Planning January 2012

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Find Your Foodshed

California leads the way in a new type of planning.

By Bobbie Peyton

When it comes to farming and food, California is certainly a bellwether state. That is being proved again as three California cities take the lead in creating a set of local food policies that are helping to define and shape a regional food infrastructure. California isn't the only place in the nation to initiate a formal foodshed planning effort, but it has so far been the most successful in reaching across disciplines and engaging broader support to leverage the power of cities to lead the way.

San Diego is the most recent of the three to take the plunge, preceded by San Francisco and Los Angeles. Local economies — and local people seeking healthier options — could both benefit.

Growing movement

Last June, the San Diego Urban-Rural Roundtable — a collaborative effort with more than 100 participants — presented Mayor Jerry Sanders and County Supervisor Ron Roberts with a set of policy recommendations aimed at building a healthy and economically thriving food system for all local residents. Since then, local food and health advocates have continued the collaborative work with the aim of creating a healthful and sustainable food system in San Diego County by the year 2030.

Those involved in the roundtable include farmers, food producers, consumers, business owners, environmental activists, and health advocates. The group's recommendations were based on a foodshed assessment it had conducted, but they needed a collaborative process to build broad support for a sustainable food initiative.

A similar effort took place in San Francisco in 2009 and in Los Angeles in 2010. The roundtable model had come out of the work of Roots of Change, an organization that brings a diverse range of Californians to the table to build a common interest in food and farming. The roundtable process provided a venue for farmers to participate in a larger food conversation with their urban neighbors to help increase awareness of the complexity of food system issues and advocate for policies to improve their region's foodshed.

Roots of Change funded the San Francisco urban-rural roundtable with private philanthropic funding. Then the organization solicited funding for LA and San Diego through the U.S. Department of Agriculture Risk Management Agency, with the goal of addressing both the risk and opportunities created for underserved farmers entering new urban and peri-urban markets in these metropolitan regions.

San Francisco's roundtable culminated in an executive order from then mayor Gavin Newsom formalizing the recommendations of 50 stakeholders into a food policy that impacts nine city departments and an area within a 100-mile radius of San Francisco — informally defined as the region's foodshed. The roundtable participants had already been working together, but they perceived a need for a formal process to catalyze change.

In Los Angeles, the roundtable developed a set of regionally based food policy recommendations for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who then recruited members of the group into the core of an ongoing Los Angeles Food Policy Council. This was the first time that some members of the council had coordinated their efforts.

The urban-rural roundtable model gave all three regions the chance to reach across disciplines and engage broader support for policy initiatives that touch on food and agricultural issues. The timing is right. Rural economies are in desperate need of support from urban markets, and planners are beginning to break through the barriers between urban and rural communities, caused in part by expanding urban development that threatens farmland and the natural resources that support foodsheds.

How do you define a foodshed?

Part of the challenge with foodshed planning involves assessing the natural and social boundaries of the region's local food system and identifying the types of agriculture available there. Defining a foodshed can be problematic because, like watersheds, foodsheds are regionally distinctive.

Roots of Change defines a foodshed as "the area of land and waters within a region from which food is produced in order to deliver nutrition to a population base." It includes the land where crops are grown and animals are raised; the natural water sources that support food production; the facilities that process and distribute the food and the markets that buy it; and the communities that consume the food.

A foodshed may cross borders; its size depends on the size of market within the region that needs the food and the capacity of the producers surrounding it to supply that market.

To define San Francisco's foodshed, the American Farmland Trust circumscribed a 100-mile radius around the city to test whether the city could feed itself with food produced in this area. The San Diego foodshed assessment was compiled by the local Food System Working Group and Technical Advisory Committee, a collaboration of health and hunger advocates, city and county agencies, school districts, and the Farm Bureau.

Both reports provide comprehensive food and agricultural demographics and trends in the region, taking stock of farmland, urban gardens, fishing, food production, and water resources. Both also provide strategic recommendations for creating a sustainable food system within their foodsheds.

