Down to the Roots: How Cities Are Building Local & Sustainable Food Systems

By Hannah Greinetz

Hannah Greinetz is the Managing Editor of the Meeting of the Minds Blog. She holds a BA in Anthropology from UC Santa Cruz and an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School.

Dec 29, 2014 | Resources | 0 comments


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Last month, this post looked into urban food systems through the lens of urban food deserts. Food deserts point to a bigger systemic problem of the sustainability of our food systems in the face of a globalized, polarized, and increasingly resource-scarce economy and world. Our cities are increasingly reliant on food sources that are more distant and more homogenous – and thus fragile – than it seems our current economic model can maintain. What can be done to take a counter approach to a model for food systems that puts our societies, cultures, and population at risk of food shortages, malnutrition, and hunger? This is an attempt to answer that question with a set of solutions for moving towards sustainable food systems in the areas that can have the most impact – our cities.

There is a global conversation taking place around food systems planning. Nationally, we are increasingly curious and aware of our food’s origin and impact on the environment, including energy and water demands, pollution, deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions associated with industrial food production. Concerns about rising obesity rates, declining health indicators and the environmental and financial costs of producing and transporting food have led city officials to consider local policies that support affordable, accessible and healthy food options. Consequently, the demand for fresh, local produce and other foods is rising, and city officials can play a significant role in supporting this trend. Municipal governments can implement policies and programs that allow residents to grow, sell, buy, and eat more sustainably produced and locally grown foods, while strengthening the community and region. Eliminating food deserts is a growing priority in some cities. Comprehensive sustainability plans for food systems can jointly benefit public health, the local economy and the environment. Through a combination of community gardens, urban agriculture, farmers’ markets and affordable, accessible grocery stores, cities and towns are finding innovative solutions.

Seattle, Washington has long been known for its push by urban planners to create a more engaging environment around food and farming in the city. Seattle has a fruitful history of policies and programs that have emerged ahead of the national conversation, such as the first urban edible food forest, recyclability mandates on food packaging, and the idea that food should be easily grown and accessed locally.

sustainable-foodOakland, California is another city that is leading the national conversation around food sustainability and justice. They’re setting up ten policy initiatives to fight hunger, increase public health and awareness of the food system and its impacts, and to promote the idea of a closed-loop food system that is economically beneficial to its community. This is a big undertaking in a city that rivals Manhattan in its income inequality, and now shares a food system with the rest of the Bay Area where top dollar restaurants line city streets occupied by some who are homeless and hungry. To create a systematic approach to influencing its food system, Oakland has divided the food system into five sectors:

  • Production
  • Processing
  • Distribution
  • Consumption & Retail
  • Waste Management & Resource Recovery

Oakland is working with implementing the following set of policies as a starting point on the road to a sustainable food system:

  1. Protect and Expand Urban Agriculture
  2. Encourage accessible and affordable farmers’ markets
  3. Promote use of food assistance programs at farmers’ markets
  4. Develop ‘Environmentally Preferable Purchasing Protocols’
  5. Expand composting and the food scrap recycling and reuse economy
  6. Develop a ‘Fresh Food Financing Initiative’
  7. Encourage healthy mobile vending
  8. Create synthetic Pesticide and GMO-Production-Free Zones
  9. Scale up local purchasing
  10. Strengthen community-government links: build key relationships between residents, community leaders, and government that can create solutions.

Oakland’s policy initiatives represent a prioritized set of goals that allow the city to address the shortcomings in the current food system and move from a realistic starting point. You can find Oakland’s complete plan of action here.

Building a sustainable food system is an issue that truly comes down to the municipal and local level in the search for solutions. Each city faces different challenges in providing access to fresh and healthy food options for all residents. As we gain more understanding of the fragility of our current food system, we’re likely to see more cities following in the food-steps of Oakland and Seattle by putting in place the building blocks for the thriving local food culture that can contribute to more healthy and sustainable cities and city residents.

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