Zoning Food Deserts

“The experience of oppressed people is that the living of one’s life is confined and shaped by forces and barriers which are not accidental or occasional and hence avoidable, but are systematically related to each other in such a way as to catch one between and among them and restrict or penalize motion in any direction,” wrote the philosopher and author, Marilyn Frye, in The Politics of Reality.

Why do we still see racially segregated neighborhoods today? And why are so many of these neighborhoods low-income and designated as food deserts?

In 1916, New York City passed the nation’s first comprehensive zoning code to regulate building sizes, designate separate residential and business districts and to prevent any harmful neighborhood affects. In the beginning, zoning was a way of segregating races by neighborhood or community, but in 1917 this practice was deemed unconstitutional and struck down by the Supreme Court case Buchanan v. Warley, 245 U.S. 60.


Drew-Hamilton Houses, Harlem, New York

Since the days of zoning for purposes of segregation, heirs of the civil rights lawyers from the 1960s and 70s have come to realize that the issue is not as simple as inequality among races, but economic inequality in general. But if race has less to do with it than we think, why are “children who are racial and ethnic minorities… at greater risk of living at or near the poverty level in both” rural and central cities?

This racial and economic segregation comes from the country’s history with segregation and food deserts are simply a byproduct. Affordable housing is often only available in less affluent neighborhoods with strict residential zoning laws. It’s extremely difficult for a grocery store or any other retail store to setup shop in a residentially zoned area. This has to do with parking space requirements, square footage restrictions, and various other strict guidelines.

Grocery stores with fresh food are alienated miles away from these tightly zoned residential neighborhoods, accessible only by car or lengthy trips on public transportation. Because more than 55% of New York City households are car-free, access to fresh food is impractical.

While lower income families are confined to affordable housing in residentially zoned neighborhoods, affluent neighborhoods are in high or medium density residential areas with overlapping commercially zoned spaces. The more affluent the neighborhood, the more apartments, more grocery stores, and more options for public transportation you’ll have.

There has been significant movement to target this problem, but more needs to be done:

The Obama Administration is moving forward with the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) regulation that is designed to diversify wealthier neighborhoods by promoting inclusive communities. The AFFH will also use grants to upgrade poorer areas. These upgrades would include improving public transportation and opening grocery stores—thus providing the necessary access to food lacking in these areas.

At the local level, New York City is considering rezoning and has introduced the NYC FRESH Initiative, which “provides zoning and financial incentives to promote the establishment and retention of neighborhood grocery stores in underserved communities throughout the five boroughs.”

All of these steps will help change some of the out-of-date regulations that are woven into zoning laws and the trickle down effect will benefit all New York communities.

How you can help: Write to your city councilperson and show your support of NYC FRESH and other initiatives and regulations that combat food deserts.


Post by Jessica A. Bibby – Research Fellow