Los Angeles has not yet done a foodshed assessment, but given the needs of each region, all roundtables have been successful in providing the mayors of each municipality the broad-based political support needed to enact these groundbreaking food policies.

Challenges and benefits

The data gathered from the San Diego assessment found two staggering nationwide trends. About four million acres of agricultural land was either developed or converted to other uses between 2002 and 2007. The preservation of farmland from encroaching urban and housing development is crucial to preventing the disappearance of irrigated cropland that is ideal for growing.

The second trend shows that agricultural producers increased their direct sales to consumers by 26 percent between 1997 and 2007. Direct sales include community supported agriculture, farmers markets, and restaurant sales, among others. Despite the trend toward quickly disappearing farmland, there are opportunities for urban and rural communities to partner and promote a local food economy through better access to these direct markets.

Promotion of healthy communities is another benefit of foodshed planning, but there are still many barriers. The way the food supply chain is currently oriented makes it difficult for producers to market directly to consumers, especially consumers living in food deserts or with limited access to fresh produce.

Small producers are at a disadvantage because our markets are set up for growers to sell at larger economies of scale. Land-use policies currently in place in metropolitan areas may also create barriers for rural and urban growers to direct market to consumers.

On the positive side of the ledger, increased demand for locally grown food can provide small farmers with better access to urban markets, and the trend toward more farmers markets, CSAs, and urban agriculture is increasing small business opportunities — both in California and nationwide.

The planner's role

Planners can play a valuable role in this innovative place-based planning process. They can coordinate and integrate comprehensive land-use planning efforts and policies that will help break down the silos between other disciplines.

By getting involved with the food movement, planners can expand the framework for developing a regional plan around food and agriculture, and foster a more holistic approach by identifying the impacts communities have on their local food system. Foodshed planning can be a bridge between urban residents and those living in peri-urban and rural communities.

Planners have a number of other practical tools at their disposal to contribute to the urban-rural discussion. They can strengthen comprehensive plans by including food and agriculture systems, and they can create zoning codes that can help manage urban growth and afford better access to direct markets, such as farmers markets and farmstands.

Planners also have access to the geographic data that is crucial to understanding a region's foodshed, and they can analyze the data, including GIS maps that can provide insight into the variety of land-uses in a region, its population densities, and its demographics. Planning departments also can serve as resource hubs for data gathered for a foodshed assessment.

California now has more roundtables in the works. Roots of Change may possibly work with the cities of Fresno and San Jose in 2012. In Fresno, the need is great. It is the largest agriculture county in the nation, yet suffers from the highest level of food insecurity of any other county, with more than 37 percent of the population being food insecure (UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, 2007). San Jose is further along. It has a sophisticated community of health advocates that are ready to formalize a set of policy recommendations aimed at building a healthy, environmental and economically thriving food system for all its residents.

As in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego, the urban-rural roundtable process could help these communities to develop a regional framework that supports and integrates vertical and horizontal planning, offering an opportunity for cross-collaboration from food advocates within municipalities and in neighboring municipalities.

And after California? Foodshed planning could very well spread elsewhere. After all, food touches everyone, and it can benefit everyone as well.

Bobbie Peyton currently works with Roots of Change, a nonprofit working to develop a sustainable food system in California by the year 2030. She completed an MA from Tufts University in Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning.


Assessing the San Diego County Food System: Indicators for a More Secure Food System, Susan Ellsworth and Gail Feenstra, edited by Michelle Kuhns, December 2010.

Green Cities, Growing Cities, Just Cities? Urban Planning and the Contradictions of Sustainable Development, Scott Campbell, 1996.

Market Forces: Creating Jobs Through Public Investment in Local and Regional Food Systems, Union of Concerned Scientists, August 2011.

The Final Recommendations of the San Francisco Urban-Rural Roundtable: Presented to the Honorable Gavin Newsom Mayor of San Francisco, Roots of Change, May 2009.

Think Globally, Eat Locally: San Francisco Foodshed Assessment, American Farmland Trust, August 2008.