Anniversary Issue: Just Food Nation

Pub date October 22, 2008


Two gardens, both erupting with a rich array of flowers, herbs, and veggies, offer a scrumptious glimpse into the promises and challenges of San Francisco’s food future.

One, a sparkling emerald Victory Garden, opened to much acclaim in front of City Hall this September to foreground America’s first Slow Food Nation gala. It’s an aromatic display of planter boxes boasting culinary items both mundane and exotic — a feast for the senses, if not the stomach.

Across town, far from the headlines and tourists, Alemany Farm sprouts loamy rows of greens and veggies, fruit trees, a heaping compost pile, a duck pond, a windmill, and more. Since members of this public housing community planted the farm’s first seeds in 1994, with help from the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners, this urban agriculture venture has spawned harvests of fresh produce and some new sparks of hope for the area’s economically embattled residents.

These two boulevards of sustenance evoke an awakening of urban agriculture, and offer partial answers to an increasingly pressing question: in an era of global warming and fast-dwindling oil supplies, how will San Francisco sustain itself? Are city leaders and communities doing everything needed to make this happen?

The two gardens also put on display a key dilemma lurking just below the celebratory surface of food reform: who’s benefiting from the urban food renaissance, and who’s being left out of this virtuous banquet? How do we bring the good food limelight — and dollars — to the places and people that need it most?


What does oil have to do with food? Everything. Our current food supply relies entirely on oil and cheap labor. As a nation we dump 500,000 tons of petroleum-based pesticides on our food crops each year, according to the EPA. Even the push for alternative fuels — namely ethanol — is steeped in the pesticide-intensive harvesting of corn. Then there’s the long polluting journey most of our food travels, more than 1,500 miles from the fields to your table — on diesel-guzzling semi-trucks, oil-greedy ocean tankers, and freight trains. All in all, it’s a toxic harvest whose days are numbered.

The stakes are high — very high. We are eating oil, and the clock is ticking. As journalist Erica Etelson wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle last year, "global oil demand is at 84 million barrels a day and rising, and there are at most a trillion barrels’ worth still in the ground, most of which is very difficult and expensive to recover. Do the math, and you’ll see that the end of oil is, at most, 30 years away." In response, the Board of Supervisors appointed a seven-member Peak Oil Preparedness Task Force in October 2007 that’s investigating ways to get San Francisco off oil — and food is a major ingredient in that mix.

According to the task force’s food issues member Jason Mark, roughly 500 acres of city and county land are "sitting idle and could be used for agricultural production." Meanwhile, hundreds of residents are lined up on community gardening waiting lists; if policymakers move the land and the people into production, and invested in urban agriculture education, the city "could begin to produce a significant percentage of its own fruits and vegetables," says Mark, who co-manages the Alemany Farm. "This would relieve some of the pressure from growers in rural counties, opening up more space for diversified agriculture and creating a more resilient food system."


As oil shortages and ecological collapse loom, other questions are bubbling up. What would it mean to make San Francisco — a city famous for its foodies and epicurean extravagances — "sustainable" in what its residents eat? How do we sustain ourselves in a way that sustains the region’s environment, food supply, and people’s health?

If you’re reading this article, chances are you’re hip to the idea of eating organic and local — perhaps you’re a "locavore" who studiously prioritizes a diet grown within a 100-mile radius of your home. Perhaps you’re a vegetarian who eschews animal flesh in the name of the environment, as well as health and ethics; or a conscientious "flexitarian" who only dines on sustainably farmed, humanely slaughtered meat. Perhaps you go the extra mile and buy a box of organics each week from a local farm. There’s no shortage of individual responses to the ecological nightmare of industrial food.

But what is the city’s collective response to unsustainable food? A new systemic approach is taking hold that goes beyond sustainable agriculture, to a bigger vision of sustaining people (farmers and consumers), communities, and economies, as well as the environment.

To Michael Dimock of Roots of Change, a leading California food reform movement, a core problem lies in the current system’s values — both cultural and economic. "We live in an environment where people want cheap food," often at the expense of sustainability, Dimock says. "We’re over-dependent on pesticides that have disrupted natural cycles," and that have "created an economic straightjacket for farmers … we’ve got to get away from these toxic chemicals without collapsing the system." Indeed, as oil prices have risen, pesticide and fertilizer costs have become a serious threat to farmers’ livelihood.

Labor costs chew up a major chunk of the food dollar — yet, farm workers toil for minimum wage in backbreaking conditions, and often live in ramshackle homes or canyons and ravines. Sixty percent of farm workers live below the poverty line. Meanwhile, meat factory workers suffer crippling injuries at alarming rates (roughly 20 percent a year) while laboring on brutal, dizzying-fast assembly-lines, typically for $8 per hour.

The solution lies beyond buying local and organic, and involves transforming food systems, locally and nationally (and globally) to meet an urgent array of needs: petroleum-free agriculture and food policies that build new infrastructures — markets, distribution channels, and a diversity of farms — centered on economic and ecological sustainability.

