A food bill for San Francisco

With leadership from supervisors, a progressive bill could be a model for America's food future
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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 (www.dietforadeadplanet.com).

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