Blog » sustainable development
- April 2, 2013by Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
Of the many food and agriculture bills California legislators have introduced this year, three stand out for their potential impact on the Bay Area’s food system: a tax incentive to promote the use of private land for urban agriculture; a change to CEQA to require agricultural land preservation for certain projects; and a statewide sugary-beverage tax. Here’s a closer look at these bills, which we will be tracking this year.
Urban Agriculture Incentive Zone Act (AB 551)
Introduced by San Francisco’s recently elected assembly member Phil Ting, this legislation would incentivize the use of private land for urban agriculture by reducing the property tax assesment on qualifying parcels dedicated to city farming. The bill would permit counties to pass ordinances establishing “Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones” within their boundaries. In these incentive zones, private property owners would be eligible to apply to enter a contract with the county restricting their undeveloped property to urban agricultural use in exchange for a revised tax assessment based on the agricultural use of the land. The program is loosely modeled after the Williamson Act and, as with that legislation, counties could opt into the program but will not be required to do so. Similarly, private landowner participation would be completely voluntary.
One of the biggest obstacles to expanding urban agriculture within California is access to land. This legislation provides an incentive to private landowners to make more land available for urban agriculture, while at the same time enabling them to do so at a lowered cost, which is especially critical for the viability of commercial urban farms.
California Farmland Protection Act (AB 823)
According to the American Farmland Trust (AFT), each year an average of 30,000 acres of farmland is converted to non-agricultural use in California. The California Farmland Protection Act, supported by AFT, the California Climate and Agriculture Network and the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, aims to address this. The bill would require developers to either 1) permanently protect an acre of farmland for every acre they develop as part of the mitigation process in the California Environmental Quality Act or 2) build more densely. Developers could protect agricultural land through either direct purchase of a conservation easement or payment of a fee to a public or private agricultural land conservancy to purchase a conservation easement. For projects that develop farmland within city limits, the developers could also meet the requirements by demonstrating that the development achieves a density at least twice that of the statewide average. The legislation recognizes that agricultural land preservation complements infill development as a smart-growth land use strategy and attempts to permanently preserve agricultural land while also increasing the cost of sprawl.
Sweetened Beverage Tax Law (SB 622)
Though proposals for city-level taxes on sugary drinks in Richmond and El Monte failed at the ballot box in November 2012, momentum continues building for public health legislation targeting sodas and similar drinks. The Sweetened Beverage Tax Law would require distributors to pay a one-cent tax for every fluid ounce of bottled sweetened beverage or concentrate they distribute. The revenue from the tax, estimated to be more than $1.5 billion annually, would go toward a Children’s Heath Promotion Fund. The fund would then distribute 65 percent of the money through the state Department of Public Health for childhood obesity prevention efforts and childhood dental programs, run by the department, community groups and medical providers. The remaining 35 percent would go to school districts for public health initiatives that improve childhood nutrition and physical activity.
As the bills have only recently been introduced, SPUR has not yet taken a position on any of them. Though the fate of each of these bills in the legislature is unclear, each illustrates that California continues to be at the forefront of developing food and agriculture policy that intersects with the areas of land-use, economic development and public health.
- February 26, 2013by Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
The array of food grown within a couple of hours of San Francisco makes our region truly unique. Along with an astounding amount of agricultural diversity, the Bay Area's farms and ranches employ a wide range of business models. This is an asset to their economic vibrancy, but it also means there are few "one size fits all" policy recommendations to support regional agriculture.
I got a firsthand taste of this complexity on a tour of farms and ranches in San Mateo County hosted by the Ecological Farming Association in January. We visited four sites – all near Pescadero on the coastal side of the county.
The first stop was Jacobs Farm, specifically the first parcel from which co-owners Larry Jacobs and Sandra Belin launched their culinary herb business, now one of the nation’s largest. The farm has a history of production stretching back 150 years with previous generations of farmers growing barley, wheat, potatoes, flax, peas and vegetables. Today, the focus is more than 30 varieties of herbs such as rosemary, mint and sage, which are grown on hundreds of acres dispersed around San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties, then packaged at a distribution facility in South San Francisco and sold to retailers nationwide.
Just a short drive away is Harley Farms Goat Dairy. It is a great example of a business that has expanded slowly and diversified its operations. Harley Farms currently produces 200 pounds of goat cheese each day with a herd of 200 milking goats. One of the most notable aspects of its business is that the majority of revenue comes from on-site sales of cheese and other goat milk products, along with agri-tourism programs – including a five-course farm-fresh meal served in a restored barn hayloft.
