Members of the Rochester community shared their dreams of local community gardens and fresh produce last Wednesday in a Zoom call hosted by the City of Rochester, Common Ground Health, and Foodlink.

Thanks to a $100,000 grant awarded to those organizations earlier this month, these dreams might become a reality. The grant, given through the Healthiest Cities and Counties Challenge, has allowed the city to explore ways to advance health equity and food policy. One of the city’s main goals is to increase access to healthy food.

The open discussions were hosted for stakeholders to be involved in the planning and visioning phase of the food policy council. “[The stakeholders’] voice is a big part of it,” Foodlink curbside ambassador Candice Carbral said. The Jay Orchard Street Area Neighborhood Association (JOSANA) neighborhood resident said she pictures the council as “vibrant,” with “fresh, local items” that involves several groups of the community, from farmers to children.  

Attendee Bonnie Thousand pointed out the importance of the city’s involvement in “creating more green spaces within neighborhoods so that neighborhoods can create food gardens within their communities.” Community member and pediatrician Sanford Meyer suggested efficient space use by having food gardens on structurally capable rooftops. 

Tom Silva, one of the event’s hosts, explained the importance of a policy-level solution increasing widespread access to healthy food. Silva acknowledged that “the food landscape in Rochester didn’t develop in a vacuum,” but rather is a product of history, government policies, and private business decisions. For example, Silva was able to identify the effect of redlining in neighborhoods today through looking at which neighborhoods have access to high-quality grocery stores. The neighborhoods that lacked access to stores with healthy foods often had higher rates of diabetes and hypertension.  

During the discussion, some members initially described Rochester’s food system as a “food desert.” However, due to structural racism being a major cause of health inequities in Rochester, Foodlink employee Corey Robinson advised attendees and stakeholders to move away from that term.  

“I think there’s a term — food apartheid — that’s a more useful term if we’re going to talk about root causes of poverty and hunger [in Rochester],” Robinson said.

Foodlink Chief Strategy and Partnership Officer and Rochester city council member Mitch Gruber brought up the negative impact dollar stores have on food networks. An article he referenced called dollar stores predatory, and Gruber said there’s an argument to be made for such a description. Gruber pointed out that they tend to have “the most calorie-dense and nutrient-devoid food” and can act as a barrier to entry for farmer’s markets due to saturation of food stores — a problem present in a lot of neighborhoods in Rochester.

Solutions to the dollar store dilemma include zoning codes limiting the number of dollar stores, and legislation requiring they carry certain healthier products. “Instead of discouraging [dollar stores], why not require that they provide healthy alternatives?” attendee Shirley Nagg said.

For Nathaniel Mich, an urban agriculture specialist at Foodlink, Rochester’s zoning code — which is food blind and lacks specific guidance on agriculture, gardening, and composting — is a major barrier to implementing significant change. Zoning code revisions were discussed during the call as a potential next step, and it is expected the codes will go under revision soon. Mich also stressed the importance of ensuring long-term access to land so people can invest in urban farms.

One attendee reminded everyone that the food system is not an isolated issue, and is intertwined with the transportation system. Policies moving forward have to take transportation problems, shortcomings, and solutions into account as well. 

Silva explained that structural change is imperative as it will help rectify “some of those large mistakes made in the development of the city.”

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