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Food access and the plight of the American city

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At TEDxPhilly, The Food Trust executive director Yael Lehmann explains how food access exacerbates social and economic problems in cities.

PHILADELPHIA -- More than 23 million Americans don't have access to fresh, affordable food. And like the AIDS epidemic, food access is a quiet problem that has a massive affect on lives.

That's according to The Food Trust executive director Yael Lehmann, who took to the stage here at the second annual TEDxPhilly conference to explain how something so simple as a supermarket can have a dramatic affect on the culture and health of a neighborhood.

Lehmann, a San Francisco native, never experienced this problem. But when she moved to Philadelphia in 2000, she discovered that many neighborhoods -- such as Progress Plaza in North Philadelphia -- lacked this basic amenity. The result? A population with high rates of obesity, diabetes and other complications.

"People who have a problem with food access tend to have bad health problems," she said. "When we're talking about food access, we're not just talking about any food; we're talking about healthy food."

But the problem goes far beyond the parking lot into political history and culture clash. Neighborhoods fell into this problem gradually, beginning in the 1930s and stretching all the way into the 1960s, thanks to a practice called "redlining." Banks would draw red lines around certain neighborhoods on maps -- especially African-American ones -- and refuse to lend money to anyone within the boundaries.

It's a major reason for urban decline in Philadelphia and other American cities, Lehmann said.

"In many ways, they're still recovering," she said.

But cities are in a unique position to solve the problem, because people can come together to develop innovative solutions to it.

"It feels a little bit like playing in a band," she said, referencing her own. "Cities have this common goal, and bands have a common goal. Which is usually to drink beer. But when you come together, you have this energy. You find that in cities too. And that energy makes it possible to come up with innovative solutions."

In Progress Plaza, the city's first African-American owned and operated supermarket filled the need for more than three decades. But it closed in 1998, leaving the neighborhood without the amenity once more.

Lehmann's Food Trust worked to change that, and a new Fresh Grocer opened its doors in 2009.

"As the food movement has come from the fringes into the mainstream, it has been criticized for not having a single message," she said, offering race, agriculture and the economy as examples. "The truth is, it's going to take multiple solutions to solve this problem. The problem is that too many people believe their solution is the solution."

Photo courtesy Kevin Monko; map courtesy National Archives.

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure