Christopher D. Cook

Flooding the streets


In New York City’s Times Square on a muggy, gray Sunday afternoon at the historic People’s Climate March, everything went silent for a minute as a massive crowd, led by indigenous people from around the world, raised fists in the air to support communities suffering the harshest effects of climate change.

In this canyon of glittering commerce, surrounded by corporate icons such as Chase Bank, Bank of America, Gap, McDonald’s, and Dow Jones, the silent coalition then burst into a thunderous crescendo meant to symbolize action and demand climate justice.

On Sept. 21, a veritable ocean of humanity, estimated at up to half a million people — a diverse global tapestry hailing from South Bronx to South Dakota, Kenya to the Philippines — flooded Manhattan’s streets with calls for climate change action two days before a major United Nations Climate Summit that few expected to produce much, if any, change. The next day [Mon/22], a more confrontational “Flood Wall Street” civil disobedience action drew thousands.

The New York march, part of a worldwide day of action spanning more than 2,700 rallies in 159 countries, represented the largest, loudest sign yet that the world is waking up en masse to the climate crisis. Stretching for miles through Manhattan’s mid-section, wave after wave of contingents illustrated the crisis’ universal effects and broadening response: Indigenous people’s groups from around the world, labor unions, faith and LGBTQ groups, low-income communities of color. More than 1,400 organizations endorsed the march.

The People’s Climate March also reflected the urgency and rising response from communities of color and indigenous people who bear the brunt of climate disasters. As many attested, these climate-hammered communities are bringing economic and ecological justice issues to the forefront of a movement often criticized for being predominantly white.

“I’m here because I have a chronically asthmatic daughter,” said Tanya Fields, a 34-year-old mother of five and executive director of the Bronx-based Black Project. In poor waterfront communities from New York’s Far Rockaway and the Bronx, to New Orleans, “communities are not being prepared for the inevitable repercussions” of climate change, Fields said. “When you look at the intersection of climate change and capitalism, those who are have-nots clearly are much more vulnerable. When we talk about creating a more resilient world, we’re also talking about protecting the most marginalized.”

Iya’falolah Omobola, marching with a Mississippi environmental justice group called Cooperation Jackson, said her community has been hit hard by a confluence of climate change, poverty, and health struggles.

“We have a lot of issues directly related to climate, but also to the fact that there are no jobs, there’s no public transportation to get people to jobs,” she said. “There has to be a community-led solution as opposed to the system that keeps compounding the problem.”

Behind a banner stating, “Climate affects us the most,” 300 or so marched from the Brooklyn-based El Puente Leadership for Peace and Justice, including many youth.

“Many of our young people are from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. We know what’s happening to our people there in terms of climate change, so we’re coming together,” said El Puente Executive Director Frances Lucerna. “The connection between what happened here when Hurricane Sandy hit and what’s happening in our islands, in terms of beach erosion and extinction of species, is devastating.”

Marchers from Africa, Latin America, South Asia, and beyond highlighted the underlying “first world” causes behind the climate crisis. Marifel Macalanda, of the Asian Pacific Indigenous Youth Network in the Philippines, said she was in New York “in solidarity with indigenous peoples worldwide,” urging corporations to “stop plundering our resources. They are the primary reasons we are having this climate crisis right now.”

Meima Mpoke, who traveled from Kenya along with 20 of his compatriots, added, “We are here to say to the industrialized world, you are the cause of this.” The UN Summit, Mpoke said, “should produce some action, particularly to show who is causing the climate change.”

Marching with a large Bronx contingent of Percent for Green, Alicia Grullon emphasized similar struggles in poor US communities. The South Bronx is “a dumping ground” for New York’s toxins, and “the asthma capital of the country,” she said. The UN summit presented “an unusual gift for policymakers to do something new … and we’re afraid they’re not going to do that and we’re here to remind them of that great opportunity they have.” However, she added, the Summit gave corporations a big seat at the table: “That’s not representing needs of the people.”

Mychal Johnson, co-founder of South Bronx Unite, was one of just 38 civil society representatives invited to attend the UN Summit. “I won’t have a speaking role,” he said, but “our presence hopefully will speak volumes.” The gulf between the massive public march and the closed-doors UN summit was “a grave contrast,” Johnson said. “A great deal of corporations have been invited, but for so long, the voices of the many have not been heard. We know what corporations are doing to cause harm to the planet, and hopefully this [march] will show people coming together all over world to make sure that legally binding agreements come out of these climate talks.”



Billing itself as “catalyzing action,” Tuesday’s UN Climate Summit issued bold pronouncements ahead of its proceedings — but social justice groups from around the world were not buying it.

