Focusing San Francisco’s Food Access Efforts

by Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
July 2, 2013

Produce for sale in Lee's Market, which the owners recently remodeled with assistance from the Southeast Food Access Working Group's Food Guardians. Photo by Eli Zigas.

While many parts of San Francisco are full of fresh food retailers, other neighborhoods lack greengrocers of any size.  According to the SF Health Department, some areas of the city — including Treasure Island, the Tenderloin, Hunters Point and Visitacion Valley, among others — have limited to no fresh food retail options. On June 18, Supervisor Eric Mar introduced an amended version of his Healthy Food Retailer Ordinance to focus the city’s attention on addressing this gap. 

The legislation creates a Healthy Food Retailer Incentives Program within the Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD). The program’s goal is to increase access to healthy food; reduce the prevalence of junk food, alcohol and tobacco; and stimulate economic development through new or revitalized retail. To reach this goal, the legislation specifically directs the new program to coordinate existing efforts spread across multiple city agencies — such as OEWD’s Invest in Neighborhoods Program and the Southeast Food Access Working Group’s partnership with the Department of Public Health to convert corners stores in the Bayview. These programs offer store owners technical assistance, retail assessment, help with permitting, and small loans and grants. Going forward these initiatives, and any others like them in the future, will be coordinated under one roof.

While broad in its aims, the legislation is more specific in detailing which retailers should receive the program’s extra attention. To qualify as a “healthy food retailer” the store must devote at least 35 percent of its floor and shelf area to “fresh produce, whole grains, lean proteins and low-fat dairy products” and also have no more than 20 percent and of its space dedicated to tobacco and alcohol products. Supermarkets, restaurants, chain stores defined by the formula retail law and stores that already meet the above criteria are also explicitly excluded from the program’s scope of focus. In other words, the legislation aims to address food access by improving the offerings of small grocery stores, corner stores and convenience stores rather than attracting large supermarkets or prepared food options.  

For the coming fiscal year, the new program will not require any new staff positions, relying instead on a shift of job responsibilities for staff in the OEWD and the Department of Public Health. However, $60,000 for specialized technical assistance for store redesigns is included in OEWD’s budget for the 2013-2014 fiscal year.    

As highlighted in SPUR’s recent report Locally Nourished, addressing food access is a complex issue. While the legislation calls on the new program to identify obstacles to food access and find solutions, it does not lay out clear metrics of success. For some, addressing food access is about lowering rates of obesity, diabetes and other diet-related disease, while for others, food access is an issue of equity and quality of life. The new program will be required to submit annual progress reports, but it is not yet clear whether progress will be measured by number of store conversions, increased sales of healthy food, reduced sales of junk food, improved health within a neighborhood or other indicators. Clearly articulating what success looks like and what tools will be used to measure the impact of the city’s various initiatives will be a crucial first task for the new program, should the legislation pass. 

Supervisor Mar’s legislation builds upon the city’s existing initiatives and aims to strengthen them through coordination and evaluation of pilot projects. Though more work needs to be done to determine how progress will be measured, the bill is another step forward by the city to ensure that San Franciscans can find and afford fresh, healthy food no matter their neighborhood.