10 Ways to Support a Sustainable Urban Food System Through Politics and Participation in the Food Economy


I heard California Secretary of Agriculture, A.G. Kawamura speak at a Commonwealth Club panel discussion last week. The topic: A National Food Policy – But What About the Hungry? attempted to address hunger in a transistioning national food system and included Paula Jones, San Francisco’s Food Policy Director, Paul Ash, the Executive Director of the San Francisco Food Bank, and Michael Dimock, President of Roots of Change. While the elephant in the room – how to feed people suffering from daily hunger – was difficult to pin down in terms of action and policy, it became very clear that an urban agricultural renaissance must be supported in order to meet societies’ food needs. Did you know that 2% of the population grows 98% of our food? That’s simply crazy.

A week before this panel I spoke on one with a botanist and an edible landscape gardener. I don’t purport to be an expert or have any answers to the perplexing food issues facing urban populations, or the nation for that matter, but I did cull together a list of ways to support this agricultural revolution. We all have a part to play.

Without naming names, I know a woman who sat with Tom Vilsack a month ago to talk about his approach to our national food policy. One thing she related to me struck a chord. She said that Vilsack takes direction from his boss, the President, who in turn takes direction from the people, our democracy. In order to make any reforms, President Obama wants to know there’s a food movement out there. He wants to hear us. It’s time to build coalitions, get clear and speak up. Yes, again.

So, in my humble opinion, here just a few of the many ways we can be heard. Remember, everytime you pick up a fork you’re making a choice for the kind of food system you want. This is a short guide for doing what’s good for you and the planet and includes tips for eating, shopping, and politics.

1. Start small and simple. Make things from scratch. Pick three actions to start now: for example, stop eating packaged foods, prepare your own food and cut out meat eating once a week. Compost. Plant and grow your own herbs and your favorite vegetables. Or, get clear on the origins of your favorite food (Do you eat burritos or pizza more than once a week? A deli sandwich? Or coffee? Sugar? Rice?) – where do the ingredients come from? How was it made? Harvested? Who harvests the ingredients and how is it processed? What’s the impact of your choice?

2. Share your passions. What about this opportunity for change do you love? Get curious. Ask farmers how they prepare the food they grow, talk to your friends about their favorite foods and preparation methods. Do you have a cultural tradition to share and keep alive?

3. Unite and create coalitions. Gather at tables. Start conversations about food, taste, food policy, traditions, people who grow food, what we eat and how it reflects who we are. Bring together people from all sides of an issue and find ways to reach consensus for at least one action that will make a difference for the greatest number of people.

4. Vote with your fork. You have a responsibility as an eater to know what you’re eating, for your health and the health of the environment. You also have consumer choice and this is a powerful force. As we all know, money talks and your voice can be heard every time you eat. Look in your refrigerator. Throw out everything that has more than five ingredients. And, anything listing the first ingredient as high fructose corn syrup should be the first to go. Stop drinking soda! That would be huge. While you’re at it, do the same with your cleaning products – chuck anything with more than five ingredients.

5. Buy fresh. Buy local. If this requires changing your mindset to reflect seasonal availability, so be it. If it requires you learn to can, store, ferment and learn a few tricks from local grandmothers, well, get on that! Join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) – there is at least one in every state. Shop at the farmers market. Ask for local products at your favorite restaurants, at your school, your company and everywhere you eat.

6. Be grateful for what you have. We live with what Secretary Kawamura called “the luxury of abundance.” Recognize that though it’s a right for everyone to eat good, clean and fair food, not all people have access to it. (Hence the food revolution!) Share your bounty with your friends, family and strangers. Feed people. Host Sunday suppers. Make it a regular thing. And, volunteer your free time at your local food bank, a rooftop or community garden, a school, or in local politics. Work to bring access and education to communities in need.

7. Get involved. Go to community meetings about food, food security, food in schools, whatever interests you. It and we are all connected so you might as well get known and get to work.

8. Remember the true costs. It may seem expensive to buy local or organic or seasonal or whatever the latest important buzz words tell you to do. But that off-season tomato on your burger was probably harvested by slave labor so you can enjoy it in winter. There’s a cost to humanity to have tomatoes all season. People are hurt and we lack an appreciation for the true tomato season and the anticipation for foods only available in certain seasons. That small farmer charging you fifty cents or a dollar for a seasonal tomato has bills to pay, gas to buy and small yields. And, there are costs to our health and the environment for the luxury of food when you want it as well.

