Planning for Food Justice in Brooklyn Park

By Hannah Gary

Residents of 13 Census tracts in Brooklyn Park live in what the U.S. Department of Agriculture deems a "food desert," defined as an area in which at least one-third of residents have difficulty accessing food. Because food deserts can have a significant impact on health and general well-being, Brooklyn Park partnered during spring semester with three University of Minnesota classes through this year's RCP partnership  to investigate opportunities to increase food security and sustainability.

In Dr. Fernando Burga’s Introduction to Site Planning course, three urban and regional planning graduate students delved deeply into the relationship between urban planning, food justice, and equity in Brooklyn Park. Graduate students in an Urban GIS course, undergraduate food systems majors in a capstone course, and graduate students in an urban affairs course called Science to Action, also focused on food systems-related projects in the city.  

Assessing Access to Healthy Food in Brooklyn Park

Food access first surfaced as an issue in Brooklyn Park several years ago, when Hennepin County Public Health partnered with the local organization African Career, Education, Resource, Inc. (ACER) to assess general barriers to leading healthy lifestyles through the Brooklyn Park/Brooklyn Center Community Listening Project. Focus groups with residents of various ethnic backgrounds revealed that accessing healthy, affordable, and culturally relevant food is a significant challenge for many Brooklyn Park residents.

Brooklyn Park saw the RCP partnership as an opportunity to address not only food access, but also health and well-being on a larger scale. “Access to affordable and healthy food has so many cascading impacts on quality of life for people,” noted John Nerge, GIS Coordinator for the City of Brooklyn Park and staff lead for a project focused on assessing access to healthy food in the city.

Two students in a fall-semester Urban GIS course taught by Dr. Ying Song investigated access to healthy, affordable, culturally relevant food along the Zane Avenue corridor in Brooklyn Park, an area previously identified as one in which residents faced food access challenges. The corridor has a large proportion of African-born and African-American, Asian, and Latino residents, as well as the lowest median income and highest rates of poverty in Brooklyn Park.

Yun Taek Oh, a graduate student in urban and regional planning, analyzed transportation barriers to accessing healthy food. His analysis showed that while many residents of the Zane Avenue corridor are within walking distance of a grocery store or a bus that would allow access to a store, three pockets of residents were outside the 0.25-mile area people will typically walk to a destination or bus stop.

Natalie Loots, a master of public health student, focused on access to culturally relevant food. Through her analysis, she discovered that although convenience stores and chain or fast-food restaurants are prevalent in the corridor, stores or restaurants that offer culturally relevant options consistent with the demographic makeup of the corridor are more scarce. 

"Improving food access in the Zane ave corridor is particularly important because of the demographic makeup of the area," Loots concluded in her final report to the city. "It is the most populated, most diverse, and poorest area of Brooklyn park. The literature shows that, in general, populations living in areas demographically similar to the Zane ave corridor experience lower access to healthy food and disproportionately higher rates of obesity related disease than areas like the northern part of Brooklyn Park. This kind of health disparity is a major problem in the United States and a major problem in Minnesota."

Kevin Priestley, a second-year MURP student, is building off of Oh and Loot's work to develop a more-in depth analysis and methodology to assess accessibility, cultural relevance, and affordability. Priestley is using American Community Survey data from the last five years, mapping enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), households living below the poverty line, and features of the built environment such as sidewalks and trails, all of which can impact a household’s ability to access food.

Through his research, Priestley has found that there is a correlation between low physical connectivity, poverty status, and SNAP enrollment. For Priestly, food is integral to broader equity work being done in the city. “Food justice is important for Brooklyn Park because it is a potential wealth-building strategy,” Priestly noted. He sees food as the most basic way to create a sense of community and expose residents to new cultures and lifestyles.

Community Kitchen Feasibility Analysis

To encourage more community around food, as well as bolster economic development opportunities, Brooklyn Park is evaluating the potential for a community kitchen in the city. Brooklyn Park is home to a large population of new immigrants to the United States, and many newly arrived residents are entrepreneurs who want to establish their own businesses, many of which are food related. The initial idea for a community kitchen arose in 2004, when community development and code enforcement staff at the City realized that lack of commercial kitchen space was a real barrier for potential food businesses.  

“[The] community kitchen idea was a solution to a problem we were seeing with some home-based food production," said Jason Newby, Code Enforcement and Public Health Manager for Brooklyn Park and staff lead for the community kitchen project. "We were finding products that were made from home and were offered for sale in some of our small markets,” creating risks to community health from food-borne illnesses, as well as community safety from residential kitchen fires.

