San Francisco’s New Sustainable Food Mandate | Civil Eats

San Francisco’s New Sustainable Food Mandate


San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom issued an Executive Directive [PDF] this week at a City Slicker Farm in Oakland during the Direct Farm Marketing Summit organized by Roots of Change, making food system planning the unambiguous responsibility of city government. Under the directive, it is the official city policy to increase the amount of healthy and sustainable food available to San Francisco residents, charging mayoral agencies with specific steps to accomplish this goal. By using his executive powers, Newsom was able to move swiftly, though some agency initiatives will eventually require legislation enacted by the Board of Supervisors.

The Directive is ambitious in articulating a vision of a food system with nutritious food for all San Franciscans, shorter distances between consumers and producers, protections for worker health and welfare, reduced environmental impacts, and strengthened connections between urban and rural communities. Such progressive goals are nothing new for San Francisco. A number of existing plans, resolutions, ordinances and executive directives address elements of sustainability within the food system. San Francisco’s 1997 sustainability plan, which was adopted as a non-binding city policy, has a chapter on food. Resolutions adopted in 2005 commit city agencies to maximize their purchases of fair trade and organic food. A 2006 “shape up at work” directive requires agencies to support a healthier living and eating environment in the workplace. Ordinances requiring farmers markets to take EBT cards, banning agencies from buying bottled water, and resolutions supporting cage-free chickens and opposing foie gras have been passed in recent years.

But several things distinguish the new Directive from these previous efforts. First, it is notably comprehensive in scope, recognizing the need “to consider the food production, distribution, consumption and recycling system holistically.” The principles outlined in the Directive include: allocating city funds to ensure that hunger is eliminated; planning neighborhoods to ensure healthy food options; spending municipal food dollars on regionally produced and sustainable food; encouraging food production on City owned land; promoting local food businesses; supporting policies to conserve peri-urban prime farmland; helping to market regionally grown food in San Francisco; recycling all organic residuals and eliminating chemical use in municipal agriculture and landscaping; educating residents about healthy food and sustainable food systems; and advocating for consistent state and federal policies.

Second, it was developed with the involvement of a broad range of municipal officials, advocates, and business representatives, and empowers these stakeholders to monitor and advance the Directive’s initiatives through a new Food Policy Council that will meet bi-monthly. The Council is explicitly charged with reviewing the City Code, General Plan, and other policies to identify amendments that can achieve the goals of food system sustainability.

Third, and perhaps most significantly, the Directive contains a series of sixteen mandatory actions that various agencies must take, within relatively short order, to plan and implement its goals. The specificity of these requirements separates this effort from other municipal resolutions, non-binding plans and charters, and other mainly hortatory exercises. Among these various mandates, several stand out as particularly significant:

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  • Within six months, every department with jurisdiction over property is required to audit the land under their control to identify sites suitable for food production.
  • To increase access to federal food and nutrition programs, the City’s Human Service Agency is required to offer online eligibility screening and enrollment in addition to new neighborhood based registration programs.
  • Within six months, city departments that lease property to food establishments or permit mobile food vendors must either require the sale of healthy and sustainably produced food or give preferences to those who do so.
  • All city agencies that purchase food for events or meetings must buy healthy, locally produced or sustainably certified foods to the maximum extent possible. Within two months, the Department of the Environment will draft a local and sustainable food procurement ordinance for City government food purchases.
  • The City’s planning department must integrate sustainable food policies into elements of the city’s general plan as it is updated.
  • Within six months, the Redevelopment Agency must develop a Food Business Action Plan to identify economic development strategies, such as enterprise zones, expedited permits, tax incentives, and other policies to establish new food businesses.
  • The Parks Department is directed to facilitate access to gardening materials and tools to support increased production of food within the City.

Newsom’s food Directive has the potential to set in motion a series of plans and initiatives that would dramatically accelerate urban food production, increase food access for low income residents, stimulate the market for sustainably produced food at the urban edge, and incorporate food into long-range city planning. And with continued public concern about the food system, this is a politically opportune time for Mayor Newsom to advance sustainable food policy. However, given California’s dire fiscal condition, the implementation of the agency mandates, such as a buy-local requirement, could not have come at a more challenging moment. It will be extremely difficult for the Mayor and Board of Supervisors to garner the political support for new food policies and programs that have short-term costs, no matter how brief the payback period and how large the long-term benefits are. San Francisco’s new Food Policy Council, together with other food advocates, have a critical role to play in ensuring that the public gets behind necessary city legislation.

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Nevin Cohen is an associate professor at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Public Health. He is also the Research Director at the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute. Read more >

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  1. I want to highlight the need to look at systemic change beginning with our youngest children. They are innocent, yet they are the ones who will suffer for as a result of poor eating. I manage an Early Childhood Nutrition Education Program --Garden of Eatin' --- for the early childhood education sector. We need to ensure that we have no more "lost generations" of Americans who are so not connected with the source of real food. We must commit ourselves to ensure that every child has a garden.

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