The ability of people to obtain healthy and nutritious foods is strongly linked to land use practices and policies. Healthy foods are more likely to be available in communities with broad-service stores and markets. When the only local food stores are chain-like convenience stores, healthy fresh foods are unlikely to be available. As farmland is replaced by development, it becomes harder for markets to obtain fresh produce. Without careful planning, locally-grown produce may not be available to Vermonters in the near future. The time is now to implement policies and practices to ensure an active and profitable agricultural future.
Land use affects our health and access to healthy food. Studies have shown that people living in areas with more fresh food retailers and fewer convenience stores and fast food restaurants have lower rates of obesity (NYU Langone Health 2022). Preservation of farmland is important to not only provide access fresh, local produce, but also for the economic and quality of life benefits it adds to a community. Farming brings money into the state economy each year and provides jobs for thousands of Vermont residents. Land kept open by agriculture is a key component of the scenic beauty of our state, a major factor in why people choose to visit and relocate to Vermont.
Access to stores that provide healthy food
National research shows that 18.8 million people in low-income areas have no supermarket or large grocery store within a mile of their homes (USDA). Convenience stores usually charge more than grocery stores for basic foods, rarely stock fresh fruits and vegetables, and feature high-calorie, low-nutrition snack foods and alcohol (National Library of Medicine 2017).
87 percent of counties in the United States that are food insecure are considered rural (Feeding America 2019). Rural and low income areas often have a disproportionately high number of fast food food restaurants that serve low-cost, high-calorie food of limited nutritional value (National Library of Medicine 2017). When rural households do not have more access to cars and no public transportation, residents’ options are often limited to convenience stores and fast food restaurants.
In many small towns in Vermont, local mom and pop stores provide communities with access to fresh produce. Mac’s Markets, a multiple-store chain of Vermont convenience stores, is a good example of how markets can offer fresh produce and nutritious foods locally. By identifying areas in need of such markets, and putting zoning regulations in place, planners can encourage the creation of stores with fresh and healthy food in mixed-use neighborhoods in and around town centers rather than segregating food stores to big-box zoning districts outside of town.
Farmers’ markets provide fresh produce for Vermonters and also create opportunities for direct contact with local farmers, an experience which fosters understanding and appreciation of fresh, nutritious food. As of 2023, there were about 85 summer farmers’ markets in Vermont, up from only 19 in 1986. Winter farmers’ markets are gaining popularity in many communities, providing access to fresh food and locally produced goods throughout the year.
The need to preserve farmland
Between 1982 and 2012, Vermont lost 43,800 acres of farmland to development (Farmland Information Center). Nationally, if everyone ate the recommended daily number of fruits and vegetables, we would be 13 million acres short of the land necessary to produce this food (American Farmland Trust). Vermont’s family farms provide healthy food options and contribute $503.3 million each year to our economy. The agriculture industry and allied businesses account for about 17,000 Vermont jobs. In 2009, the total sales of 45 Vermont farmers’ markets was almost $7 million. Three percent of the average Vermonter’s diet is made of up local food. Increasing that amount to 10 percent would bring an additional $132 million dollars per year to the state economy.
Communities can encourage healthy food production, retailing and other food enterprises through land use planning, zoning, economic development, housing, agricultural and health policies. Zoning which allows for full service markets near residential areas can attract new stores. Use financial incentives or performance codes to encourage existing stores to increase their stock of fresh produce. Starting and sustaining farmers’ markets and linking consumers to farmers through community gardens and Farm-to-School programs will increase connections to local farms. Zoning and policy changes can restrict development of farmland. Planning can limit access to sources of unhealthy foods, such as fast food restaurants.
Each strategy will be most effective as a community-led initiative with local and state participation and public-private cooperation. For example, private funders can help local markets supply more fresh produce or businesses can offer their land for farmers’ markets. With such partnerships, the changes will strike deeper in the community and be more likely to last.