“The Climate Summit will be about action and solutions that are focused on accelerating progress in areas that can significantly contribute to reducing emissions and strengthening resilience,” the Summit website promoted. “Eradicating poverty and restructuring the global economy to hold global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius are goals that — acted on together — can provide prosperity and security for this and future generations.”

But critics blasted the UN climate agenda for emphasizing voluntary reforms and “partnerships” with businesses and industries that are fundamentally part of the problem. One week before the People’s Climate March, global social movements including La Via Campesina, Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, and Indigenous Environmental Network — representing a total of more than 200 million people — issued a statement decrying the “corporate takeover of the UN and the climate negotiations process,” Common Dreams reported.

“The Summit has been surrounded by a lot of fanfare but proposes voluntary pledges for emissions cuts, market-based and destructive public-private partnership initiatives such as REDD+, Climate-Smart Agriculture and the Sustainable Energy for All Initiative,” according to the statement. “These are all false solutions of the green economy that seeks to further commodify life and nature and further capitalist profit.”



Despite concerns about the Summit, the People’s Climate March drew criticism from some activists for not making any demands, and for spending big on public relations while opting for a nonconfrontational “big tent” that some said diluted the movement’s message and impact.

A “Flood Wall Street” direct action Monday drew thousands for civil disobedience, issuing a strong message: “Stop Capitalism. End the Climate Crisis. Flood, blockade, sit-in, and shut down the institutions that are profiting from the climate crisis,” the event’s website urged. “After the People’s Climate March, wearing blue, we will bring the crisis to its cause with a mass sit-in at the heart of capital.”

Flood Wall Street’s more confrontational approach and its naming of capital illustrates unresolved differences about where the movement should focus its energy: Will it work for market reforms, such as’s popular fossil fuels divestment campaign, or press for larger systemic change? As it erects a big political tent drawing broad mainstream support, will the climate movement be able or willing to push bold demands that may confront capital and corporate power?

In a widely read critique for Counterpunch, writer Arun Gupta argued that the focus on drawing a big crowd came at the expense of a sharper message and impact. “[W]hen the overriding demand is for numbers, which is about visuals, which is about PR and marketing, everything becomes lowest common denominator. The lack of politics is a political decision.”

In an e-mail comment, Bobby Wengronowitz, who helped organize for the Flood Wall Street actions, said he supported the big march, but added, “We need to match the scale of the crisis. We need to get the US and other rich countries on a 10 percent emissions reductions per year plan. That requires white privileged folks to do what indigenous people have been doing for 500 years — to put their bodies on the line … I’m all for big tent, but this march, even if the final tally is 500K does NOT do it.”

A three-day Climate Convergence, featuring talks, films, and teach-ins, offered protesters a dose of critical thinking, urging, “Demand an end to fossil fuels, mobilize for system change, living wage jobs now!” At an event on climate change and the public sector, a panel of organizers and authors raised questions about the focus on market-driven approaches, discussing the potential for addressing climate change through a revitalized public sector.



On the day of the big march, the sheer immensity of the gathering and the expressions of hope were palpable.

“Today I marched peacefully alongside humans of all class and race, of all gender and sexuality, among anarchist, indigenous, labor unions, different political parties and so many more,” said Patrick Collins, who rode the People’s Climate Train from San Francisco. “[S]eeing the over 1,000 different groups come together in the march who all have different ideologies but are willing to look past differences and agree on common ground does give me some sort of hope.”

Many marchers also expressed hope for new coalitions to pack a potent punch in the fight for climate justice. Labor unions were out in force — teachers, nurses, janitors, food workers, and farmworkers — marching for economic justice, green jobs, and more.

Erin Carrera, a registered nurse and member of National Nurses United, said it was “a monumental moment to be here today with all these labor organizations, because labor and environmentalists have not always been on same page—but I think everyone’s coming to realize that there are no jobs on a dead planet.” Organized labor, Carrera said, “needs skin in the game, because it’s the working class that’s going to be most vulnerable … today gives me so much hope that we have turned a corner in people waking up and working together.”