Further down the road, the tour shifted to look at ranching, a type of agriculture that is very common throughout the nine-county Bay Area. TomKat Ranch, the next tour stop, is focused primarily on educating schoolchildren about agriculture, but it also raises cattle for beef marketed under the Left Coast Grassfed label. Following TomKat's educational mission, the farm managers – self-described “controlled chaos mega-fauna ecosystem providers” – are experimenting with a wide variety of ranching practices to reduce the environmental impact of their agricultural operations. This includes testing different strategies of rotational grazing, encouraging laying hens to follow the path of the cattle from pasture to pasture, and studiously protecting habitat alongside streams near where the cattle roam.
The last stop on the tour, Fifth Crow Farm, was the only farm we visited producing vegetables. The owners are graduates of the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems apprenticeship in ecological horticulture at UC Santa Cruz, a training program for many young farmers in the region. They farm about 20 acres with row crops, an orchard and pastured egg production and sell their harvest mostly through farmer’s markets, direct to restaurants, and through a local farm box subscription (also known as a CSA).
While these four farms and ranches reveal an impressive diversity within San Mateo County, a similar diversity of production exists throughout the Bay Area, as the 2008 San Francisco Foodshed study attests. One of the most striking aspects of the tour was the variety of business models supporting the operations including wholesale, retail, direct sales and nonprofit education. As we think about the region’s producers, this small sample of San Mateo county agriculture is a reminder that agriculture in the Bay Area comes in many shapes and sizes — and policy that supports agriculture must do so as well.
- February 4, 2013By Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
The crowd of a few dozen people that spilled off the sidewalk at Lee’s Market on an overcast morning had gathered to celebrate. The occasion: the grand re-opening of the corner store with new offerings of fresh fruit, vegetables and an expanded selection of healthy grocery items.
The January 24 event marked the launch of the Healthy Corner Store project of the Southeast Food Access Working Group (SEFA). The community group’s Food Guardians, three staff members who work on a variety of food issues in the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood, collaborated with the owners of Lee’s Market and Ford’s Grocery to increase the number of healthy products sold at each store. The initiative was inspired by a 2007 survey showing that residents were taking dollars outside of the community when they frequently traveled to other neighborhoods to buy groceries. SEFA believed that if those items were stocked in neighborhood retail locations, the local businesses would see increased sales and residents would have more convenient access to healthy food.
The change at Lee’s Market was clear and prominent. Limes, oranges and heads of lettuce were visible through the door. Oatmeal, bread and tortillas were on display in the front window. And while ramen noodles, candy bars and alcohol still had significant shelf space, tobacco advertising on the front door had been removed and the difference between the before-and-after photos on display at the launch event was striking.
The participation of the corner store business owners is a credit to their willingness to try out a new set of products, including perishables. In making the change, they received assistance from a coalition of city agencies and community groups. In addition to the outreach by Food Guardians, several city agencies — acting together under the umbrella of the Bayview Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL) Zone and funded by a large grant from Kaiser Permanente — provided a mix of grants and loans to the two corner markets to cover the costs of technical assistance and equipment purchase. Initial signs indicates that the storeowner’s investment is paying off. One of the most important measures of success is whether customers will buy the new items. In the first week of offering produce, Lee’s Market sold out and placed another order with its produce distributor.
One of the distinguishing features of this initiative is its focus on working with resources already in the community rather than trying to recruit a retailer to move into the neighborhood. As one of the speakers at the launch put it, the project was an example of “change from the inside out.” While SEFA was involved in attracting full-scale grocer Fresh & Easy to the neighborhood, it has also focused significant attention on changing the offerings at existing retailers like Foods Co., Super Save and now corners stores. Other groups in the city are watching closely. Organizers in the Tenderloin have begun their own neighborhood assessment using the Food Guardian’s model and Supervisor Eric Mar has introduced legislation referencing SEFA’s work.
SEFA plans to evaluate the impact of its corner store initiative. While increasing access to fresh, healthy food is a clear improvement in terms of convenience and quality of life, the impact of this initiative, and others like it, in terms of affecting obesity, diabetes and other public health issues is not yet proven. Even so, it is clear that positive change, driven from within the neighborhood, is happening at two corner stores. And that is a milestone worth celebrating.
- November 19, 2012by Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
Southern Santa Clara County used to have a widespread and thriving agricultural sector, helping the area earn the name “Valley of the Heart’s Delight.” Today, much of that famed farmland has been replaced with homes and offices. One exception is the Coyote Valley, a narrow, 5-mile-long area between southern San Jose and Morgan Hill. Before the recent economic downturn, much of Coyote Valley was slated for development, and intense land speculation had driven up property prices. After 2008, however, local open-space and agriculture advocates saw a sharp drop in the development pressure and wondered whether it would be economically feasible for Coyote Valley to retain its agricultural character.
