Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Be it Resolved: Sustainable Food is Not Terribly Important

On June 30th, a coalition of NYC non-profits called the Foodprint Alliance celebrated the introduction of Resolution No. 2049 in the New York City Council. The Resolution, introduced by Council Member Bill de Blasio and 15 other sponsors by request of the Manhattan Borough President, calls for a citywide initiative to “establish climate-friendly food policies and programs, financial and technical support, a public awareness campaign regarding the City’s food consumption and production patterns and greater access to local, fresh, healthy food.” These are important goals that are supported by most sustainable food advocates, but I’m concerned that the resolution process is not the best strategy for achieving them, and can, in fact, divert energy from needed legislation.

Resolutions express a legislature’s intent. They are used to signify approval of land use changes, the budget, and political appointments, but they are also the vehicles through which legislators can sound off about state or federal matters, or obscure issues they choose not to tackle through a local law. For example, resolutions in the City Council made July 28th Peruvian Independence Day in New York (Res. no. 505 of 2006), and banned the pejorative use of the word “ghetto” (Res. No. 1723 of 2008). Each resolution was designed to make a statement and score political points, yet neither has much more than a symbolic impact. Few citizens, beyond the interest groups championing them, even know about the resolutions adopted by the City Council.

More importantly, when the Council chooses to adopt a resolution instead of a local law to address a matter that is within the Council’s legislative purview, it signals to key stakeholders – the Mayor, businesses, interest groups – that a mere symbolic statement is sufficient. In many ways, a resolution gives Council Members the appearance of taking action without the consequences.

The Foodprint resolution was referred to the Council’s Committee on Community Development (not Environmental Protection), where it probably will be discussed in one or more upcoming public hearings, be voted out of committee, and then pass the full city council. It may, paradoxically, signal that the City Council lacks the will or political capital to compel the Mayor to include the food system as a core element in its planning processes. While the resolution references the administration’s sustainability plan, PlaNYC 2030, which is silent on how to feed a million new residents sustainably, it does not require the addition of a new food chapter. Nor will the resolution provide financial and technical support to community groups, businesses, and individuals working to grow and sell locally produced, fresh, healthy food.

What would be a more productive alternative? Rather than focusing on the Foodprint resolution, advocates would be better off spending time urging the Council to pass a local law that adds food to the portfolio of issues under the responsibility of the Mayor’s Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability, which prepares PlaNYC 2030. The City Council actually created the office and defined its responsibilities by enacting Local Law 17 of 2008, which amended the City Charter to add the agency. Local Law 17 specified that the director of the office has the “power and duty to develop and coordinate the implementation of policies, programs and actions to meet the long-term needs of the city, with respect to its infrastructure, environment and overall sustainability citywide, including but not limited to the categories of housing, open space, brownfields, transportation, water quality and infrastructure, air quality, energy, and climate change…” The one word that the Council missed when it passed Local Law 17 was “food.”

Amending the law would correct this oversight. It would also elicit testimony about how to approach food system planning in New York, how much it will cost to develop and implement a food policy, and an analysis of the benefits of food planning. At the end of the day, Council Members would have to vote on the legislation, and if passed by the Council, the Mayor would either sign or veto the bill.

Beyond the need to establish food system planning, the City Council can be the leader in food systems policies by adopting a comprehensive package of policy initiatives outlined in Borough President Stringer’s report, Food in the Public Interest. The Mayor and Council have enacted progressive food systems legislation before. Local Law 9 was passed in 2008 to establish the new Green Cart program of fruit and vegetable pushcarts. Advocates should work with City Council Speaker Quinn’s office, Borough President Stringer, and the Mayor to develop a package of bills that advance the goals enumerated in the Foodprint resolution, but not expend energy on the resolution itself.

Friday, July 10, 2009

San Francisco's New Sustainable Food Mandate

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom issued an executive directive [PDF] yesterday at City Slicker Farms in Oakland, during the Direct Farm Marketing Summit planned by the organization 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:

  • 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.