Brooklyn Park is currently developing a strategic plan for the city called BP 2025. Two major themes in the plan are fostering more community gathering space and increasing access to healthy, affordable food. A community-wide commercial kitchen would serve both of these goals by providing residents with a commercially-licensed workspace while also creating a community gathering location for residents to share meals and participate in other food-related programming.

A team of students in Dr. Julie Grossman's capstone course, Holistic Approaches to Improving Food Systems Sustainability, interviewed staff at commercial kitchens and food hubs in the Twin Cities area, and conducted focus groups and surveys with a variety of stakeholders and residents in Brooklyn Park regarding their interest in a commercial kitchen or food hub concept. Their research showed significant interest in a commercial kitchen and related educational opportunities such as cooking classes, food safety training, and small business development. In addition, respondents desired access to cold storage, storefront space to market products, and a larger event space.

Andrew Degerstrom, an urban and regional planning graduate student, focused on identifying a potential site in Brooklyn Park for a commercial kitchen space. His work and the work of Grossman's students are providing the necessary foundational research and momentum to propel the idea forward. Through working with RCP, "we now have the capacity to push this project, whereas before, it was something we thought about but didn’t have the ability to do it,” Newby noted.    

Restaurant Food Waste

The final (but often forgotten) part of the food system lifecycle is food waste, which constitutes 31% of all solid waste in Minnesota and is a potential pollution source for many cities. Gail Trenholm, Environmental Health Specialist for Brooklyn Park and staff lead for the City's organic waste projects, observed through interactions with local restaurant owners that many were not aware of food waste recycling options or grant opportunities available through Hennepin County to assist businesses interested in adopting more sustainable waste removal strategies. This prompted Trenholm and other Brooklyn Park staff to include a project in the RCP partnership focused on restaurant food waste disposal and recycling.  

Two teams of graduate students in Steve Kelley's Science to Action course in the Humphrey School were tasked with investigating for-profit, nonprofit, and policy solutions to restaurant food waste disposal. One team focused on solid organic waste such as food scraps or spoiled food, while the other considered fats, oils, and grease, which are substantial byproducts of restaurant food production. Both teams identified a range of options for the City to explore further, while being mindful of the barriers to more sustainable organic waste disposal they discovered through their research, such as lack of knowledge among business owners, additional cost to businesses, and a lack of physical space to collect organic matter for pickup.

Urban and regional planning graduate student Joe Lampe investigated waste recycling systems for items such as left-over groceries and cooking grease. He discovered that several larger businesses in Brooklyn Park are already taking measures to dispose of food waste through more sustainable means, although they don't widely publicize these efforts. Cub Foods, for example, donates left-over grocery items, and Dragon Star Supermarket operates with a one-company refuse disposal model that includes organic waste pick-up and recycling, a solution Lampe proposed for the City as a whole. Smaller businesses face more barriers to implementing sustainable disposal methods, but the City hopes that the approaches used by larger operations like Cub and Dragon Star can serve as models for other businesses.  

Next Steps

At the end of the semester, Lampe, Degerstrom, and Priestly—the three students in Fernando Burga's class—produced eight presentation-style poster boards highlighting their work, which they presented to City staff and stakeholders in early May. Burga believes that the poster boards have a greater impact than traditional written reports. “I think if you want to have an idea that may have legs and may forge a conversation, what you do is you create a social space in which people can gather and can look, discuss, and exchange ideas about the idea,” said Burga. “So the posters are basically instruments to create that social space.”

For Brooklyn Park, the information gleaned from the RCP partnership will generate continued conversation about food access, security, and equity in the city. “I think the next steps will be to really digest the information that the students are collecting," said Nerge. "This [food access] project is a little unique compared to the others because it is really focused on doing that deep research and trying to understand the problem better. So then from there, [the next steps are] doing what the City can with some of the other [food-related] projects" to improve food access and food security.

And all of the projects will involve continued relationship-building and engagement with residents to build more equitable food systems, especially in the unique and diverse context of Brooklyn Park. “You can kind of do a high-level overview of what a community kitchen might look like in Brooklyn Park, but I think the challenge for us is really engaging with those that are going to be impacted and are going to use it,” said Newby.

Hannah Gary is a dual-degree graduate student in the University of Minnesota's Master of Urban and Regional Planning program at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs and Master of Public Health program in the School of Public Health.

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