Aboard the People’s Climate Train

As our cross-country People’s Climate Train passed through Azure, Colo., above a stunning crimson and white rock gorge under a deep-blue sky, James Blakely delivered a presentation on the ecological crisis in the Alberta Tar Sands. Blakely, an activist with in Idaho, described toxic tailing ponds filled with mining refuse, polluted waterways, dust clouds, and buffalo die-offs. Aboard the train, one of two ferrying hundreds from California to New York’s mass mobilization, our group — ranging in age from 19 to 68 — alternated between snapping photos of the awe-inspiring beauty outside, to probing conversations about rescuing our imperiled planet. Through the Amtrak window, California’s drought-withered cornfields stood wilted and barren, skeleton-like. In the Sierras, forest fires blurred the horizon with smoky haze. Late at night in the Nevada desert, huge factories and refineries churned away. Coal trains traversed the land, spewing fossil fuels. There were reminders of beauty, too. At about 5am, my sleepless eyes took in an ethereal pre-dawn scene. Gnarled sandstone rock formations rose near the tracks in Utah like moon faces; followed by a salmon-hued sunrise splashing across mesas tufted with sage and juniper. Liz Lamar, an activist with the Sierra Club and the Climate Reality Project in Oxnard said the cross-country passage made her “even more passionate about going on the march, by passing through such beautiful scenery.” The People’s Climate Train provided an apt backdrop for workshops and conversations about the causes and victims of climate crisis, and the prodigious challenges ahead. Sonny Lawrence Alea, a recent environmental studies graduate from San Francisco State University, said the ride offered “a great reminder of what we’re going to New York for. This land is full of opportunities, and we get to connect with the environment, take in the beauty, and reflect on the history of the land.” (Christopher D. Cook)

Pelosi defies history and her district


OPINION How is it that, despite deep congressional opposition to an American-led war on Syria, the representative for one of the nation’s most progressive districts, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, has been among President Obama’s most ardent backers of war?

While Russia’s deal for Syria to turn over its chemical weapons offers a temporary pause in the march to war, the arrangement is fragile and Obama — with support from Pelosi — continues to threaten military action that could lead to a disastrous widening of bloodshed and chaos in Syria and beyond.

What’s particularly outrageous about the pro-war push from Pelosi and US Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, also from the Bay Area, is their willful dismissal of history. Did they somehow miss the well-documented memos on US wars and interventions? You know, the ones that list American lies on Iraq’s WMDs, provocations in Vietnam’s Gulf of Tonkin, and the long, long list of CIA-backed coups of democratically elected leaders in Iran, Guatemala, Chile, and beyond?

The nightmare in Syria needs an international solution—but given our ugly track record, how can anyone place faith in American-led military intervention?

This history offers a distressingly reliable prologue to the present. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the US expended vast amounts of blood and treasure attacking brutal thugs it supported for years. How can we expect different results from the same military-security state apparatus that has, for decades, undermined democracies, aided thugs and dictators, and trumped up wars based on lies? How can anyone believe that the US military and security state complex has suddenly found a veracity and moral center it has always profoundly lacked?

There is no question that international pressure and diplomacy must be brought to bear on Bassar al-Assad’s sickening Syrian regime, and that chemical weapons, and nukes for that matter, must be wiped off the planet. But the US has an unrivaled record of using these tools of mass killing, and has zero credibility as a force for peacemaking.

The hypocrisies Pelosi chooses to ignore run deeper. The US refuses to enforce the chemical weapons ban on Israel, for instance. And remember the saber-rattling last year over Iran’s nuclear program? Not a word about Israel’s nukes, not to mention America’s. Yet both Israel and the US have a well-documented history of outright aggression, where Iran has none.

The San Francisco Chronicle explained Pelosi’s war support as part of her Democratic Party leadership duties, quoting UC Berkeley professor Eric Schickler: “One of the jobs of the party’s leader is to support the president of your party, except under the most extenuating circumstances. If she didn’t have such liberal credentials already, she would be in much more vulnerable position.”

While party leadership and allegiance may be a factor, consider also that Pelosi, Boxer, and Feinstein take in far more dollars from pro-Israel lobbies than do their counterparts (Boxer got more than twice the Senate average, and Pelosi roughly six times the congressional average, according to research by MapLight and Open Secrets).

Despite some loud and colorful protests by Code Pink and other groups, it’s sadly true that Pelosi hasn’t been very vulnerable: San Francisco’s political leadership has done little to let her know how deeply out of step she is with her district.

In years past, the Board of Supervisors has passed resolutions opposing US military interventions; now, they and the Democratic County Central Committee are silent. Where is the outrage and pushback within Pelosi’s district? Pelosi’s hawkish stance on Syria follows her lamentable defense in July of the NSA spying program. In both cases, these are policies that Pelosi opposed and so many progressives protested vigorously when they were enacted by President George W. Bush. Where is the mass outrage now?

Keep the focus on real estate


OPINION Let’s stop blaming the hipsters. The Google bus, that annoying icon of yuppie invasion and transit privatization, is not the lead driver of gentrification’s reckless stampede reshaping our city (though it does play a role). The upscale restaurants dominating commercial strips may be economically and aesthetically offensive to many, but they are the natural byproducts of gentrification’s much-ignored elephant in the room: the real estate industry.

While headlines, comment threads, and café chatter fixate on the tech industry and yuppies with fistfuls of dollars, it’s the profit-gobbling real estate companies and speculators who are jacking up rents and evicting so many small businesses and renters—and they are surely happy to stay out of the spotlight.

Gentrification is a many-layered beast nurtured by cultural and economic trends, regional and local labor and housing factors, and public policies (or lack thereof). Beneath the surface-level aesthetics, it is about displacement of people who don’t fit the dominant economic growth plan—radical market-driven upheavals of communities often abetted by government policies and inaction.

The stats are familiar but bear repeating as they are so destructive: average apartment rentals exceeding $2,700 a month, requiring someone making $70,000 a year to pay half of his or her salary in rent. Literally thousands of no-fault evictions in the past decade, according to the Rent Board.

Despite rampant displacement of thousands of San Franciscans, there has been little response from City Hall: no hearings, no proactive legislation, not even bully-pulpit style leadership. We must demand more.

Where is the leadership demanding the city do everything in its albeit limited power to halt further displacement of residents and small businesses? The toxic combo of tenant evictions and home foreclosures by the thousands — driven principally by major banks and real estate companies — is destroying lives and communities.

Some of this is beyond City Hall’s jurisdiction: state laws like the Ellis Act and Costa-Hawkins enable no-fault evictions and prevent vitally needed commercial rent control. Still, beyond their valiant opposition to the Wiener-Farrell condo conversion threat, city leaders have been largely silent about this latest wave of gentrification that’s eviscerating communities, driving out small businesses, and squeezing renters to the bone.

What can we do? We won’t defeat gentrification with city hearings or loud protests or online screeds and petitions — but we need all those things, along with serious public education, to shine a bright hot spotlight on the companies and individuals defining who lives and votes here.

We need a new era of citywide awareness, unity, and action to literally save San Francisco — a bold unapologetic vision that puts affordability and diversity at the forefront of what our city is about. We can’t have diversity without affordability; it’s that simple.

Renters are gearing up to fight back. An ‘Eviction Free Summer’ is being planned — an innovative campaign to counter the rash of evictions that are generating both displacement and skyrocketing rent prices. The idea of ‘Eviction Free Summer’ is to put evictions and evictors in the spotlight, to put would-be evictors on notice and capture the attention of city officials who have so far done little to stem their tide.

We must demand accountability and action by City Hall and state legislators to rein in the real estate industry and put the brakes on evictions and other displacement. People’s lives, neighborhoods and communities, and the very fabric and identity of our city are at stake.

To those who cheer “change” as if its victims were not real, or who wearily concede the fight, we must ask: are we really going to allow the profit-hungry market and wealth-seeking executives and speculators decide who lives and votes here? Are we going to let the market destroy what’s left of our city’s economic, cultural, racial and ethnic diversity — the very things that make San Francisco what it is?

Christopher D. Cook is an award-winning journalist and author, and former Bay Guardian city editor. Contact him at

The food divide


Antonia Williams is part of a slow, quiet food revolution. After battling obesity for much of her adult life, the 26-year-old lifelong Bayview resident did some research. “I realized it had a lot to do with the food I consumed,” she told us. “As a result of growing up in the neighborhood, I suffer from obesity. I’m overweight because of the lack of options for good healthy food.”

“It’s what I grew up on, McDonald’s and a lot of fried food for dinner,” she recalls. “The grocery stores in the area were very limited in what they offered. I believe my parents weren’t as educated or aware” about health and nutrition.

Williams managed to escape this bad foods trap, change her personal diet, and now works as a “food guardian” for the nonprofit Southeast Food Access (SEFA), helping to bring more nutritious fare to the Bayview.

The complex of challenges Williams faced simply to eat well—the fast food all around her, the dearth of grocery stores, and lack of awareness—reflects the array of systemic barriers to good food that keep tens of thousands of San Franciscans in chronically poor health.

Under the weight of recession and double-digit unemployment, San Francisco’s chronic food divide has grown deeper and wider. From regions of the city like Bayview, Excelsior, and other Southeast neighborhoods, to seniors surviving on marginal fixed incomes, to the city’s swelling unemployed and underemployed who rely on food pantries, access to fresh food is a daily geographic and economic battle.

Roughly one in five San Franciscans each day has no reliable source of adequate sustenance and must scramble for food from soup kitchens, food pantries, or other “emergency” supplies that have become a structural part of the city’s food system, according to the San Francisco Food Bank.

Each month, more than 100,000 families rely on the Food Bank to help feed themselves — nearly double the amount from 2006. Economic recession has dramatically increased the number of city residents using food stamps (known as “CalFresh”) each month, rising from 29,008 in 2008 to 44,185 in 2010.

Yet even that rise belies a far deeper need: only 47 percent of those qualifying for CalFresh are actually accessing benefits, according to a data analysis by California Food Policy Advocates; at minimum, more than 40,000 additional city residents are entitled to get this help, and thus eat better.

Across the city, parallel economic and food divides compound one another, spelling serious trouble for people’s basic nutrition and health — in turn depleting their energy, cognition, and ability to do everything from succeeding in school to getting a job.



In Bayview, where poverty and unemployment run about double citywide averages, these geographic and economic food divides come to a head. District 10, encompassing Bayview/Hunters Point (BVHP), features some of the city’s most grocery-impoverished neighborhoods, and has the highest rates of CalFresh usage.

This confluence of lack and need—compounded by a prevalence of fast food and liquor stores over fresh food offerings—has inspired Antonia Williams and other residents to fight for better food in their neighborhoods.

As one of four paid Food Guardians for SEFA, Williams spends about 20 hours a week examining grocery store shelves in Bayview, talking with consumers and food retailers, and educating both about the need for more fresh non-processed foods.

One recent victory: armed with customer survey data, she convinced the Bayview Foods Co. to stock low-sodium tomato paste. Next on Williams’ food improvement list is getting more low-sodium products, less cholesterol, and more fiber on the shelves.

These may sound like small steps, but they’re part of a larger effort to get healthier food in Bayview, where chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease are rampant. “I think a lot of people just don’t know the link between the food we are eating and these chronic diseases,” says Williams.

The Bayview is among the city’s most food-deprived districts, with just 63 percent of residents living within a half-mile of a supermarket (in Excelsior, it’s 57 percent), compared with 84 percent citywide. That ratio improved somewhat with the arrival this August of Fresh & Easy supermarket on Third Street, but access to fresh produce remains limited — a situation that numerous studies show contributes greatly to chronic undernourishment and disease.

Indeed, statistics show Bayview area residents suffer by far the city’s “highest rates of everything negative,” as former district supervisor Sophie Maxwell puts it: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

Ironically, the Bayview’s Third Street is home to the city’s bustling produce warehouses, which rattle early every morning with trucks and crates full of fruits and vegetable, “but you have to go out of the district to get it,” says Maxwell, who helped spearhead a Food Security Task Force while in office. “I was very much aware of [the food access problem] because of what I had to do to get food myself.”

Much of Third Street remains a boulevard of liquor stores and fried and fast food. According to Tia Shimada of California Food Policy Advocates, “A lot of what we see instead of food deserts is food swamps, where the amount of healthy nutritious food available is overwhelmed by all the fast food and junk food.”

Despite a seemingly diverse landscape of food businesses, “There’s a saturation in neighborhoods with unhealthy choices,” SEFA’s Tracey Patterson argues. “When the cheapest choice in front of you is fatty comfort food and fast food, that’s what you get accustomed to eating. The easier options quickly become habit.”

Kenny Hill, a 23-year-old food guardian and Bayview resident, puts it like this: “What we have in our community, that’s what we eat.” But he says history and culture play a role, too. “We need to change the culture of what’s considered good…Growing up eating salad, people would say, ‘Why are you eating that? That’s white people’s food.'”

In other words, it takes more than getting a grocery store—which itself involved a nearly 20-year struggle for Bayview residents and leaders. “Food access is just one part of the issue. Even if you get a grocery store, that doesn’t solve the problem,” says Patterson, whose group, SEFA, espouses “three pillars” to fix the area’s food problems: more grocery stores; education and health literacy; and expanded urban agriculture. “None on their own is enough.”



Getting a job isn’t enough either, statistics show. A recent study by the USDA cited by the Food Security Task Force shows that 70 percent of families nationwide with “food insecure” children have at least one member working full-time. And in San Francisco, the task force found, “39 percent of the households that receive weekly groceries through the SF Food Bank include at least one working adult. Only 18 percent of clients are homeless.”

At least by federal definitions of poverty, food insecurity isn’t just for poor people anymore — particularly in San Francisco, where exorbitant housing and other costs compound people’s struggles to meet their food needs. “If you just look at the poverty level, you’re missing a lot of people who are struggling to make ends meet,” says Colleen Rivecca, advocacy coordinator with St. Anthony’s Foundation. “Hunger and health and housing are so interconnected.”

Indeed, while the Federal Poverty Level for a family of three is $18,310, cost-of-living research by the INSIGHT Center for Community Economic Development found that in San Francisco, this family would need almost $40,000 more than that to make ends meet.

Rivecca says the ongoing recession is simultaneously deepening the food divides and undermining efforts to address it. For instance, SSI recipients must make do with $77 a month less than they got in 2009, while California is the only state where SSI cannot be supplemented by food stamps.

According to the Food Security Task Force, San Francisco “has an inordinately high number of residents who are elderly, low-income and/or blind and disabled — over 47,000 residents receive SSI.” Many are homebound, socially isolated, and living in SRO units without kitchens, and no means of preparing their own food. So it’s no surprise that these same people, who need help the most, often get it the least.

Due to “misconceptions about what qualifies,” says CFPA’s Kerry Birnbach, only 5 percent of Californians eligible for Social Security participate in CalFresh. “Senior citizens are more isolated, and the more isolated you are, the less likely you are to know about it.” Birnbach says that leads to lower nutrition, less energy, and greater hospitalization rates. “It’s not having food on the table — choosing between food and medicine.”

A 2006 study by the San Francisco Department of Aging and Adult Services found that while the city’s elders “received approximately 12.2 million free meals through all of the programs in the City including food pantries, free dining rooms, and home delivered meals, the gap between the number of meals served and the number of meals needed was somewhere between 6 [million] and 9 million meals annually.”



As television cameras made clear on Thanksgiving, there’s no shortage of food and meal giveaway programs, soup kitchens run by churches and nonprofits — a whole constellation of ad hoc benevolence spread across the city. But this kind of “emergency food assistance” has become a structural part of the city’s dietary landscape.

Another main ingredient in the city’s food infrastructure is seemingly cheap fast food, which for many poor people becomes the diet of first and last resort. Sup. Eric Mar recalls meeting with teenage mothers and hearing one parent speak about dumpster diving at McDonald’s for what she called “fancy dinner.”

“The cheapest possible food like McDonald’s is seen as a luxury,” says Mar, who last year passed legislation preventing fast food chains from selling kids meals with toys unless they improved their nutrition content. “Poor people rely on whatever’s out there, and when McDonald’s or Burger King sells cheap, it undercuts families’ efforts to get healthy.”

District 10 Sup. Malia Cohen sees the impacts of fast food and junk food every day in Bayview. “There is no infrastructure out there to de-program people” from long-standing fast food habits. “I don’t fault people for eating fast food, but I do want them to think twice and know they have a choice.”

So what is the choice, and how will the city address its deep food divides, which cut across geographic and demographic lines?

So far, it’s a patchwork project. As one step, the supervisors in April passed a new zoning ordinance designed to encourage more urban food production. In Bayview, Cohen says, “We’re looking at urban agriculture as something that’s viable” to feed low-income residents.

Despite the arrival of Fresh & Easy, BVHP remains a critical flashpoint for the food security fight. Markets for fresh produce are few and far between. In 2006 the Department of the Environment teamed with Girls 2000 and Literacy for Environmental Justice to create the Bayview Hunters’ Point Farmers Market, but for a variety of reasons, the customer base wasn’t sufficient for farmers to keep selling there, and the project stalled. Now there is talk of reviving a farmers market in the area.

But for larger, more structural change to take hold, Mar argues, the food gap “has to be a citywide goal and priority.” And, he notes, bigger forces — notably agribusiness lobbies and congressional agriculture committees — make local progress more difficult. “It’s hard because the Farm Bill allows these food companies and commodity groups to keep their prices lower, and small businesses and producers have a hard time keeping their prices low,” encouraging more fast food and obesity and other diet-related diseases.



On a chilly gray late afternoon the day before Thanksgiving, we met with Patterson, Williams, and two other food guardians at Bridgeview Community Garden on the corner of Newhall and Revere in Bayview. Perched on a small chunk of slope overlooking houses and freeway traffic, the plot offers a thriving little harvest of tomatoes, kale, leeks, basil, and other vegetables and herbs. It’s not a lot of food, but along with other nearby agriculture, such as Quesada Gardens and the larger Alemany Farm, it helps bolster residents’ weekly dose of fresh produce.

Equally important, it gives budding food activists like Antonia Williams and Kenny Hill reason to believe things can change. After yanking a healthy crop of leeks from the soil, fellow food guardian Jazz Vassar, 25, notes, “There are a lot of community organizations doing good work here. We have high hopes to change things.”

Even as they work to nourish a different food future, the food guardians are acutely aware of the jagged rocks and stubborn old roots that need to be cleared. Asked what the city should do about Bayview’s many-layered food struggles, Hill responds: “Realize there is a problem in Bayview, and allocate resources here. There are statistics that this is a food desert, there are high rates of crime—people have to wake up and see that people here have been disenfranchised.”

It’s not about having the city do it for them, says Hill. “Give us something to latch on to so we can help ourselves.”

Former Bay Guardian city editor Christopher D. Cook is the author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis.

Revenue for all


OPINION Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut: this is the sound of your government — parks, schools, playgrounds, hospitals, clinics, public transportation, programs for youth and seniors, arts, social services, the whole fabric that makes San Francisco what it is — fading away as state and local politicians refuse to raise revenue to revitalize our economy.

Mayor Gavin Newsom and big business groups have promoted a defeatist politics of low expectations, cutting spending, laying off city workers by the thousands, and offering tax breaks to businesses and developers rather than tapping San Francisco’s deep pockets of wealth to generate economic opportunities citywide.

It’s time for a new path: a fiscal politics of optimism, opportunity, and addition rather than subtraction. It’s time for an unapologetic progressive taxation movement for this November’s ballot and beyond, to make the city’s great wealth — individual and corporate, often badly undertaxed — work for all San Franciscans.

As California crumbles, local revenue movements could fuel a statewide campaign of towns, cities, and counties to overturn Proposition 13. San Francisco can take the lead with progressive taxation to create jobs, promote small neighborhood businesses, expand affordable housing and public transit, save public health, and more.

A citywide campaign for progressive taxes is building, including leaders from community-based nonprofits, grassroots organizing and neighborhood groups, labor unions, and some corners of City Hall. There are many promising ideas; with the right political will and organizing, the city could, for instance, tax large-scale real estate and levy profits from large firms. Progressive taxes could, at minimum, bring in close to $100 million and help save critical city services.

To win this campaign, a strong coalition must educate and mobilize the public about the vital importance — and citywide benefit — of raising revenue through targeted taxes on large firms and wealthy individuals. The city’s political leaders will need prodding, pressure, and support to get this done.

Progressive taxation will benefit all of San Francisco, not just some — working-class people of color and immigrants who endure the cuts’ harshest effects, everyone from youths to seniors, and vitally needed city employees like social workers, nurses, librarians, park workers, and firefighters.

The politics of austerity poses false choices between public safety and public health — as if health isn’t a safety issue. San Franciscans of all stripes must reject the pitting of services and "constituencies" against each other, reject the wedge politics that pit labor against nonprofits (both of which work to uplift working-class and poor residents), and unify around progressive revenue.

Nobody likes taxes, least of all the middle class, working class, and poor (the vast majority of us) who shoulder the bulk of the burden. But wealthy individuals and corporations can and must pay their fair share. According to a 2007 World Wealth Report produced by Merrill Lynch, 123,621 households in the Bay Area — many of them in San Francisco — "had $1 million or more in financial assets in 2007, up 10.8 percent from the year before," the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

At a Feb. 14, 2007 Town Hall on Poverty in Bayview-Hunters Point, Newsom asserted, "we haven’t addressed the wealth divide; we haven’t addressed the health divide; we haven’t addressed the economic divide … why in a city like San Francisco has income inequality grown like it has?"

Yet Newsom and others continue to avoid progressive taxation — despite polls suggesting such measures can win. Tell Mayor Newsom, and your district supervisor, to make San Francisco’s wealth work for everyone. Now. *

Christopher Cook, an award-winning journalist and former Bay Guardian city editor, is communications director for the Revenue for All campaign of Budget Justice, a coalition of members from dozens of community organizations, labor unions and their allies working to raise revenue and protect the most vulnerable San Franciscans from budget cuts.

San Francisco needs a New Deal


By Christopher D. Cook and Eric Quezada

OPINION On the night the voters spoke, word began filtering through Palm Pilots and iPhones about sweeping budget cuts likely to carve a hole in vital city programs. It’s ugly: massive cuts to the Department of Public Health and numerous social service programs. As usual, programs helping those most in need are getting cut the most. Why aren’t we instead raising revenue from those who have the most?

In this year of "change," we need a fundamental shift in our city’s taxing and spending priorities — a bold New Deal for San Francisco that enlarges the public pie that everyone’s scuffling over, and that creates green jobs and new housing opportunities targeting poor neighborhoods and districts.

It’s time to get serious about taxing and redistributing wealth to stimulate new economic opportunities. The passage of Propositions N and Q — expanding real estate transfer and payroll taxes — is a good start. We need to tax wealth in new ways that replenish the local economy, creating green living-wage jobs with health care and opportunities for small businesses and community-serving groups.

