending hunger and building healthier communities.

A food system encompasses all the elements that come together to bring sustenance to the table, including those who grow the food, food processors and the retailers who offer it to the public. 

Gruber and local activists say Rochester’s system does not serve many city residents’ needs, particularly those with low incomes. Economic factors, transportation difficulties and other conditions combine to deny them effective access to healthy foods. The FPC is an attempt to change that.

Access to healthy food

Limited access to full-service supermarkets that offer healthy, nutritious products adds to the problem.

“When grocery stores are figuring out where they are going to locate their businesses (they) look at income levels … and they decide where to go based on that,” Gruber says.

All too often, those locations are outside Rochester’s boundaries. 

Gruber, who researched the history of the local food retail landscape for his doctoral dissertation, found that in 1979 two major supermarket chains, Star Market and Wegmans Food Markets, owned a total of 21 stores in Rochester. One Wegmans supermarket was located in Midtown Plaza.

Today, the websites of Wegmans, Top’s Friendly Markets and Walmart—the three major food retailers that serve Monroe County—list a combined 13 stores in Rochester, and none in downtown. The county’s suburbs have 27 supermarkets, up from 20 in 1979. 

“Wealthy places with a lot of discretionary income have certain stores, and low-income communities without discretionary income don’t,” Gruber says.

The situation has created areas in Rochester that academics and government officials once referred to as “food deserts.” 

“(Food desert) was essentially used to define low-income, generally, areas where there is limited access to healthy, affordable foods,” says Joel Gittelsohn a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “The term caught on because it’s very evocative.” 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture eventually discarded “food desert” in favor of the term “low-income and low-access census tract.” For a census tract to qualify as a low-income and low-access area, at least 500 of its residents or 33 percent of its population must live at least one-half mile from a supermarket, supercenter or large grocery store. The tract must also have a poverty rate of 20 percent or more, or a median family income that’s at or below 80 percent of the statewide or metropolitan area median family income. For metropolitan Rochester, that is roughly $49,398. 

USDA map of Monroe County’s low-income and low-access areas shows a relatively broad swath of census tracts that stretches from the shore of Lake Ontario to Henrietta’s northern boundary.

For those who can’t access retail outlets that offer healthy foods, the alternative is small shops with more limited product offerings.

“In the vast majority of the city of Rochester, people have the corner store and the minimarket to buy from,” Gruber says. “You end up needing to rely (upon) all sorts of stores that the business model is to sell things that are calorie-dense, nutrition-devoid (and) highly shelf-stable.”

Links to poor health

The potential costs of those foods exceed their price tags. Heavy consumption of highly processed foods, which usually contain a lot of fats, sugars and sodium, can lead to heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and other serious health problems. Several studies have shown the close relationship between the consumption of salt and hypertension, for example. 

A comparison of USDA and Monroe County Department of Health data sheds some light upon how high those costs could be for those living in some parts of Rochester. 

Substantial portions of the 14609 and 14619 ZIP codes, northeast and southwest of downtown Rochester, respectively, are low-income and access areas. 

According to a 2017 county Health Department report, close to 19 percent of the adults living in parts of the 14609 ZIP code suffered from diabetes, and as much as 50 percent of the residents of a section of the 14619 ZIP code suffered from high blood pressure. In contrast, 10 percent of all county residents were estimated to be suffering from diabetes and 30 percent from high blood pressure. 

His Branches Community Health Center, a nonprofit medical care provider with offices in the 14609 and 14619 ZIP codes, treats about 2,000 patients each year. Many of them lack ready access to sources of healthy foods.

Brittanie McCleary

“We have corner stores and things of that nature,” case manager Brittanie McCleary says. “You can get food, but it’s not necessarily healthy or fresh.”

According to McCleary, 33 percent of Healthy Branches’ patients suffer from hypertension, 15 percent from diabetes and 5 percent from heart disease. 

Changes in the local food system could reduce the occurrence of such ailments, but new full-service supermarkets probably won’t begin sprouting in the city anytime soon. Many city locations just don’t offer the profitability that large retailers desire, Gruber says.  

“(You) can’t drop one into a neighborhood and expect it to actually work and be sustainable,” Gruber says.

Constantino’s Market opened to acclaim in the University of Rochester’s College Town development in April 2015, buoyed by a nearly $750,000 federal grant. The 20,000-square-foot, full-service supermarket, which was part of a Cleveland, Ohio-based chain, closed less than a year later. 

Representatives of Constantino’s did not give a reason for closing its doors, but Joel Seligman, who was University of Rochester president at the time, said the establishment was not profitable enough to continue operating. 

A Food Policy Council’s role

The FPC was created to reach beyond the for-profit model to meet Rochester’s needs.

“The work of the Food Policy Council is to develop interventions that are community-driven, sustainable and effective,” Gruber says.  

In this role, the FPC will focus on formulating and advocating for government policies that make healthier foods more generally accessible to the community. It won’t plant gardens on unused city plots, but might push for zoning changes that could allow them to sprout more easily.

