Anniversary Issue: Just Food Nation - Page 3

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

In a market-driven economy, businesses simply rise up and succeed or fail — but food, like housing, education, and health, is a basic human necessity. As with most cities, there is no agency focused on making food sustainable in the broadest sense.

But sustainable foods policies are percoutf8g into the city bureaucracy — albeit sometimes piecemeal and slowly. In July 2005, city leaders made it official policy "to maximize the purchase of organic certified products in the process of procuring necessary goods for the city" — though adding, perhaps fatally, "when such products are available and of comparable cost to non-certified products." As it turns out, cost in particular (and supply to some degree) is a potential stumbling block to making this resolution a reality.

A Food Security Task Force, launched by the Board of Supervisors in 2005, is helping eligible families access and use food stamps, getting food to people in need while circuutf8g more dollars in the city. Getting food to hungry folks is an urgently needed service — but it doesn't address the underlying poverty at hunger's roots. Supplying charity food, while necessary on an emergency basis, does little to empower poor people to sustain themselves, and doesn't ensure the food is healthful or sustainably grown.

Like most of urban America, San Francisco is a city of gastronomic extremes. Home to roughly 3,000 restaurants, triple-digit entrees, and a steady diet of haute cuisine celebrations, the city is an internationally renowned capital of fine food. For those with the money and time, Whole Foods Market and other venues offer bountiful aisles of organic produce, free-range meat, and at least some local fare.

But it's not equal opportunity dining. For vast swaths of low-income and working class San Francisco, the options for good food are few and far between. Studies have found food "deserts" the size of entire zip codes, almost totally devoid of fresh produce — and other studies show this food gap causes serious nutritional deficits among the poor and people of color.

To put it bluntly, San Francisco suffers from food segregation. Apart from Alemany Farm's oasis of green goodies, food-parched zones throughout the Tenderloin District, Bayview-Hunters Point, and other poorer quarters of town offer little more than liquor marts, convenience stores, and fast food chains with no fresh food or produce. It's a surefire recipe for obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other life-shortening ailments. As one food activist puts it, "homeless people are buying soda because it's more calories for the money. Nobody wants hungry people — but it doesn't get talked about."


How can all these needs — at once potentially conflicting and unifying — be met at a time when ecological collapse requires radical change, and economic distress makes those changes tougher yet more urgent? A common refrain from activists and policymakers echoes: there's a lot more we could do, if we had the money.

Dana Woldow, co-chair of the school district's student nutrition and physical activity committee, says school lunches, once made up of "revolting carnival food," have improved greatly — but they can't buy more local organic foods because "everyone's getting hammered on transportation costs. Our district takes a loss on every meal."

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.

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