City leaders can make San Francisco a model of good sense by demanding that our wealthiest citizens and corporations help fund a program that creates jobs and economic opportunity for the rest of us. Particularly in the city’s eastern neighborhoods, Districts 9, 10, and 11 (and parts of 6), poverty and economic stress are rampant and families are pressed to their limits — unable to afford health care, working multiple jobs, living in overcrowded apartments, and often in shamefully dilapidated housing conditions.

With home prices declining but rents and foreclosures skyrocketing, the city needs to help thousands of working-class residents who provide vital services — teachers, service-industry workers, and cash-poor immigrants — to remain in San Francisco. Now is the time to prioritize production, public infrastructure, education, and cooperation for the common good; our economy needs a stimulus based on solidarity and collective good.

We’re being presented with false scarcity and false choices — do we cut housing or health care to meet the budget? Few are asking the key question: why don’t we have more money to work with, in this vastly wealthy region?

In an earlier New Deal, President Franklin D. Roosevelt imposed a 90 percent tax on upper income brackets — making it virtually illegal for people to earn so much more than others. Locally, city leaders should explore a gross receipts tax on large firms; new taxes on luxury and high-priced items, such as SUVs, second homes, yachts, and other extravagances; perhaps revive the push for a downtown business tax levied on large firms in the financial district; and a truly progressive income tax harnessing revenues from high-income folks.

People can argue over where the money should go. But it’s brutally clear we are in an age of deepening inequality, widening economic stress, and environmental limits. There’s no room for huge disparities — no room to continue allowing extra-wealthy individuals and corporations to consolidate their gains at the expense of the rest of us. We must renew the fight for public wealth — now. *

Journalist and author Christopher D. Cook is a former Guardian city editor, and a local activist. Contact him at Eric Quezada is executive director of Dolores Street Community Services, and was recently a candidate for District 9 supervisor.

Anniversary Issue: Just Food Nation



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

A food bill for San Francisco


OPINION You may not have heard about it, but Congress is busy deciding the fate of America’s food supply: what’s grown, how it’s produced and by whom, and how that food will affect our health and the planet. The roughly $90 billion Farm Bill, covering everything from urban nutrition and food stamp programs to soil conservation and agribusiness subsidies, will dictate much about what we eat and at what price, both at the checkout line and in long-term societal costs.

Despite valiant progressive efforts that may bring some change, the big picture is not pretty: increasingly centralized power over food, abetted by lax antitrust policies and farm subsidies that provide the meat industry and food-processing corporations with cheap raw ingredients; huge subsidies for corn and soy, most of which ends up as auto fuel, livestock feed, and additives for junk food, fattening America’s waistlines; and, despite organic food’s popularity, a farming system still reliant on toxic pesticides (500,000 tons per year), which pollute our waterways and bloodstreams while gobbling up millions of gallons of fossil fuel.

Closer to home, residents in poor urban areas like Bayview–Hunters Point are utterly deprived of fresh, nutritious food. These so-called food deserts — whose only gastronomic oases are fast-food joints and liquor marts — feature entire zip codes devoid of fresh produce. Government studies show this de facto food segregation leads to serious nutritional deficits — such as soaring obesity and diabetes rates — among poor people.

What’s to be done? Congress needs to hear Americans — urban and rural alike — who are demanding serious change, and shift our tax dollars ($20 billion to $25 billion a year in farm subsidies) toward organic, locally oriented, nutritious food that sustains farming communities and consumer health.

Locally, with leadership from the supervisors, a progressive San Francisco food bill could be a model for making America’s food future truly healthful, socially just, and sustainable — and encourage other cities to buck the corporate food trend. Such a measure could include:

Organic and local-first food-purchasing policies requiring (or at least encouraging) all city agencies, local schools, and other public institutions, such as county jails and hospitals, to buy from local organic farms whenever possible.

Incentives — backed by education, expanding markets, and consumption of local organic foods — to encourage nonorganic Bay Area farmers to transition to sustainable agriculture, while subsidizing affordable prices for consumers.

Healthy-food-zone programs with targeted enterprise grants encouraging small businesses and farmers markets to expand access to healthy foods in poor neighborhoods identified as deserts.

A city-sponsored education campaign discouraging obesity-inducing fast food and promoting farmers markets and other healthful alternatives.

Zoning and other incentives for urban and suburban farming.

Ultimately, the city needs a food policy council — including farmers, public health experts, antihunger activists, environmentalists, and others — coordinating these efforts. The city needs a progressive food bill, merging the interests of urban consumers, Bay Area farmers, and environmental sustainability, for a policy-driven alternative to our destructive industrial food system. *

Christopher D. Cook

Christopher D. Cook is a former Guardian city editor and the author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis (