Elisabeth Haub Law School of Law
Pace University
Land Use Law Center
Supervisor: John R. Nolon, Distinguished Professor
Blog No. 8 of the Land Use, Human Health, and Equity Project[*]

Editors: Jessica Roberts, Jillian Aicher, Colt Watkiss
Contributing Researcher: Gina Hervey[**]

 Since the pandemic, 10% of families with children under five have reported insufficient food access. Increasing food security is a highly interdisciplinary endeavor and local land use laws can play a key role. Zoning ordinances can allow and incentivize a range of food sources in or nearby food deserts by using flexible food purveyor definitions. Zoning ordinances can also incentivize pop-up eating facilities and food trucks and, as discussed in this blog, promote local food production.

According to the USDA’s most recent food access report, about 12% of the US population lived in a food desert as of 2017. Food deserts, as described by the USDA, are census tracts that are either low income or low-access. A low-income tract is where the population poverty rate is above 20%, or the median family income is below 80% of the state or metropolitan area’s median family income. A low-access tract is one in which 33% of the population lives more than a mile (in urban areas) and more than 10 miles (in rural areas) from a supermarket.

Use explicit agriculture terms in the zoning code to permit food production.  Many zoning codes speak generally of gardening or urban agriculture. However, providing explicit and detailed definitions of terms, particularly for agriculture processes, helps clarify what is permitted. This can help potential urban farmers engage in food production and encourage established farmers to take advantage of more farming-friendly zoning allowances. Ultimately, this increases fresh, local, and affordable food production and access.  The Austin, Texas Code of Ordinances has a section specifically defining agricultural uses. The code defines where processes such as aquaponic, horticulture, and indoor crop production are permitted and what is meant by each term. The national Healthy Food Project created a draft guide for municipalities to assist in articulating agricultural terminology for zoning codes.

Allow temporary and small structure buildings for agriculture. Allowing greenhouses, hoop houses, and other smaller structures intended for urban/semi-urban farming and small animal husbandry is crucial for the efficient use of farming spaces. Without flexible provisions for such structures, landowners and their farming tenants or partners are unable to accommodate various, higher-yielding crops and maintain appropriate livestock on their urban land without risking code violations. Philadelphia’s zoning specifically allows agricultural structures of varying sizes depending on the lot size. The city further waves all permitting requirements for temporary structures of 180 days or less. This removes obstacles for farmers who may want a temporary greenhouse for winter crops or small hoop houses during a frost season.

Allow the on-site sale of produce. Allowing the on-site sale of produce significantly improves food access for consumers and helps food producers access markets without costly transportation and “middlemen” fees. While allowing farming in more zones is key, it is significantly more beneficial to also permit the sale and distribution of that farmed food on-site. Kansas City’s Zoning Code (section 88-312-02 allows the direct sale or donation of “whole, uncut fresh food and/or horticultural products grown in home gardens, community gardens, and land managed under a community supported agriculture model.” Clarifying zoning codes regarding food sales significantly decreases uncertainty and concern about violating zoning laws and encourages more urban agriculture and community-based food secure cities.

Support urban agriculture coalitions. Taking the above steps enables community groups to succeed in their efforts to mitigate the negative health impacts of food deserts. But above all else, effective amendments to zoning requires listening to the community. By better understanding a community’s unique concerns regarding limits on their ability to grow, sell, and access fresh food, municipal planners can prioritize zoning reform according to those specific concerns. Understanding a community’s unique situation, identifying where zoning can help create change, and enacting supportive legislation promotes greater food equity nationwide. Oakland, California, has a thriving Food Policy Council to effectively voice such food-access concerns to their city. Key nonprofit and community members meet to discuss, advocate, or protest proposed legislation regarding food access and urban farming to ensure the needs of food-vulnerable community members remain at the forefront of the zoning and policy-setting process.


[*] The previous blogs in the series are listed here:

  1. https://greenlaw.blogs.pace.edu/2020/10/21/reframing-sustainability-introducing-the-land-use-human-health-and-equity-project/
  2. https://greenlaw.blogs.pace.edu/2020/10/22/planning-for-public-health-a-new-beginning-for-land-use-law/
  3. https://greenlaw.blogs.pace.edu/2020/11/04/the-role-of-density-in-combatting-climate-change-and-covid-19/
  4. https://greenlaw.blogs.pace.edu/2020/11/19/novel-coronavirus-claims-implicate-age-old-property-rights-questions/
  5. https://greenlaw.blogs.pace.edu/2020/11/24/state-local-covid-related-emergency-powers-individual-rights/
  6. https://greenlaw.blogs.pace.edu/2020/12/22/covid-related-land-use-regulations-and-judicial-deference/
  7. https://greenlaw.blogs.pace.edu/2021/04/01/mediation-of-eviction-disputes-may-hold-the-key-to-the-survival-of-small-businesses/


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[**] Gina Hervey is a first-year student at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law and Research Assistant for the Land Use Law Center’s Equity Division.   

Jessica Roberts is a second-year student at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law and Research Assistant to Professor Nolon.

Jillian Aicher is a second-year student at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law and Research Assistant to Professor Nolon.

Colt Watkiss is a first-year student at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law and Land Use Law Center Volunteer.