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Can City Farmers Make a Living? Activist Eli Zigas on the Challenges of Urban Agriculture

Will urban agriculture become a major part of the food system in San Francisco?

With commitments to food security, programs like mandatory composting and the Urban Orchards Project, San Francisco has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to the expansion of urban agriculture. With Mayor Gavin Newsom's 2009 Executive Directive on Food (PDF) which articulated a vision of a food system with nutritious food for all San Franciscans, the city demonstrated its commitment to scale up the amount of food that's grown within city limits.

Even with strong support from the city, progress towards that goal has run into several obstacles. Working tirelessly to help eliminate many of them has been Eli Zigas, the executive director of Cultivate SF, which seeks to catalyze the development of self-sustaining urban agriculture ventures in San Francisco through research, education, and policy advocacy. He also coordinates the San Francisco Urban Agriculture Alliance, which specifically seeks to increase the the amount of food grown within the city and provide greater access to it. "Backyards and community gardens can produce a lot of food, and I am a strong proponent of those gardens," says Zigas. "But, to really bring a new level of scale to food production in the city, urban farmers need to be able to make a living selling what they grow. And the only way they can do that is if they can grow produce for sale legally under the zoning code."

Zigas and his many allies in this endeavor celebrated a small victory at the end of the year when San Francisco's Planning Department introduced a proposal that put the core elements in place for a revised zoning code that would encourage, rather than hamper the growth of gardens in San Francisco. I talked with Zigas about the work he's continuing to do to strengthen urban food systems not just here but across the nation. We're both hoping that San Francisco's new interim mayor, Ed Lee, who has taken over for the now Lieutenant Governor Newsom, shares his predecessor's support for a healthy and sustainable food supply.

GOOD: You're increasingly involved with integrating urban agriculture into the fabric of the city. Tell me about the new program you're hoping to launch at SPUR (San Francisco Planning and Urban Research).

ELI ZIGAS: SPUR is working to launch a new Food Systems and Urban Agriculture program that would help San Francisco lead the nation in developing effective, groundbreaking municipal policy that reshapes the role cities play in managing and strengthening their urban food systems and regional foodsheds.

Over this past year, I've seen a need for comprehensive policy action. Individuals in various city agencies, as well as project leaders in the private sector, are each advocating for their particular initiatives—raising the height limit on a specific building to permit a rooftop greenhouse, changing the zoning designation for a specific lot, allowing a new community garden on public land, or increasing the local food served in school cafeterias. There are fantastic people in the public, nonprofit, and private sectors doing amazing things in this city. But there is no organization providing the capacity and a forum to bring people together around shared policy goals, provide research, and raise the quality of San Francisco's food systems policy. Our new program aims to fill that gap.

GOOD: What are some of the top agenda items you'd be tackling?

Zigas: Removing regulatory barriers to urban agriculture whether they are in the zoning code, rooftop regulations, or elsewhere. There are people and organizations in the city who want to create "green thumb" jobs, build gardens to counteract food deserts, and create community with new shared neighborhood greenspace. Outmoded regulations that get in the way of those laudable initiatives should be revised or taken off the books.

[We are] increasing the use of public land for urban agriculture. Unlike other cities such as Detroit, Chicago, or Oakland, we don't have much vacant land here in San Francisco. The most likely places where we could create long-lasting community gardens would be on public land.

We also want to develop food system metrics and goals for San Francisco. It's a wonky sort of thing—trying to track, for instance, how much food grown within 100 miles of the city is consumed in the city. It's not sexy but it's fundamentally important for developing sound, effective, and replicable policy.

And we'll be studying the viability of commercial urban farming. It's still an open question whether you could make a living selling what you grow within San Francisco. It's one of the research questions I hope to tackle using case studies of urban farming businesses in the city and nationwide.

GOOD: There's a limit, of course, to what can actually be grown in the city proper. How can cities and neighboring regions work together to better feed the population?

Zigas: At a basic level, it's about increasing demand for locally grown produce. One way I think a city can do that is by encouraging consumer awareness through urban agriculture—giving more people the opportunity to taste, say, a truly ripe seasonal strawberry and giving people a better appreciation for the value of fresh produce by seeing it grown (or growing it themselves) down the block, in their neighbor's yard, or on their roof. A greater demand for fresh, local food would help support the region's farmers.

But the free market alone hasn't and won't provide a full solution. On a policy level, San Francisco could explore policies such as preferential purchasing for local food by the school system and other city agencies or incentives for wholesale distributors who sell a certain percentage of local food.

On a broader level, the city should join with other municipalities in the region to be vocal at the state and federal level about policies that would help regional farmers counteract development pressure that is eating away at our valuable local farmland and even broader legislation like the federal farm bill that shapes the economics of the entire food system.

GOOD: San Francisco is known for its embrace of local, organic, sustainable food, but this food isn't available to everyone. How can we improve things like access and affordability?

Zigas: That is a million dollar question. Some cities have been developing innovative policies to address issues of food access and food deserts. And many of the organizations developing those models are here in the Bay Area. Some of the models that interest me the most are the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, the Farmers' Market Consortium, and, generally speaking, the farm-to-cafeteria movement. As the SPUR program develops, I hope we can support the initiatives that are already underway and help think about new possibilities as well.

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