9. Recognize school food as vitally important. It’s a shame that we teach kids about the importance of vegetables but our public school system feeds them packaged “baby carrots” shipped in from all over the country. Many kids get the majority of their calories through school lunch programs and we are ripping them off by allowing food giants to make money off their needs. There are movements afoot across the country to restore scratch cooking to schools, buy locally produced foods and generally improve school food. And, there’s an immediate opportunity to get involved in transforming the Child Nutrition Act that comes up for renewal this fall. Look for information regarding a national Eat-In on Labor Day to take a stand for good healthy food for all kids.

10. Start today. No time like the present. President Obama wants to know there’s a food movement out there. Let’s show him!

Food and food activism is an incredibly complex issue that involves so much more than the simple ways I’ve expressed here. Your comments and are ideas are ever so welcome! Please share your ideas with us in the comments section.

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  1. Tuesday, April 28th, 2009
    Great post! Stumbling and tweeting it...
  2. Tuesday, April 28th, 2009
    As the SF Food Bank Exec Director said during the panel, it's unrealistic to think you will solve hunger by turning poor people into urban gardeners. Many work 2 or 3 jobs and are struggling to find enough time to even do tasks like laundry or cook for their children. Consider this: "In San Francisco HMFA, a minimum wage worker earns an hourly wage of $8.00. In order to afford the fair market rate for a two-bedroom apartment, a minimum wage earner must work 159 hours per week, 52 weeks per year." (http://ow.ly/3Io2) A good first step would be to improve California's draconian system for receiving food stamps - which is the absolute worst in the country in terms of getting food stamps to people who qualify. How shameful is that?
  3. Justin
    Tuesday, April 28th, 2009
    Interesting that this piece begins with mention of a discussion about hunger and new food systems, then lets it drop. This is a serious issue for the sustainable food movement. Although I agree with your suggestions, they don't help the view that the movement is out of touch with the real needs of Americans. I'd love to hear ideas or developments that came from that panel discussion.
  4. jdalton
    Tuesday, April 28th, 2009
    Thanks for your comments and information Gayle and Justine! This list was meant to be very basic consumer information inspired by two panels I witnessed. I guess I didn't set it up very well. Overall, clearly, there are serious policy hurdles, across the board, that need revision. A few policies, once addressed more effectively (and in line with a food system transitioning towards resiliency) that Paul Ash and the Secretary mentioned as a stopgap measure include: WIC, Food Stamps and School Food. If we (the people) can give these our full attention and monies, more people will get fed (though it won’t solve the problem). From my perspective, though, more people simply need to gain more consciousness regarding the food they eat and their food choices. And start demanding better food for overall health (for people, planet, profits). Maybe, just maybe, once more people care more about their own food choices they'll have more health, energy and attention to give to those who don't get enough. And, I think like most things, "the movement" is finding its way - so parts of it may be out of touch while other parts, not so much. Read the piece on Petaluma Bounty (http://civileats.com/2009/03/10/power-to-the-people-rebuilding-community-in-petaluma/) to see how one town is addressing the need to feed the hungry.
  5. Wednesday, April 29th, 2009
    Progress is being made in work to improve good food access. Here are examples: 1) more farmers markets are accepting payment for produce in the form of food stamp debit cards and WIC vouchers supplied to low income mothers to improve child nutrition; 2) more farmers markets or farm stands are being sited in low income communities; 3) more federal money is being allocated to food stamps and WIC vouchers; 4) more community-based nonprofits are helping develop urban farms and food processing capacity in communities that need fresh food; 5) food banks and farmers are developing robust ways to use food from fields that once was wasted; and 6) more foundations are providing funds to improve nutrition to those in need. In short, a wave is building. An unprecedented cross sector collaboration focused on the issues of good food access and nutrition is emerging. More good food is coming to those most in need.
  6. Tuesday, May 5th, 2009
    Thank you for this excellent piece. Very helpful suggestions. I was talking to a friend of mine about urban food systems and concerns about nutrition in urban settings. Her church recently started a food pantry where they distribute canned food, fruits & veggies to individuals and families in their community. They were distributing heads of lettuce to people and one woman asked for something canned or boxed instead. She confessed that she didn't know how to cook with the fresh produce. This story speaks to the need for education. I know some food pantries and food banks offer cooking classes. They give a family a box of food and show them how to cook the food. Farmer's Markets, like Hollywood Farmers' Market, established programs to teach people at the market to cook healthy food with their purchases. This is an important step in improving people's nutrition. I think it's also valuable to do education around the cost of healthy food. People think fruits and veggies cost more than processed food, but it's not true.