e. Urban Agriculture

Food Security and Urban Agriculture

As Chris Cook, author of Diet for a Dead Planet, writes, “A common refrain from activists and policymakers echoes: there’s a lot more we could do, if we had the money… 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.[i]

San Francisco needs to have a comprehensive food policy that addresses ways to increase neighborhood food access, increase the sale and availability of locally or regionally grown foods, increase urban food production, recover or recycle food from waste streams, and organize and enhance internal and external City responses to food issues. However, the urban food system is a complex process whereby food produced in one location travels to urban consumers. The feature that sets urban agriculture apart from rural is that urban agriculture is integrated in the urban economic and ecological system (Zeeuw, 2004). Food systems impact the availability of rural land and farmlands, local purchasing versus globalization of food sources, health, and the environment (APA, 2007).

The way people generate and use energy globally is one of the biggest drivers of climate change. In the US alone, one fifth of the national energy goes towards the food system, and the amount of energy it takes to produce agriculture has increased by 810% from 1910 to 1983 (WWF, 2006). It now takes ten fossil fuel calories to produce a single food calorie. Moreover, the use of chemicals has increased 500 times since 1940 and the US has lost half its topsoil since 1960 (Bowe, 2007).  It is currently estimated that topsoil is being lost seventeen times faster than nature can replace it. In addition, agriculture uses about seventy percent of global water withdrawals, and water use has doubled between 1960 and 2000 (WWF, 2006). Energy in the form of agriculture production and transport, along with water use, are two major factors that can be addressed by local food production in urban cities, where demand due to large populations can easily outpace the supply of food.

There are numerous health benefits of urban agriculture. These include better dietary knowledge and practice, saving food dollars, fresh and local produce, community food security, exercise, and mental health  (Bellows, 2003). For example, every one dollar invested in a community garden plot yields approximately six dollars worth in vegetables. Also, locally produced food is able to retain more nutritional value than food produced from afar. Studies have shown that the process of transportation and storage can cause thirty to fifty percent loss of nutritional constituents in food (Bellows, 2003). Gardening has also contributed to reducing risks of obesity in children and adults, coronary heart disease, glycemic control and diabetes, and occupational injuries.

Urban agriculture also has the potential to improve air quality by reducing the carbon dioxide, ozone concentrations, and the urban heat-island effect. Planting crops can increase biodiversity by using soil microorganisms, insects, and birds. Urban composting can help significantly reduce the amount of waste generated.

Planning for Urban Agriculture

The time is ripe for San Francisco to make significant changes to its rules and regulations to enhance and promote food production within its neighborhoods. There are several things that the City can do in the short term to move towards an integrated food policy which can include:

  • Establish a regional food policy council to create food policies for San Francisco and the Bay Area
  • Secure funding to provide local food production to high-risk neighborhoods
  • Look into possible land trusts that can be used as temporary grounds for urban agriculture

The reasons in favor of urban agriculture and local food production, in the context of climate change, ecological, and human health within cities, are important enough to warrant serious consideration.

Localizing ecological food production, developing better access for local producers to Bay Area markets, promoting fresh food with minimal processing and packaging, and increasing commitments from local governments to improve food security will help keep food plentiful and affordable while stimulating the region’s economy and improving public health.

Much of this Section is drawn from two reports: “Building a Resilient and Equitable Bay Area: Toward a Coordinated Strategy for Economic Localization,”[ii] by Bay Localize and others, and from the “Peak Oil Preparedness Task Force”[iii] report, as well as additional interviews with local urban agriculturalists.

1. Create a Department of Food to coordinate food security and urban agriculture efforts

According to Bay Localize, “The Department of Food of Belo Horizonte in Brazil serves approximately 17 percent of the city’s population with 2 percent of the municipal budget, maintaining enviably low administrative costs while implementing a wide range of successful programs.” Establishing a municipal Department of Food can prioritize and integrate responsibility for implementing food policy into one city department, including coordinating  urban agriculture workforce development, development of garden and farm enterprises, and food security programs. Among the activities, the Department of Agriculture would employ neighborhood horticulture extension agents to help train community gardeners.

2. Expand workforce development in urban agriculture and food production, linked to local and regional networks of organic farmers.

The City should dramatically expand funding for food production education programs (like those that currently take place at Garden for the Environment). At the same time, City departments should work closely with staff at the SFUSD and CCSF to ensure that horticulture training is available to people of all ages and income levels. “Greening” job training programs need to be linked to local and regional employers in order to connect people to employment, either in food growing directly, value-added food production and distribution, or other city greening jobs like landscaping.

3. Create a network of neighborhood materials depots.

Aside from providing technical training, the City can also bolster local food production by providing essential gardening materials to residents (at reduced costs, depending on income). For example, the City should establish a citywide materials depot where residents would be able to get (at free or reduced cost), essential materials such as quality organic compost, mulches, seeds, vegetable starts, hand tools, and irrigation equipment. The City should also consider establishing a seed bank where community gardeners could buy, sell and trade seeds specially bred for San Francisco’s climate. At the community level, the City could create a network of materials depots, providing City-owned space and underused privately owned space (in co operation with owners) for neighborhood based composting and gardening sites, linked to local recycling centers.

4. Support programs that grow and sell food in low-income neighborhoods

From the Bay Localize report: “Income is the biggest factor in enhancing food security, and economic inequalities based on race, class, and gender all too often determine who suffers from a poor diet or goes hungry. A UCLA study estimated that 33.9 percent of the residents of the Bay Area cannot afford enough healthy food, an alarming proportion that rises to 38.8 percent for the Bay Area’s African American, Latino, and Native American populations.” Therefore, the City should support programs that grow and sell food in low-income neighborhoods, including the development of fresh food retailers and liquor store conversions in underserved areas. Neighborhood food production programs should support cultural resiliency through cultural traditions in food and growing that are appropriate for particular SF neighborhoods.

5. Mandate public purchasing of local, healthy, living-wage foods.

According to Bay Localize, “While finding and utilizing arable farmland is a large challenge to food localization, another challenge exists with regard to market access. Finding markets for crops is a challenge for small and medium-scale local producers. Large supermarket chains, which capture the majority of consumer food dollars, tend to purchase from a limited number of regional, national, and international suppliers, reflecting an alarming corporate concentration in the food industry. Local farmers struggle for shelf space and contracts for produce. Institutional buyers such as schools, hospitals, the foodservice industry, and even local governments reflect this same purchasing trend, leaving local farmers with few options.” San Francisco can help diversify regional food production by making a commitment to buying locally. The City should commit to buying as much locally grown food as possible for public institutions such as schools, hospitals, and government agencies. Implement a “Buy Local First” food purchasing policy, creating an initial market for City-grown food where possible, and then spreading out to regionally grown food.

These purchasing mandates could also prioritize living wage jobs. Again, according to Bay Localize, “Ironically, farmworkers are among the Californians most likely to suffer from hunger, due to low household income.29 Upholding fundamental human rights while localizing food production requires sourcing from growers, whether urban or rural, who pay their workers a living wage. This concept is still a difficult one for farmers who face extremely narrow margins, but is supported by major progressive agricultural organizations such as the California Coalition for Food and Farming, the Organic Consumers Association, farmworker organizations, and a growing movement calling for domestic fair trade in agriculture. Paying a living wage across sectors can help ensure that the price of food does not represent a trade-off between the hunger of farmworkers and that of low-income consumers.”

6. Support private purchasing of local, healthy, and living-wage foods.

The City should develop policies, incentives, subsidies, etc., to support (or regulate) local grocers to provide affordable healthy locally-grown foods in neighborhoods. The City should also encourage private companies to purchase locally grown foods for their cafeterias, and to offer employees incentives for joining CSA programs.

7. Institute a tax on fast food sales to help pay for local food programs, urban ag workforce development, and local purchasing.

Without dedicated funding mechanisms, the best intentions often fall by the wayside. In the Mayor’s Executive Directive on Healthy and Sustainable Food for San Francisco, for example, are the following statements: “To reduce the environmental impacts associated with food production, distribution, consumption, and disposal, whenever possible, city resources will be used to purchase and promote regionally produced and sustainably certified food;” and “Food production and horticulture education will be encouraged within the City and, to the extent feasible, on City owned land, through urban agriculture including community, backyard, rooftop, and school gardens; edible landscaping, and agricultural incubator projects.”[iv] The key elements are “wherever possible,” and “to the extent feasible.” The City must back its commitment to the ambitious changes it must make to ensuring food security for our residents with dedicated funding sources. One place to start is by imposing taxes on unhealthy and unsustainable products, such as fast food, and creating disincentives, such as fees on vacant properties and parking lots, that may be used to fund programs.