That question led Sustainable Agriculture Education (SAGE) to conduct an in-depth feasibility study over the past eighteen months. In its report, Coyote Valley: Sustaining Agriculture and Conservation, SAGE concludes that an agricultural economy is feasible for the area if significant investments in land, infrastructure and policy are made in the next 25 years. The report outlines a three-phase strategy that would split a $50 million investment between: 1) agricultural land preservation, mainly through purchasing conservation easements on existing farms; 2) infrastructure, including updating and expanding irrigation in the valley; and 3) program coordination and marketing. The report envisions that a new entity, the Coyote Valley Agricultural Enterprise and Conservation Program, would work to implement the strategy using funds from both public and private sources.
In addition to presenting an ambitious vision, the study is notable for recommending an agricultural preservation strategy that anticipates integrating farming into a “mosaic” of other land uses. Rather than propose the creation of one large contiguous block of farmland, the study recommends the preservation of at least 50 percent of the existing farmland throughout the north, middle and southern sections of Coyote Valley, interspersed with clusters of residential and commercial development. The study also presents an incredibly detailed assessment of current opportunities and challenges such as: vast acreage in the valley currently owned by developers who currently have little interest in leasing long-term to farmers; the potential to increase the value of production by 300 percent by changing what crops are planted; and initial indications that policy and overall trends in the real estate market are easing development pressure in the area.
SAGE’s report on the Coyote Valley is a fantastic case study of urban-edge agriculture. It shows that the opportunity to retain and expand a self-sustaining agricultural economy that provides food and livelihoods in Southern Santa Clara still exists. But the report also makes clear that, as in many parts of the Bay Area, the opportunity will slip away unless policymakers, farmers and food-system advocates focus their energy on shifting the Coyote Valley in a new direction.Tags: sustainable development
- November 13, 2012By Laura Tam, Sustainable Development Policy Director
This week, one of the most important pieces of the 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act (Assembly Bill 32) goes live: the first-ever quarterly auction of carbon permits under California’s Cap and Trade program is set for Wednesday, November 14. California’s cap and trade program for greenhouse gases is designed to help achieve an 80 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2050. To learn more about the opportunities and challenges of cap and trade implementation, we hosted a forum at SPUR last week featuring Kate Gordon, director of the energy program at the Center for the Next Generation, Alex Jackson, energy program attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Brad Neff, cap and trade implementation manager at PG&E. Here are some of the insights they shared about what we can expect from cap and trade.
Gordon explained how California’s efforts to implement market mechanisms that would control greenhouse gases fit into a larger regulatory program, which includes not only cap and trade but a low-carbon fuel standard for vehicle fuels and a renewable energy standard for electric utilities. Taken together, she said, California’s approach to greenhouse gas controls is more economy-wide, more far-reaching, more integrated and more visionary than other regional greenhouse gas programs, such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in the northeast United States, the Western Climate Initiative and trading programs in the EU, China and Australia.
Carbon trading programs are hard to implement, according to Gordon, because putting a price on carbon affects the economy, and a thoughtful transition is necessary to prevent the loss of jobs, especially if firms move out of state to save the costs of carbon compliance. Some of this week’s auction credits are actually reserved to help prevent this problem in California.
Gordon also discussed how Hurricane Sandy is kick-starting the national conversation about climate change, on both mitigation and adaptation. A price on carbon is even being discussed in Washington, D.C., as a potential part of the national deficit compromise. Some groups are talking about it as a way to raise revenue, others are talking about it being revenue-neutral (an opportunity SPUR discussed years ago in our 2008 paper on green taxes.)
Alex Jackson from NRDC began his portion of the presentation with an overview of how California’s cap and trade program is structured. Although the 13-page-long AB 32 did not describe how the state should achieve the emission reductions it called for, it did authorize market mechanisms and delegate program implementation to the California Air Resources Board (ARB). In 2008, the ARB released a scoping plan identifying the sectors of the economy that contribute to global warming and what policies should be targeted to those sectors to achieve them. Although cap and trade only covers about 20 percent of total emissions at first, Jackson said it was a critical piece of the carbon tool kit for four main reasons:
1. It is one of the only policies that sets a fixed limit on emissions at the source, and by 2018 will cover 85 percent of economy-wide emissions (the program covers only large industrial emitters and the electricity sector at first, but transportation fuels are included in the program later).
2. It is enforceable on individual emitters.
3. It puts a price on carbon, correcting the externality and creating a positive incentive for compliance (saving money).
4. It provides a backstop for the whole scoping plan if other policies and programs underperform.
Jackson commented that in terms of challenges for the program, we might expect to see some lawsuits from those who have a vested interest in seeing lack of success in California as a bellwether for climate policy. It is also a political challenge: Since AB 32 passed seven years ago, we have to undertake renewed efforts to explain to today’s lawmakers why the program is important. He expects renewed opposition from the forces of the status quo as we reach the finish line.
Brad Neff, who manages cap and trade for PG&E, described how the company is preparing for cap and trade, emphasizing that it has always supported such a program. Electricity rates are “decoupled” in California, meaning electric utilities earn a set rate of return, which the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) bases on the utility’s assets that deliver energy — not on how much electricity and gas it sells. For this reason, PG&E believes it is fortunate to operate in a regulated structure that enables the company to be very pro-environment. At 60 percent carbon-free, PG&E’s current electricity mix is one of the cleanest in the nation.
PG&E is covered by several AB 32 programs and regulations, including cap and trade and the Renewable Portfolio Standard. The utility views AB 32 as a positive step forward but wants market stability: PG&E expects its assets to last 20 or 30 years, so it wants clarity into the future about new potential rules and carbon costs. PG&E will get some free allowances under cap and trade, and it wants to give any revenue it earns back to ratepayers, but the CPUC has not made clear yet how this will be done.
In response to questions from SPUR’s audience, we learned that the revenue from the carbon allowance auction is only partially allocated. This is because it’s not clear how much revenue will come in. It is certain that this pool of funding will increase over the years, especially when transportation fuels are included under the cap. It is also certain that all of the revenue goes into ARB’s Air Pollution Control Fund initially and must be spent on implementing AB 32 or reducing air pollution (including greenhouse gases). As well, the California legislature has decided that 25 percent of the revenue must go to providing benefits to disadvantaged communities. For the balance, as directed by the legislature, ARB is going to work with the Department of Finance to come up with three-year investment plans.
I asked if there would be anything exciting to watch for in the media on Wednesday when the auction commences at 10 a.m. Our panelists all agreed: they hope not. Let’s all hope for some evidence of success, and a smooth process, as this critical tool to reducing global warming emissions launches.
- November 6, 2012By Laura Tam, Sustainable Development Policy Director
Besides making our streets prettier, what does our urban forest of street, park and backyard trees do for us? Trees are good for cities in lots of ways. They significantly increase property values. They provide shade, keeping energy demand in check on hot days and cooling the pedestrian realm. They clean the air, sequester carbon (slowly reducing global warming), provide habitat for birds, make streets more walkable and reduce urban flooding by retaining stormwater: A single tree may intercept and absorb up to 2,400 gallons a year. A recent SPUR report discussed the future climate-adaptive benefits of trees in helping to mitigate urban heat-island effect, the phenomenon where heavily urbanized areas become significantly warmer than nearby areas due to heat-retaining materials like concrete and asphalt. We recommended that cities conduct a tree-canopy census and identify opportunities for better shade-tree coverage in underserved and intensely urbanized areas. (A crowd-sourced map of such trees in San Francisco, calculating their benefits to the city, can be found — and expanded — at urbanforestmap.org. Register your own tree!)
With just 12 percent canopy coverage — the area of ground covered by trees, from a bird’s-eye view — San Francisco is one of the least tree-endowed cities in California and in the United States. San Jose maintains 15 percent canopy coverage, Los Angeles and Oakland have 21 percent coverage, and New York has 23 percent coverage, just above the national average of 22 percent. Green-minded San Franciscans would probably be surprised to learn that our city ranks 21 out of 22 major cities with regard to tree canopy.
Historically of course, San Francisco was almost completely devoid of trees — home to sand dunes and brackish marshes. As the city grew, trees were planted on streets, in backyards and in parks. Today, we have about 670,000 trees in San Francisco on public and private land, of which 109,000 are street trees in the public right of way. These trees are planted, established and maintained by both private property owners and the Department of Public Works (DPW). Generally, larger streets and streets with planted medians are maintained by DPW; others are cared for by adjacent property owners. But our numbers decline every year. Why? Because the mortality rate of urban trees is 3 to 4 percent each year. In San Francisco, this means we lose about 4,000 trees a year. Between the efforts of DPW, which plants about 400 trees a year, Friends of the Urban Forest (FUF), a nonprofit dedicated to tree-planting, which plants about 1,200 trees a year, and homeowners and commercial property owners acting on their own, at most we are planting 2,000 new trees in the city every year. This means we are not even keeping up with the death rate: Our canopy is in decline. Recent budget cuts at DPW have made matters worse. About 24,000 trees currently cared for by DPW are in the process of being relinquished to their adjacent property owners. This means that some property owners will be forced to take on both the maintenance and the liability of having a tree they didn’t plant and might not want.
This puts our urban forest at great risk.
To address this problem, FUF, the San Francisco Planning Department, and DPW recently hired AECOM to study options for a permanent source of funding for tree maintenance. (The financing study and the Planning Department’s initiation of an Urban Forest Plan were recently featured at a SPUR forum.) The study considered what policy and management changes would be needed to reverse the decline of the city’s canopy and recommended a few potential sources for financing even broader public management of street trees, such as a landscape and lighting assessment district or a parcel tax. The study found that a more comprehensive municipal program would provide net benefits to San Francisco residents and that tree-owning property owners would save money annually with a municipal program (since they wouldn’t have to pay for pruning/maintenance, sidewalk repair and legal claims associated with sidewalk falls). Today, DPW spends a significant amount of its time on one-off emergency tree-care requests. A more comprehensive municipal program would enable the city to employ best practices in tree maintenance and pruning, which would save costs by as much as 50 percent through improved efficiencies. A comprehensive municipal program could also expand the city’s urban forest by at least 50 percent, adding thousands of new trees each year.
Supervisor Scott Wiener, long a champion of the urban forest, recently held a hearing at a committee of the Board of Supervisors to begin the conversation around what could be done to sustain our street and park trees in light of the fact that they are not successfully competing for the city’s general fund dollars. I testified on behalf of SPUR that a more sustainable solution is needed, and that we hope to continue the conversation around how to maintain both our street trees and our park trees for the next generation.
Many people at the hearing — representing a broad geographic distribution around the city — mentioned that trees were important to their neighborhood and that they would be willing to tax themselves to pay for trees, as they are a benefit that everyone shares in, not just property owners. Several people urged that we plant lowest-canopied areas first, if we can ramp up planting. One of the most memorable lines was, “Trees are the only urban infrastructure that grows in value over time.”
In 2013, we look forward to participating in more conversations and hearings and advocating to change the trajectory on maintenance to ultimately expand San Francisco’s urban forest in the future.Tags: sustainable development
- October 18, 2012by Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
San Francisco is known internationally for its celebration of food. The city can boast of top restaurants; nationally acclaimed grocers, bakers and butchers; a thriving fleet of food trucks; and bountiful farmers’ markets. But these food retailers are not distributed equally across the city. While San Franciscans in many neighborhoods can take a short walk or ride and find a greengrocer or supermarket, in some parts of the city, food access is more difficult.
The Department of Public Health has mapped the distribution of existing food retailers as part of its Sustainable Communities Index program. The results show that a number of neighborhoods — including Treasure Island, the Tenderloin, Hunters Point and Visitacion Valley, among others — have limited to no fresh food retail options.
While a full service grocery store is never more than a couple of miles away in a city as dense as San Francisco, the lack of quality, fresh food access within a convenient distance has both quality of life and public health impacts. Week to week, having to travel further for groceries – whether by foot, transit or car – takes up time and money. This travel is an additional cost that few San Franciscans would enjoy, but it’s especially difficult for low-income residents, many of whom live in neighborhoods with the least convenient access to fresh food.
In addition to the quality of life impacts, a neighborhood’s access to fresh food is also strongly connected to the health of the neighborhood. As Policy Link, a national non-profit organization pointed out in its Grocery Gap report, proximity to fresh food is strongly correlated with levels of obesity, diabetes and other diet-related diseases. Though recent articles in the Washington Post and New York Times have questioned how much the introduction of a new food retailer into a neighborhood positively impacts public health, food access advocates have in turn raised questions about the studies that are cited and pointed out that providing fresh food retail outlets is only one part (albeit an important part) of a campaign to improve diet-related public health.
Recognizing the importance of food access, Supervisor Eric Mar introduced legislation on September 25 to better coordinate the city’s efforts on the issue. The ordinance would establish a Healthy Food Retailer Incentives Program housed in the Office of Economic and Workforce Development. On the supply side of the equation, the program would be responsible for coordinating the city’s food access initiatives within a “one-stop shop” that links new or existing small food retail businesses (those less than 20,000 square feet in size) with incentives and technical support ranging from permit expediting and design assistance to grants and loans. The program is also structured to encourage convenience stores and small grocers to reduce the amount of shelf space they dedicate to tobacco and alcohol products. On the demand side, the legislation calls for the new program to pair its support for businesses with community engagement (like that piloted by the Food Guardians and the Southeast Food Access Working Group.)
Promoting healthy food retail has the additional potential benefit of providing economic development. Studies have shown that grocery stores and thriving corner stores can not only provide jobs but can also serve as anchor retailers that lift the fortunes of nearby businesses.
Even with a new coordinated focus from a city agency, addressing food access will not be easy. The changes will take money: retailers investing in new store designs and products, and consumers buying enough fresh food to make it pencil out for the retailer. And gauging the impact will take time. Supervisor Mar’s legislation has energized conversation about what the city can do to better address food access, and SPUR will continue to track the proposal’s development.
- September 15, 2012by Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
Richard Carranza has been an educator for more than twenty years. He has seen firsthand how student learn better when they’re healthy and nourished. And, as a father of two daughters enrolled in the city’s public schools, he’s heard firsthand that students want better food in their cafeteria. Professionally and personally, he understands that school food is integral to the lives of students and the success of the District. And, as the new Superintendent of San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), he is in a position to improve the school meals program.
But, as Superintendent Carranza made clear at a September 6 forum at SPUR, he and the District face significant obstacles.
Primary among the challenges is funding. The $18 million budget of the school meals program is supported mostly by revenue from the 27,000 breakfast and lunches as well as the 6,000 snacks that Student Nutrition Services serves each day. In San Francisco, like in many other urban school districts nationwide, the majority of the students eating school meals receive the meals for free. In exchange for providing the meal, the federal government, in the current school year, will send the District a reimbursement of about $2.90 per lunch and $1.55 per breakfast. The students who don’t qualify for a free meal pay $3.00 per lunch and $1.50 per breakfast. The combined revenue of reimbursements and sales is used to cover the costs of the school meals program: food, labor, distribution and management. In San Francisco, the revenue has not been enough to cover the costs and the District has offset shortfalls in the school meals program by transferring money from the District’s general fund. Student Nutrition Services has begun reducing this deficit in the past two years and may be able to increase efficiency more in the coming years. But, even with greater efficiency, the District will continue to face a difficult fiscal position so long as increases in food and labor costs continue to outpace increases in the federal reimbursement rate.
Compounding the difficulty of raising revenue is the criteria that defines who qualifies for a free or reduced meal. The federal government, which sets the standard, has one threshold for the entire lower 48 states, with separate rates for Hawaii and Alaska. A family of four only qualifies for a free meal if their household income is less than $30,000 per year – regardless of whether they live in San Francisco or a small town in Mississippi. In San Francisco, 50% of public school students meet that threshold, which is a sobering statistic. But, according to the Food Security Task Force, a family of four in San Francisco could be food insecure even with an income twice that. The result is that many hungry students receive free meals from the District, which has a policy of feeding any hungry student regardless of their ability to pay, but the District cannot receive a full reimbursement for that meal because those students don’t fall within the poorly calibrated federal definition of poverty.
A third significant challenge for the school meals program’s financial picture is that fewer students are choosing to eat the meals. They are, as the Superintendent put it, “voting with their feet.” The number of SFUSD students eating school meals (called the “participation rate”) is significantly lower than that of comparable districts and has declined since 2009. And, the fewer students who eat the meals, the less revenue SFUSD receives.
Despite these challenges, Student Nutrition Services has made considerable improvements in the past few years. They have, among others successes, installed a point of sale system that expedites meals service and provides valuable data to managers, reduced the paperwork for enrolling families in the free and reduced meals program, and improved the nutritional standards of the food that is served. This has helped SNS begin to reverse the deficit trend including recently lowering the deficit covered by the District’s general fund from $3.5 million in 2009-10 to $2.5 million in 2011-2012 (see: 2 hours and 43 minutes into the video).
Alongside these improvements, however, kids continue to vote with their feet. Many choose to eat bag lunches from home, off-campus, or not at all. As a study recently published by the San Francisco Food Bank details, many factors influence their choice: the amount of time they are given to eat, social pressure and stigma, the number of meal options, the cafeteria environment, and, perhaps most of all, the quality and appeal of the food itself. The report, which was inspired by a goal of “more kids eating better food” at school, provides an extensive list of recommendations for how SFUSD can improve the current program, including calls for: increasing the number of management staff (which the District has begun to do), remodeling of both kitchen facilities and cafeterias, soliciting greater participation in the free and reduced lunch program, and many management suggestions.
Long-term, though, the question for how to substantially improve the school meals program in San Francisco remains. Superintendent Carranza reported that the District is beginning a planning process to produce a 5-year strategic plan addressing the issue and is also reissuing its meal service contract for competitive bid among contractors. The challenges for improving SFUSD’s school meals program are considerable, but these steps and others outlined by the Superintendent are strong indications that there is a new energy, focus and commitment to tackling the issue at the highest levels of the District.
- September 6, 2012by Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
There may be a drought in much of North America, but this summer has produced a bumper crop of reports on urban agriculture in cities across the continent. Nonprofit groups in New York, Toronto and Boston have recently published studies examining what their cities can do at the policy level to support city gardeners and farmers.
In the Big Apple, the Design Trust for Public Space and Added Value partnered together to produce Five Borough Farm: Seeding the Future of Urban Agriculture in New York City, the most comprehensive of the reports. The study’s snapshot of urban agriculture revealed:
- More than 700 farms and gardens (including school gardens) are producing food. This, the report pointed out, is more than three times the number of Starbucks in the city.
- In addition to 390 food-producing community gardens managed by the Department of Parks and Recreation, the New York City Housing Authority hosts 245 food-producing gardens.
- The vast majority of the sites are 5,000 square feet or less.
An innovative aspect of the report was its call for the city and urban agriculture practitioners to provide more detailed metrics — not only to track production (in pounds of food, value, jobs and participation) but also to track impact (dietary change, food literacy and social cohesion). In the coming year, the Design Trust will begin working with a small sample of sites to collect this sort of data, similar to the work of Farming Concrete.
One other notable aspect of the New York City report was how the history of land insecurity, specifically former mayor Guliani’s attempt to auction off 115 community garden sites for private development in 1999, led to a very specific garden review process for any future transfer proposals. It also led to the establishment of a small handful of land trusts — including the New York Restoration Project and three smaller community trusts that were recently spun off by the Trust for Public Land — that own scores of community garden sites. In contrast, there are no community land trusts operating urban agriculture projects in San Francisco.
Providing an international perspective from a colder clime, Toronto’s Food Policy Council published GrowTO: An Urban Agriculture Plan for Toronto. The goal of this enthusiastic report was to scale up urban agriculture across the city. Reflecting the similarities that dense cities face on this issue, the four top policy recommendations from Toronto are similar to those SPUR identified for San Francisco:
1. Create an urban agriculture program within the City of Toronto.
2. Update city policies to support and implement urban agriculture.
3. Provide incentives (financial and/or other) to groups and individuals starting or growing their urban agriculture initiative.
4. Develop a website that provides a clearinghouse of urban agriculture information.
The report also highlighted a “yard sharing” initiative called YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard), a model of maximizing use of private yards that has not been institutionalized yet anywhere in the Bay Area.
Not to be outdone by bigger cities, researchers from the Conservation Law Foundation in Beantown issued their report Growing Green: Measuring Benefits, Overcoming Barriers, and Nurturing Opportunities for Urban Agriculture in Boston. Unlike the others, this report was framed as a feasibility study for a hypothetical commercial urban farming venture that would cultivate many sites across Boston, totaling 50 acres. Two notable findings in the study were that:
- Commercial urban farms were likely to employ 2.6 to 4.5 people per acre
- Boston has at least 800 acres of vacant land suitable for urban agriculture
Alongside its feasibility analysis, the report provides detailed descriptions of existing policy and initiatives in the city, including an urban agriculture zoning overlay district. Unaddressed, however, was whether that zoning policy, or any other policy change, would make it feasible for any urban agriculture venture to gain access to 50 acres of land.
What the three studies show is both a growing sophistication of urban agriculture policy efforts in cities across the continent and the similar obstacles facing farmers and gardeners in dense urban areas. What is not yet clear is whether the bumper crop of studies will lead to subsequent bumper crops of food produced in those cities.
- September 4, 2012By Michael S. McGill*
California water policy is endlessly fascinating. It addresses the single most important resource problem facing the state. It is complex. And it changes with glacial slowness.
This year, San Franciscans face two issues that reprise what occurred three decades ago: What should the city do regarding the long-term fate of the Tuolumne River? And what should the state do about moving fresh water through the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta for shipment to the south?
Indeed, these two issues were the first water policy questions SPUR ever addressed. In 1982, the Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission were proposing to build three dams and two powerhouses along the 20-mile stretch of the Tuolumne River between O’Shaughnessy Dam and New Don Pedro Reservoir. Also in 1982, Governor Jerry Brown was proposing to build a Peripheral Canal around the delta to move Sacramento River water directly to the massive pumps that send it to the South Bay, Central Valley and Southern California.
SPUR opposed both proposals. We persuaded Mayor Dianne Feinstein to forego the additional revenue, water and electricity that the Tuolumne dams would generate. She even authorized me to go to Washington, D.C., to testify on the city’s behalf at a congressional hearing on designating the Tuolumne as a Wild and Scenic River. I also joined a variety of environmental groups in several meetings with Governor Brown and his staff to try to persuade him to drop the Peripheral Canal.
Governor Brown put a bond issue for the canal on the November 1982 ballot. It lost. More than 90 percent of Northern Californians voted against it. Congress voted to save the Tuolumne in 1984.
And now, here we go again.
For the Tuolumne, the issue at stake is San Francisco’s Proposition F, which asks whether the city should commence planning to demolish O’Shaughnessy Dam and allow the Hetch Hetchy Valley to return to its natural state. Doing so would, however, deprive the city of one of the purest water supplies of any urban area in the nation — as well as hydroelectric power and a revenue stream generated by the sale of a portion of that power. SPUR has written previously about how decommissioning the dam and reservoir will threaten San Francisco’s water supply and why the city will continue to need this system.
But what would this proposal mean for the Tuolumne River itself? It means destroying the very values of that 20-mile stretch downstream that persuaded Congress to save it. In those 20 miles, with hardly a road or a structure in sight, there are two dozen major rapids. It is one of the finest whitewater experiences in the world. Running those rapids is possible all summer long because of a reliable flow of water released daily from Hetch Hetchy. Demolishing O’Shaughnessy would mean that the water would be too high and violent during spring runoff, and too low for the rest of the summer for all but a handful of days. There would be no dam in place to capture the high spring flows, and no reservoir to provide timed releases all summer long.
The Tuolumne is also a premier trout fishery. Demolishing O’Shaughnessy eliminates that fishery, because the water would get too warm during the summer months without replenishment on a daily basis from Hetch Hetchy.
Having failed in 1982 to persuade the voters to approve the Peripheral Canal, Governor Brown now wants to pursue a $14 billion project funded by revenue bonds to construct a Peripheral Tunnel. He argues this is essential to save the fragile ecology of the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta and to assure the continued delivery of a reliable supply of water to the South Bay, Central Valley and Southern California. The bonds and operating costs would supposedly be repaid by city and agricultural water users, although California farmers served by the two water systems receive heavily subsidized water supplies and cannot possibly afford to pay the full cost of developing the water.
The arguments from 30 years ago still apply today, even though conditions in the delta have gotten worse and the state has grown more populous. The proposed tunnel would have a capacity to deliver 9,000 cubic feet per second of water to the pumps for delivery south. Bypassing the delta would enhance the reliability of this water supply against an earthquake disrupting the delta and ensure that this water was of a higher quality than at present. It would also end the confusion fish face as they try to swim upstream while the pumps change the direction of stream flows.
But pumping this much water would consume one half to two thirds of the average normal monthly flow of the Sacramento River during the summer, when demand is highest. What happens during a drought? At present, the pumps cannot draw too much fresh water from the delta without sucking in salt water from the San Francisco Bay. With the tunnel, no such impediment would exist, and the entire flow of the Sacramento could be sent to the pumps. Halting the flow of fresh water into the bay for any sustained period would destroy its value as a major estuary.
Assurances are offered that the primary goal of this whole effort is to restore the delta environment, and that it may produce no new water or even result in reduced flows. This claim is based on the assumption that existing environmental laws and regulations will remain in place and be enforced, so too much water cannot ever be sent south.
Remember what happened on the Klamath River in 2002? The federal government decreed that less water was needed to preserve the salmon fishery, so more could be delivered to farmers. The result? More than 70,000 salmon died before reaching their spawning grounds. It took four years for a court to decree that the decision to reduce the flow was wrong, but the damage had been done.
So long as Sacramento River water going south has to flow through the delta, rather than around or under it, the Central Valley and Southern California cannot take all of it. But the Klamath River experience suggests that environmental laws and regulations alone cannot prevent excessive water withdrawals.
San Franciscans have a direct role to play in determining the fate of Hetch Hetchy reservoir by voting on Proposition F in this November’s election. Their role in addressing the issue of the Peripheral Tunnel is less direct. Without question, the current system for transporting water from north to south damages the environment and is vulnerable to disruption from natural disasters, ranging from drought to earthquakes. But fixing it involves finding a Gordian knot solution that links protecting the environment with ensuring a reliable supply of high-quality water via a mechanism not vulnerable to political pressure.
* Michael McGill served as SPUR associate director from 1973 to 1981 and executive director from 1982 to 1989. He moved to Washington, D.C., to serve as chief of staff and senior advisor on water policy to Senator Dianne Feinstein, and currently is a public affairs officer with the U.S. General Services Administration’s Public Buildings Service. The opinions expressed in this post are his alone and not necessarily the opinions of SPUR.