Anniversary Issue: Just Food Nation

Transforming how we eat will address poverty, public health, and environmental sustainability


Two gardens, both erupting with a rich array of flowers, herbs, and veggies, offer a scrumptious glimpse into the promises and challenges of San Francisco's food future.

One, a sparkling emerald Victory Garden, opened to much acclaim in front of City Hall this September to foreground America's first Slow Food Nation gala. It's an aromatic display of planter boxes boasting culinary items both mundane and exotic — a feast for the senses, if not the stomach.

Across town, far from the headlines and tourists, Alemany Farm sprouts loamy rows of greens and veggies, fruit trees, a heaping compost pile, a duck pond, a windmill, and more. Since members of this public housing community planted the farm's first seeds in 1994, with help from the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners, this urban agriculture venture has spawned harvests of fresh produce and some new sparks of hope for the area's economically embattled residents.

These two boulevards of sustenance evoke an awakening of urban agriculture, and offer partial answers to an increasingly pressing question: in an era of global warming and fast-dwindling oil supplies, how will San Francisco sustain itself? Are city leaders and communities doing everything needed to make this happen?

The two gardens also put on display a key dilemma lurking just below the celebratory surface of food reform: who's benefiting from the urban food renaissance, and who's being left out of this virtuous banquet? How do we bring the good food limelight — and dollars — to the places and people that need it most?


What does oil have to do with food? Everything. Our current food supply relies entirely on oil and cheap labor. As a nation we dump 500,000 tons of petroleum-based pesticides on our food crops each year, according to the EPA. Even the push for alternative fuels — namely ethanol — is steeped in the pesticide-intensive harvesting of corn. Then there's the long polluting journey most of our food travels, more than 1,500 miles from the fields to your table — on diesel-guzzling semi-trucks, oil-greedy ocean tankers, and freight trains. All in all, it's a toxic harvest whose days are numbered.

The stakes are high — very high. We are eating oil, and the clock is ticking. As journalist Erica Etelson wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle last year, "global oil demand is at 84 million barrels a day and rising, and there are at most a trillion barrels' worth still in the ground, most of which is very difficult and expensive to recover. Do the math, and you'll see that the end of oil is, at most, 30 years away." In response, the Board of Supervisors appointed a seven-member Peak Oil Preparedness Task Force in October 2007 that's investigating ways to get San Francisco off oil — and food is a major ingredient in that mix.

According to the task force's food issues member Jason Mark, roughly 500 acres of city and county land are "sitting idle and could be used for agricultural production." Meanwhile, hundreds of residents are lined up on community gardening waiting lists; if policymakers move the land and the people into production, and invested in urban agriculture education, the city "could begin to produce a significant percentage of its own fruits and vegetables," says Mark, who co-manages the Alemany Farm. "This would relieve some of the pressure from growers in rural counties, opening up more space for diversified agriculture and creating a more resilient food system."


As oil shortages and ecological collapse loom, other questions are bubbling up. What would it mean to make San Francisco — a city famous for its foodies and epicurean extravagances — "sustainable" in what its residents eat?

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