8. Develop a program of City farms and orchards on City-owned property.

According to the Peak Oil Task Force, “There are surprisingly large amounts of land available in the City. The San Francisco Department of Public Works (SFDPW) estimates that there are some 400 acres of public right of way suitable for conversion into public gardens. This does not include properties owned by the SFPUC, the SFUSD, or the Port Authority, which could include dozens of additional acres. Finally, there is the significant amount of space in the City’s parks and public golf courses. Some portion of these parklands and golf courses could be converted into food gardens, just as they were during the height of WWII.”

Therefore, the City should undertake a comprehensive evaluation of public parklands and golf courses, rights-of-way, SFPUC, Port Authority, and Housing Authority (SFHA) properties to determine what parcels can be used for food cultivation. Types of spaces could include publicly-owned vacant lots, green space (parks, open space), right-of-way, and institutional properties. Selection criteria could include minimum lot areas, adjacent heights, distances from freeways, solar access (minimum 6 hrs. of sun during summer), slope (may be up to 40%), and wind. A minimum area for community gardens should ideally be 2,000 square feet or more to accommodate plantings, tool shed, compost bins, etc. Adjacent land use should not be known local sources of point pollution to protect vegetation from air, water, or soil contamination. Vegetables, especially large leafy ones, uptake airborne pollutants and can cause potential carcinogenic effects on people. For San Francisco, any parcels located 330 feet within the 280 and 101 can be excluded. This number is the average distance it takes for airborne pollutants to travel before they decay to background concentrations.

Portions of parkland and golf courses could be dedicated to City orchards, with productive fruit and nut trees bearing fruit for the public. Fruit and nut trees or container planters could line sidewalks and “green streets” as well.

Institutional properties include schools, community centers, hospitals, research facilities, and any other semi-public lot  Food production can be located on the ground space (i.e. setbacks), rooftops, walls, balconies, patios, and indoors. Existing buildings present a feasible way to grow space for food. Rooftops, walls, patios, balconies, and indoor areas are all possible. Greenhouse, soil, hydroponic, vertical, and container gardening are potential ways of planting vegetables. Building structures are important considerations for intensive rooftop gardening. Existing building structure to withstand extensive green roofs should ideally be steel-framed, although the best approach is to install these rooftop gardens during the construction or remodeling phase.

9. Create zoning incentives, urban ag zoning designations, and urban agricultural land trusts, to increase land availability and tenure

There are hundreds of privately owned but vacant lots within the City that could be converted into productive food gardens. Additionally, private backyards are likely being underutilized. Conduct a review of policy and zoning obstacles to local food production in San Francisco, and support agriculture zoning designations, zoning maps, and general plans to increase land availability and tenure for both urban farmers. The City could institute a fee on vacant non-productive parcels, including surface parking lots, to pay for local food production and education programs, and offer private property owners water bill rebates for transitioning vacant or underutilized land to food production.

10. Invest in innovative technologies such as “living machines,” vertical farming, and aquaculture to boost local food production.

The San Francisco Bay Area is the cutting edge of environmental technologies, and should not be left behind in the development of a new Green Economy. As the City considers major infrastructure projects, such as the upgrading of our sewer and storm systems, we can begin to explore new technologies, such as decentralized living machine greenhouses and greywater systems, that will prepare us for the long-term sustainability of the city’s vital systems.


[i] San Francisco Bay Guardian, November 25, 2008. http://www.sfbg.com/printable_entry.php?entry_id=7342

[ii] Building a Resilient and Equitable Bay Area: Toward a Coordinated Strategy for Economic Localization, report by Redefining Progress, Bay Localize, Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, International Forum on Globalization, and Center for Sustainable Economy, 2006

[iii] San Francisco Peak Oil Preparedness Task Force Report, 2008

[iv] Office of the Mayor, City & County of San Francisco, Executive Directive 09-03: Healthy and Sustainable Food for San Francisco, July 9, 2009

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