When food is the question, cities are the answer

Canary Wharf, as viewed from allotments at Mudchute Farm. Image: Getty.

What do you think of when you think about a city? Buildings, shops, cultural institutions? Bricks and mortar? Roads and parks?

But cities aren’t just bricks and mortar. They are made up of people who are reliant on the natural world to feed them.

When I think about London, increasingly, I think about food and the miraculous role it plays in the life of the capital. Every day, in our amazing city, something like 33m meals are eaten. Just think: all that food has to be grown, harvested, transported, processed, packaged, sold, cooked, eaten and then disposed of.

It’s one of the daily, unseen and unappreciated wonders of modern life, and it creates over half a million jobs, turning over £20bn every year. It is a feat of such mind-boggling complexity and logistics that it is no wonder that governments – pretty much since the dawn of time – have been happy to hand the problem over to the private sector.

And while the system could be said to operate efficiently – none of us is actually starving, although, shamefully, many of us are malnourished – it is also a system that has run out of control and is now making almost as many of us ill as it makes well. And the development of cities is, I believe, the main reason why.

The origins of agriculture are obscure, but cities could not have been built without it. If you were a hunter-gatherer, you had no use for permanent settlements: you were constantly on the move looking for food.

But, around 10,000 years ago, in the fertile triangle of the Middle East, our early ancestors discovered that you could harvest grain and – crucially – store it. They mashed it up in a paste, creating the world’s first bread. It probably tasted weird (and early settlers had terrible teeth), but it was a game-changer. Grain could be stored in large enough quantities to allow some people to stay put; and from the first tiny settlements in Palestine, cities grew according to how much food they could extract from the surrounding country­side. Rome, the first city to have a population of one million, was also the first city to import food by sea from far away, including oysters from Britain – the world’s first food miles.

Smithfield Market in its heyday. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

At any time before the industrial revolu­tion, London’s streets would have been packed with carts and wagons carrying vegetables and grains, the docksides lined with cargo boats and fishing boats; back gardens would have housed pigs, sheep and cattle; and animals would have been walked to their death in Smithfield, herded across the bridges and along the narrow surrounding streets.

Cattle walked from as far away as Scotland, losing up to 100lbs in weight on the journey: they would be fattened up again in the suburbs, usually close to breweries so they could eat the spent grain. Islington combined fattening with dairy farming. At its peak the London “herd” num­bered around 20,000 and milkmaids would rise at 3am to milk and then carry the milk into the city. It wasn’t at all hygienic.

If you were living in a city like this, you would have had no doubt about what actually constituted food or where it came from. That was all to change with the industrial revo­lution. Railways, canning and refrigeration put an end to cattle and sheep walking along smart city thoroughfares and carts passing people’s houses loaded with potatoes. Food in its unadulterated form vanished from our streets and from our imaginations. Food was sold in shiny, ultra-clean shops. It became a commodity.

As food became increasingly industrialised, it also became cheaper. When I was a child, food accounted for around 30 per cent of a household budget. Today, it’s less than 10 per cent. That gap was brilliantly (and maybe ruthlessly) exploited by the growing consumer economy of the 1970s and 1980s. Politicians love cheap food – who can blame them? But did we let food get too cheap, sacrificing health over profits? Now that we’re confronting the biggest health crisis of our times, everyone is asking: how we can reform the food system? How we can bring people back in touch with what they eat? How we can help them understand that what they put in their body really does matter? National government, I would argue, is in a difficult position: the big food companies are brilliant lobbyists; they employ large workforces and their marketing budgets dwarf anything the government can spend to counter their messages with adverts for healthy eating. Food – growing, refining, production, packaging, distribution – is divid­ed up between many industries and it’s hard to say who (if anyone) is actually in control.

And cities and citizens are paying the price in obesity, ill-health, waste and environmental impact. Food banks and food poverty shame our ultra-rich city, as does the prospect of a generation of children growing up into obesity, facing a lifetime of diabetes and other health problems.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Cities have taken leading roles in sorting out hunger and food adulteration in the past and now we must do it again. We will always be dependent on others for the food we eat, we will always be operating on restricted budgets. But now we are paying a price that is too high – and, it is clear, central government is at a loss.

There is no single law or measure that will reform our broken food system. As McKinsey pointed out in their groundbreaking report of 2014, at least 80 changes need to be made before we will create a robust food system in which eating healthily is the easy option.

Allotments in South London. Image: Getty

When cities look to national governments, they are met by blank stares or shrugs. The good news is that a new urban politics is emerging, gradually recognising the need to move beyond the neoliberal era’s commitment to cheap and plentiful food, which has spawned new and horrible challenges that the food system cannot itself resolve. Many of these fall to the locality to deal with: waste, the new food poor, rising obesity, street litter, inequalities, poorly paid food work. Positive ideas about how to arrive at a sustainable future need to be grasped: sourcing food closer to home, better jobs, healthier populations.

The good news is that London is already leading the way. There are countless (and I use that word deliberately) incredible food projects bursting from streets, parks, commu­nity centres, markets, homes, schools, cafes, restaurants and hospitals. There is an army of people, supported by brilliant organisations, who understand that food really does matter, not just for our health and environment but also for our wellbeing, our families, our culture and our sense of belonging.

In the last few weeks, I have visited social enterprises that are filling the gap left by the ever-contracting state and delivering meals on wheels to the elderly. Provision of meals to homes can keep an old person out of hospital and in their own house for much, much longer – yet, during my time in this job, I’ve seen council after council shut down their meals services in the effort to save money.

Social enterprise is also filling the food poverty gap in the form of social supermar­kets, which sell surplus food from the big supermarkets for around 20p in the pound. In return for a six-month membership, you agree to take employment advice and help. Schemes like these really work – yet, to date, they’re not part of mainstream policy.

London has done good work on carbon reduction in energy but, so far, food has escaped scrutiny. This needs to change, not just for our city, but for the country too. Currently, the CO2 emissions of green beans grown in Kenya appear on Kenya’s balance sheet but, increasingly, developed cities are realising that those emissions should rightly belong on their own bottom line. Food accounts for 30 per cent of all the carbon emitted in London.

Here the good news is that cutting it back by, say, 20 per cent would not only be relatively easy but would also be a big step towards a healthier food system. In its simplest form, a 20 per cent cut would entail increasing consumption of local and seasonal veg, reducing consumption of processed meat and all processed food, clamping down even more firmly on waste and restricting the importation of out-of-season fruit and vegetables.

Obesity plagues our poorer boroughs, walking hand-in-hand with poverty, shaming all of us. At City Hall, we have been working to put gardens into every London school, in addition to coordinating with the school meals team and with individual schools to ensure they serve the healthiest food.

The cheapest food available in much of London. Image: Getty.

But this is far too little. It shocks me that fast food outlets regularly drop their prices between 3pm and 4pm to appeal to schoolchildren. For a sum as small as 75p, they can guzzle up a bag of oily chips on their way home. There’s no law we can use to prevent this: as with the vital need to curb food advertising and promotion to children more generally, we need government intervention. Cities can do a lot – but there are many parts of our complex food chain that need legislation: a sugar tax, a mandatory reduction on the amount of sugar in processed food, a law that allows for fast food outlets to be relicensed only if they serve healthier food, for starters.

One of the projects I’m proudest of is our Capital Growth scheme. We launched it in 2008, with the ambitious target of creating 2,012 community vegetable gardens by the end of the Olympic Year. Looking back now, it was an extraordinary ambition, but 10 days before Christmas 2012, I turned over the earth in our 2,012th community garden in The St Charles Hospital in North Kensington. We managed to turn 160 derelict acres of London into vegetable beds, involving over 180,000 volunteers. They’re all still there and there are many, many other community garden schemes all across the city.

Visits to the Capital Growth sites have been among the highlights of my job: seeing a trashed and forbidding area between tower blocks – once a no-go zone for the elderly or mums with kids – turned back into an area for everyone, the result of a small investment in a community garden in the corner. I’ve met older folk who’ve told me that they had hardly left their high-rise flats for years until the garden arrived: now they’re helping teach the youngsters how to plant and nurture seeds.

In the eight years since I started this job, there have been really significant changes: in the scale of urban agriculture, in efforts to address food poverty, in the proliferation of small artisanal businesses, in the growing numbers of people making food – such as cheeses and sausages and ales – right in the heart of the city. But the biggest change of all has come about in attitude. From all sides of the political spectrum, people understand that food matters crucially to our health and wellbeing. It is this shift in attitude that will eventually bring legislative change and put pressure on the market.

Good nutrition underpins a successful economy: it’s critical for children during their early years, and for all of us to prevent absenteeism at work and encourage productivity. Tackling the twin spectres of food poverty and obesity could deliver economic benefits worth some £17bn a year, not to mention the improvement in wellbeing it would deliver and the sheer pleasure it could bring into all of our lives. I’m very proud to be part of the movement.

Rosie Boycott is chair of the London Food Board.

This article is a preview from London Essays, a journal published by Centre for London and generously supported by Capco. The full set of essays will be released on Tuesday 21 June.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.