Blog » urban agriculture
- November 28, 2011by Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission took two steps in support of urban agriculture at a recent meeting. The first step was making it easier for community gardeners and urban farmers to install new water hookups at their sites. Currently, the price of a new water meter installation is approximately $8,500. That high cost barrier has led many garden projects to source their water from a neighboring property rather than build their own connection with the water system, resulting in a losing situation for both gardeners and the PUC. For the gardeners, hooking into an existing water meter means they pay for water as if they were a water customer in a building. That rate includes the standard wastewater charge, even though water that irrigates a garden (and trickles into the soil) doesn’t add to the load on the wastewater and sewer system. For the PUC, any project piggy-backing on a neighbor’s water account makes it difficult to track the water usage of urban agriculture.
To solve the problem, the PUC approved a program to waive most or all of the cost of installing a dedicated landscape irrigation meter. Projects using these meters will not get charged for wastewater, reducing their overall water bill, while the PUC will gain a way to measure water usage.The commission set aside $100,000 for the program and will allow applicants to apply for a fee waiver of up to $10,000 for a new meter. The program could ultimately provide 10 free water hookups to qualified applicants that meet specific criteria. Applications will be considered on a first-come, first-serve basis.
While gaining access to a water meter can be difficult in San Francisco, accessing land is even more difficult. Citing the Mayor’s Executive Directive on Healthy and Sustainable Food from 2009, which encouraged city agencies to identify vacant land suitable for urban agriculture, the commission took a step toward addressing this challenge, as well. Specifically, it approved a feasibility study at two pilot sites: College Hill Reservoir and the Southeast Treatment Plant. The staff will present the results of its study before the end of January 2012.
The PUC has a unique amount of leeway when it comes to what kinds of projects it can consider at these sites. Unlike nearly all the land under the jurisdiction of the Recreation and Parks Department, the PUC’s sites are either not currently publicly accessible or not currently used as recreation areas. Establishing a garden or farm on this land could activate unused space, rather than replace an existing use. Commercial operations run by a non-profit or for-profit could fit well on PUC land, whereas they would be more controversial inside an existing park. At the same time, the PUC could ultimately decide that a traditional community garden fits best on both sites. Many types of urban agriculture could fit well on PUC land.
Many questions remain to be answered. One thing, however, is clear. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is demonstrating a strong commitment to urban agriculture that can serve as a model for other city agencies.
- September 14, 2011by Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
As someone who works on urban agricultural policy, I'm often asked, "Is city-grown food safe?" The question comes from aspiring urban gardeners and concerned eaters alike. And it seems to stem from both a fear of the known and a fear of the unknown.
First, the fear of the known: Common urban contaminants include lead, arsenic and other heavy metals leaked into soil from old paint, leaded gasoline, modern car exhaust and industrial land-use. These metals are responsible for a whole host of maladies. Heavy exposure to lead, for example, can harm the nervous system and result in other developmental disabilities, especially in children.
Here in San Francisco, a recent study of garden soils confirmed the presence of residual lead in many parts of the city. Similar studies have taken place or are in the works in Minnesota, Chicago and Indianapolis. They all show considerable evidence of lead in urban soil.
Though we know it's present, we don't know the best way to gauge the risk of this lead-contaminated soil. The San Francisco Department of Public Health recently issued guidelines warning that any garden soil containing lead at more than 80 parts per million poses a risk to children.Young kids have an unfortunate habit of ingesting and inhaling all sorts of things, so oral or nasal exposure to lead-contaminated soil is a very real potential danger to their health. But the guidance included a side note underscoring just how confused regulatory agencies are about this exposure risk:
Which leads to the fear of the unknown: Neither the EPA nor the San Francisco Department of Public Health can provide clear guidelines regarding the danger of eating food grown in soil with elevated levels of lead. Scientists aren't sure about the uptake of toxins in plants, or how much they can transmit to our stomachs. And there's just as much confusion about the risk of other known toxins besides lead: As the EPA's Brownfield program recently noted, even when we analyze identified pollutants with understood health impacts, we end up with more questions than answers. With so many questions, many people react emotionally to this general fear of the unknown. The thought process goes something like this: "Food grows in dirt. Dirt is dirty. So city dirt must be really dirty."
But should we be more concerned about city-grown food than rural-grown food? I don't think so. First of all, the same highways full of car exhaust that run through our cities also run through our rural areas. And while rural areas don't have the polluting legacy of urban manufacturing industries, they have industrial toxins of their own. Pesticides — including previously-approved-but-now-banned varieties — are prime examples. Another area of concern is biosolids: We routinely take treated sewage from cities and apply it on agricultural fields throughout the country, bringing with it many of the chemicals, including pharmaceuticals, that we flush down our toilets, sinks and other city drains. How much that affects the food we eat is not clear.
Considering all those factors, perhaps we shouldn't assume that rural soil is always safer: Within both urban and rural areas there are some sites that are clean and some that are heavily polluted. Baltimore is considering requiring urban farmers to test their soil; should rural farmers be required to do likewise? Or perhaps the fear of soil toxins in our food supply is greater than the actual risk. Certainly the risk to children who eat soil is different than the risk their parents face from eating vegetables grown in that same soil. What tests should we use to gauge those dangers?
Though I don't have the answers to these questions, I'm heartened when someone asks me about the safety of city-grown food because it shows the true promise of urban agriculture. That promise lies not in the potential to feed ourselves wholly from within our cities, but rather in using the small amount that is grown nearby to connect us with our larger food system. We need to ask more questions of our food supply, both urban and rural. We also need to call on our government agencies, universities and others to help us answer these questions. In the meantime, I'll continue eating food grown in the city.
- July 18, 2011By Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
We are what we eat. It’s true for people — but also for cities and regions. The food we consume and the system that produces, distributes and disposes of it are as vital to San Francisco and the Bay Area as our systems for housing, energy, water and governance. Like those other systems — staples of SPUR policy — food is a basic human need and provides a perspective for answering the question, “How do we make our city and region a more livable place?”
SPUR’s new Food Systems and Urban Agriculture program seeks to answer that question through policy that will strengthen both the food system within the city — where food is grown, how it’s sold and how accessible it is— as well as the region’s network of farms and distributors.
San Francisco has recently experienced a surge of interest in reforming its local food system. In just the past two years the mayor issued a groundbreaking Executive Directive on Healthy and Sustainable Food, the Board of Supervisors updated the zoning code to allow for more types of urban agriculture, and the city hosted the first Northern California “slow money” investment conference. SPUR’s program will be working among a strong base of organizations that are active on food issues in the Bay Area. This desire for innovation and change is driven by many factors, including an interest in reducing the ecological footprint of food; improving public health and eradicating “food deserts”; and strengthening communities by supporting local businesses. SPUR's priority will be on policy, especially where food issues intersect with questions of land use, regional planning and economic development.
In our first year, we will focus our attention on four main issues:
1) The use of public land for urban agriculture
2) Reducing regulatory barriers to urban agriculture
3) Farm-to-cafeteria programs and food literacy in schools
4) Creating metrics and baselines for local food consumption to help inform future policy
Along the way we will report back, both here and the Urbanist, on other developments in the field of food policy, ranging from federal incentives for grocery stores in food deserts to state pilot projects funding rooftop agriculture for its role in stormwater management. And we will also host forums (like our May panel on San Francisco’s recent food policy initiatives), walking tours and more.
As we develop our program, I’d like to hear your ideas and feedback. Please send suggestions for potential events, interesting models of food policy in other places or other ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.