"It used to be about calories, now it’s about health — healthy people, healthy environment, and healthy communities," Dimock said. A blossoming "Buy fresh, buy local" label, an outgrowth of the Community Alliance with Family Farms, is building a network of local producers, distributors, and markets to simultaneously expand opportunities for smaller growers and access to fresh local foods for urban consumers.

But underlying tensions must be addressed: there are ongoing debates about what — beyond reducing pesticide use — makes farming "sustainable." Farms can be local and non-organic, or organic and non-local; or they may mass-produce a single organic crop for Wal-Mart or Safeway, depleting soils by monocropping, exploiting farm workers, and supporting corporate control over food.


Even in a city known for its conscientious consumption, industrially farmed and processed food remains a juggernaut. Fast food joints are plentiful, serving up fattening doses of unsustainably grown, heavily processed food. Most supermarket chains and smaller produce stores offer minimal organic fare at exorbitant prices, and often nothing remotely local.

More broadly, the city’s food infrastructure is a chaotic polyglot of stores and restaurants, with little design or planning to ensure health and economic diversity. In a market-driven economy, businesses simply rise up and succeed or fail — but food, like housing, education, and health, is a basic human necessity. As with most cities, there is no agency focused on making food sustainable in the broadest sense.

But sustainable foods policies are percoutf8g into the city bureaucracy — albeit sometimes piecemeal and slowly. In July 2005, city leaders made it official policy "to maximize the purchase of organic certified products in the process of procuring necessary goods for the city" — though adding, perhaps fatally, "when such products are available and of comparable cost to non-certified products." As it turns out, cost in particular (and supply to some degree) is a potential stumbling block to making this resolution a reality.

A Food Security Task Force, launched by the Board of Supervisors in 2005, is helping eligible families access and use food stamps, getting food to people in need while circuutf8g more dollars in the city. Getting food to hungry folks is an urgently needed service — but it doesn’t address the underlying poverty at hunger’s roots. Supplying charity food, while necessary on an emergency basis, does little to empower poor people to sustain themselves, and doesn’t ensure the food is healthful or sustainably grown.

Like most of urban America, San Francisco is a city of gastronomic extremes. Home to roughly 3,000 restaurants, triple-digit entrees, and a steady diet of haute cuisine celebrations, the city is an internationally renowned capital of fine food. For those with the money and time, Whole Foods Market and other venues offer bountiful aisles of organic produce, free-range meat, and at least some local fare.

But it’s not equal opportunity dining. For vast swaths of low-income and working class San Francisco, the options for good food are few and far between. Studies have found food "deserts" the size of entire zip codes, almost totally devoid of fresh produce — and other studies show this food gap causes serious nutritional deficits among the poor and people of color.

To put it bluntly, San Francisco suffers from food segregation. Apart from Alemany Farm’s oasis of green goodies, food-parched zones throughout the Tenderloin District, Bayview-Hunters Point, and other poorer quarters of town offer little more than liquor marts, convenience stores, and fast food chains with no fresh food or produce. It’s a surefire recipe for obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other life-shortening ailments. As one food activist puts it, "homeless people are buying soda because it’s more calories for the money. Nobody wants hungry people — but it doesn’t get talked about."


How can all these needs — at once potentially conflicting and unifying — be met at a time when ecological collapse requires radical change, and economic distress makes those changes tougher yet more urgent? A common refrain from activists and policymakers echoes: there’s a lot more we could do, if we had the money.

Dana Woldow, co-chair of the school district’s student nutrition and physical activity committee, says school lunches, once made up of "revolting carnival food," have improved greatly — but they can’t buy more local organic foods because "everyone’s getting hammered on transportation costs. Our district takes a loss on every meal."

A new revenue source, such as a gross receipts tax on large firms, could enlarge the public pie — if there’s the political will to do it. But the lack of cash to create a fully sustainable area food system also reveals a less-than-full commitment by city leaders to turn promising policies into everyday realities.

"Every city should have a food czar," argues Dimock, to "take the contradictions out of city policies," and develop new policies — and leverage state and federal help — to increase food security.

Ultimately the city could use a model food bill — a local, progressive version of the Farm Bill — to bring energy and money and policy coherence to the great work being done on the ground. In such a bill, new laws taxing fast food or high-end dining could create revenue to ensure all city agencies — and its schools, hospitals, and jails — abide by local and organic-first purchasing policies.

Healthy food zone rules could ensure food-deprived poor neighborhoods get targeted grants to promote businesses that feature local foods. And policies could support new urban agriculture ventures using city land to grow food and train and employ residents in need — improving nutrition and the economy.

In the long term, Dimock says, we need to restore our "cultural understanding of how agriculture and food is where humans have our most intimate contact with the natural world." The struggle to recover this is "a symbol of our divorce from the natural world, of leaving the garden. We need a new mythology — we need to return to the garden." *

Christopher D. Cook is the author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis, and a former Guardian city editor. He is communications director and food policy advisor for District 9 Supervisor candidate Eric Quezada. His Web site is