Food policy councils have existed in the U.S. since 1982, when the first one was started in Knoxville, Tenn. More than 320 councils now operate across the country at the state, local and regional level. 

Mark Winne of the Bloomberg School of Public Health is considered an expert on such organizations. During a career that has spanned nearly 50 years, Winne developed the city of Hartford Advisory Commission on Food Policy, co-founded the Connecticut Food Policy Council and co-founded the Johns Hopkins’ Food Policy Projects Network. That network brings U.S. food policy councils and those that operate in other countries together to try to meaningfully improve food systems. 

Mark Winne

Winne says effective food policy councils have a number of characteristics. The members of a council should be stakeholders in the food system, such as the representatives of local foodbanks or other people who are concerned about the place in which they live. 

“You will see a mix of professionals and community folks who just have a good track record at being active citizens in their community,” Winne says. “A food policy council has to be about the larger community.”

Council members should also have their fingers on the pulse of their food system.

“You’re tuned in, not just to the data … but what’s going on on the street,” Winne says. “They know that there are a significant number of, say, low-income people for whom getting affordable food is not an easy thing to do.”

Those on the council should also know how to engage with important government entities in order to change official policies, or help create new ones.

“They understand what city government or county government or state government can do to improve the food supply for everybody,” Winne says. 

The Rochester FPC

The Rochester area has seen three unsuccessful efforts to establish a food policy council since 1990, the last of which occurred in 2012. Lack of funding and infrastructure played a role in each failure.

“Each time, there was a failure to find funding that was supportive (or) staff within an existing organization who would serve as the organizer,” says Elizabeth Henderson, an FPC member and retired organic farmer who has been involved in local food issues since 1988.

The current effort to start a council began in 2018, spurred in part by the results of the research that city officials conducted for Rochester 2034, the city’s latest master plan.

“All throughout the 2034 plan planning process, food kept bubbling up from community members over and over again,” Gruber says. “A lot of residents, a lot of stakeholders in the city, talked about how important it is to make our food system a healthier place.” 

In light of those results, former Mayor Lovely Warren’s administration included support for the creation of a food policy council in the Rochester 2034 plan. A portion of the plan reads: “A local council/task force could focus on Rochester’s food deserts, document existing services, needs, gaps, and opportunities, and develop food access policies and initiatives that help to improve community food access and nutrition.” City Council adopted Rochester 2034 in November 2019.

Mitch Gruber

City support for the creation of a food policy council encouraged Foodlink, Common Ground Health and the city of Rochester to jointly take on that task. They started by assembling a 13-person planning team that included Gruber; Mike Bulger, healthy communities coordinator for Common Ground Health’s Healthi Kids Coalition; Kelly Miterko, who was then the city’s director of policy; and five people from the community. 

The planning team set out to draft a structure for the FPC, gather applicants for seats on the council, select members, and formulate the council’s bylaws. For guidance, the team’s members turned to Winne. 

Due to the COVID-19 lockdown, Winne interacted with the planning team virtually.

“A lot of the work I did with them was trying to come up with the best structure,” Winne says. “What fits best for Rochester, given the current set of players, whatever biases people have, the politics, the receptivity, perhaps, of City Hall.”

Gathering input

Public input and support were essential to the process. Late in 2019, the planning team screened “A Place at the Table in Rochester at the Little Theatre. The 2012 documentary depicts hunger’s effects on three Americans, and some of the means of eliminating it. 

“Over 150 people showed up on a snowy night,” Gruber says. “It was just clear how much energy and enthusiasm there was for this initiative.”

The planning team’s next major public activity was Food for Thought, a series of three virtual public meetings about the FPC project that it held in late August 2020. 

“We knew there were hundreds and hundreds of people in our community who wanted to see a local food policy council,” Bulger says. “We wanted to hold a public event early in our planning process … to give people an opportunity to tell us their vision for the Rochester FPC.”  

More than 300 people registered for Food for Thought, nearly 75 percent of whom were Rochester residents. One online meeting drew over 180 people. 

“We heard from diverse voices, and they reinforced our belief that the best local FPC would be one that has participation from a wide range of stakeholders,” Bulger says. “People suggested the different groups be consulted and represented in this work, including BIPOC youth, seniors, farmers, businesses, school communities, and many more.” 

Mike Bulger

Attendees shared what they thought to be successful elements of the local food system, including the Rochester Public Market and Foodlink, as well as some of the system’s shortcomings.

“People told us about local challenges, such as school food, junk food in neighborhoods, diet-related disease, and so on,” Bulger says. “The biggest local challenge, according to the feedback we received, was inequity in access to healthy food.” 

Cooking Up Change, a series of three online meetings that the planning team held last April, gave the public the chance to see how far the FPC had come.

“The purpose (was) to share the progress that we had made in drafting Food Policy Council bylaws, and envisioning the structure for how it would work, and how many members there would be, and how it would function,” Bulger says. 

Rochester residents also gained the chance to offer their ideas about how the team could go forward.

“What should we be looking for in Food Policy Council members?” Bulger says.  “How should we publicize the applications, and make sure that they are reaching all corners of our community?” 

Forming the council

In addition to gathering input from the public, the events allowed the planning team to solicit attendees to apply for seats on the FPC. The team also advertised the openings on the radio and via social media, and even made paper applications for the positions available at all of Rochester’s public libraries and Neighborhood Service Centers.

To qualify for one of the 13 seats on the council, an applicant had to live in the city, have a strong interest in improving the food system and successfully undergo several interviews. The seats are not paid positions, though council members can apply for a stipend.

The FPC’s planning team ended up vetting 80 people for the slots.

“For a body that doesn’t necessarily have even the most clear and explicit charge at the moment, to get 80 people who want to volunteer their time is really impressive,” Gruber says. 

By the end of November 2021, all of the FPC’s seats were filled. Bulger, Foodlink CEO Julia Tedesco and Associate City Planner Elizabeth Murphy were selected to represent the organizations that drove the organization’s creation, and have the title of “Administrative Member.” 

Bulger says the presence of the three is essential to the FPC’s functioning. Common Ground brings expertise in data gathering and analysis, and Foodlink has a great deal of knowledge of the local food system. 

“(The) city of Rochester brings the expertise in policy, and the intimate understanding of how things work around our city,” Bulger says. “It allows us to be able to have direct access to decision makers and policy makers.”

Gruber is not on the Food Policy Council, but he is its liaison with City Council. His presence, and that of a representative of Rochester’s planning office, could help the FPC accomplish real change.

“We don’t want to just create a policy, and have it live only in writing,” Bulger says.

Many on the FPC work other jobs in addition to their council duties. To help them meet the demands of their jobs and lives, Common Ground, Foodlink and the city provide support staff that take on council members’ more humdrum tasks, such as scheduling meetings or writing press releases. The FPC held its first monthly meeting on Nov. 15.

At the time she applied to be on the FPC, Rosa Luciano was chief operating officer of the Children’s Agenda, a nonprofit that supports the health and education of children.

Rosa Luciano

Luciano had personal reasons for applying for a position on the FPC. The mother of two was a teenager when she bore her first child, a son who required heart surgery at the age of two. While caring for him, she worked low-wage jobs, attended college and struggled to put food on the table.

“There’s a heavy toll on the emotional experiences of food insecurity that are often not talked about,” she says. “Those experiences encouraged me to apply to FPC.”

Luciano gained a seat on the council, and was elected its president. In addition to her duties for the FPC, she currently works as the office manager of a local law firm.

The composition of the rest of the FPC reflects the diverse nature of Rochester’s population. Among those giving their time and energy to the FPC are Nathaniel Mich, who has a decade of experience in urban agriculture, food access and community development programming. Council member Laura Fox O’Sullivan is president of The Commissary, the region’s first food business incubator, and vice president of the Rochester Downtown Development Corporation. Ashley Smith, a resident of Rochester’s North Marketview Heights neighborhood, started a community garden.

Winne speaks highly of the way in which the FPC’s creators went about their tasks.  

“The thing I like about their developmental work was the thoroughness of it,” he says. “And then, reaching out to the community the way they did was a really important step.” 

The council’s strong connection to city government is also a plus. 

“You had good buy-in from city government, as well as the larger community,” Winne says. “That’s the thing that makes them really stand out.”

A need for a concerted effort

City Council further indicated its support for the FPC on May 12, 2021, when it unanimously approved an ordinance endorsing the organization. Co-authored by Gruber and Miterko, the ordinance directed Rochester’s mayor to appoint a city employee to sit on the FPC. In addition, the mayor and City Council are to review and consider the FPC’s policy recommendations.

In the coming months, the FPC plans to continue researching local food issues and the needs and desires of city residents.

“It (is) about educating ourselves about what those concerns are and what are the possible solutions,” Luciano says. 

That research will help guide the organization as it plans to take action.

“We are actually formulating an action plan that is going to guide our goals (and) assure that anything that we do really relates to the city, the policies that are in place and the needs of our community members,” Luciano says. 

Gruber says the action plan, and other important additions to the FPC, should be ready to be put before the public by the end of this summer.

In addition to making such changes, the FPC also needs to search for a new source of funding. It has been dipping into a two-year, $100,000 Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge. The grant, which was funded by the Aetna Foundation, the American Public Health Association and the National Association of Counties, will run out this August. Gruber says the FPC is seeking other funding.

Bulger cautions that it will not be easy to fix Rochester’s food system.

“It’s going to take a concerted and consistent effort over a course of time to start to piece together all of the solutions that we can come to,” he says. 

The result could prove very beneficial for Rochester’s residents.

“I do believe that we can work together to reduce health disparities, to improve the diet and nutritional intake of everybody in our community, and to make food something that we can all enjoy.”

Mike Costanza is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. Data visualization by Jacob Schermerhorn. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.

One thought on “Building a food system that serves all

  1. Terrific article, and looking forward to your thoughts on the plan later this summer. I used to shop at the Star Market on Park Ave back in the day — was that really part of the Massachusetts chain to which you provided a link?

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