City Support of Urban Agriculture Stops Short of Potential to Decrease Rising Food Insecurity

By Luthien Niland, 3rd Year Law Student

As city departments struggle to determine how to feed the tens of thousands of food insecure San Francisco residents, an amendment to the Planning Code passed under the radar of most San Francisco residents that could provide some solutions to this problem. This amendment expanded the viability of urban farming within the city limits of San Francisco and gave new exposure to this increasingly popular practice. With some urban agriculture projects already in place but faltering due to a lack of funding, such as the Quesada Gardens Initiative,[i] city officials have an opportunity to build on the momentum of this amendment by providing monetary and infrastructure support to programs that can have a long-term impact on the city’s food insecurity problems.2008 was the first year in history in which the world’s urban population outnumbered its rural population and it is estimated that 60% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2030.[ii] With this rapid urbanization comes increased poverty, as cities are only able to support a limited number of employment opportunities, and increasing urban poverty is directly linked to growing food insecurity and malnutrition.

“Food security” is defined as “access by all people at all times to enough nutritious food for an active, healthy life. Food insecurity exists whenever the availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or the ability to acquire foods in socially acceptable ways is limited or uncertain.”[iii] The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that the prevalence of food insecurity in the United States rose from 11.1% (13 million households) in 2007 to 14.6% (17 million households) in 2008.[iv]

Food insecurity in San Francisco is above the United States’ average. In November 2011, the San Francisco Food Security Task Force released a report entitled “Hunger and Food Security on the Rise in San Francisco.” In this report, the Task Force quoted the 2009 U.S. Census report that estimates that 93,644 people are living in poverty in San Francisco and, as estimated by the San Francisco Food Bank, 1 in 5 adults in San Francisco struggle each day to feed themselves and their families. These numbers are not solely based on employment and the recession: the USDA reports that 70% of families with food insecure children contain at least one full-time worker, and in San Francisco 39% of the households that receive weekly groceries through the San Francisco Food Bank include at least one working adult. The Task Force’s report found that only 18% of those who receive groceries through the Food Bank are homeless.

The benefits of urban agriculture are tremendous, both for urban areas and for poor residents who are most at risk for food insecurity. The cost differential between healthy and unhealthy foods has increased significantly in recent years as foods that are high in added fat, refined carbohydrates, and added sugar cost much less than foods that are high in nutrients, like fruits and vegetables. Given this price difference, it is not surprising that residents with limited resources are more susceptible to diet-sensitive chronic diseases, such as obesity, hypertension, and diabetes. However, locally produced food is inherently fresher, more nutritious, and cheaper than food bought in grocery stores and fast food chains because it involves fewer intermediaries, less transportation and cold storage, and usually no or little processing or packaging. Even for rural agriculture, the price differential between producer and consumer can be as high as 1:10, but in urban agriculture this number is lowered to 1:2 or 1:3.[v]

In addition to health benefits for residents, particularly those who are food insecure, urban agriculture also provides “a sense of empowerment for urban dwellers who have access to and greater control over their own food system.”[vi] Additionally, communities are often revitalized as a result of urban agriculture, as neighborhoods take pride in their gardens and beautify their areas, residents feel empowered to grow and market their own food, and entrepreneurial capacities are encouraged. For these reasons, the United Nations High Level Task Force on the Global Food Crisis stated:

A paradigm shift in design and urban planning is needed that aims at: . . . reducing the distance for transporting food by encouraging local food production, where feasible, within city boundaries and especially in immediate surroundings.  Without sacrificing core principles to observe public health standards, this includes removing barriers and providing incentives for urban and periurban agriculture . . . .

The City of San Francisco made great strides in following this directive when in 2011 it amended the Planning Code to better support urban agriculture in San Francisco. The amendment was the result of a series of efforts to make San Francisco healthier and more sustainable. In July 2009, then-Mayor Newsom issued Executive Directive 09-03, “Healthy and Sustainable Food for San Francisco,” which directed all City departments to implement actions consistent with the goal of fostering local food production in San Francisco. In response, the San Francisco General Plan was rewritten to include strong support for urban agriculture in Policy 1.6: “Support urban agriculture through the creation and maintenance of community, rooftops, schoolyard, and kitchen gardens. . . . Urban gardens should not only be permitted in public open spaces [and private spaces], but promoted. . . . The benefit of fostering urban agriculture includes not only access to healthy fresh food; it brings about a closer connection between residents and their landscape.” Backed by this support, the Planning Code amendment easily passed through the Board of Supervisors.

The urban agriculture zoning ordinance went into effect in May 2011. The law changed two things in the planning code: “1) it clarified where gardens of different types are allowed in the city, and 2) it allow[ed] gardeners to sell the produce grown from their gardens both on-site and off-site.”[vii] Neighborhood gardens, which are gardens less than one acre in size, are now permitted in all zoning districts in the city, while gardens one acre or greater in size (“Large-Scale Urban Agriculture”) are permitted in commercial; industrial; and production, distribution, and repair districts. Most importantly, the sale of food and/or horticultural products is permitted between the hours of 6am and 8pm.

While the provisions of this ordinance appear relatively mundane, they are actually revolutionary for both urban agriculture and food security. The vast majority of zoning codes for large urban areas, if they even allow urban agriculture, do not allow growers to sell the products that they grow on their land.[viii] With this new ordinance, the City of San Francisco has vastly expanded the opportunities for residents to grow food right in the city. Additionally, this ordinance allows growers to sell healthy, local, fresh produce in increasing locations throughout the city, which will hopefully allow more people to take advantage of the benefits of urban agriculture. Merely passing this amendment is not enough, however; the City of San Francisco should realize the potential effect that this amendment could have on the city’s food insecurity problems.

The Quesada Gardens Initiative in Bayview is an established project that easily demonstrates the benefits of urban agriculture, if it only had additional city support. Since its founding in 2002, the Initiative has promoted all of the benefits characteristic of urban agriculture by engaging Bayview residents in transforming their community while also providing significant quantities of healthy foods in a neighborhood where such options are otherwise limited. However, the community program announced that due to cuts in government funding, these valuable gardens will likely close in the next year. It is time for the City of San Francisco to take the next step in its commitment to urban agriculture and combating rising food insecurity by making initiatives such as the Quesada Gardens a stable part of the city.

Now that the legal framework is in place to allow all people to get involved in growing and selling local produce, the City of San Francisco should continue to lead the way in promoting urban agriculture. The City, possibly through the San Francisco Task Force on Food Insecurity, should create partnerships with successful urban gardeners to determine how to best promote and expand this valuable activity. Additionally, the City should support infrastructure for increased urban food production, such as tool banks and shared processing facilities, and develop training programs in a variety of settings to motivate potential new growers and create a network of current growers. Urban agriculture provides one avenue for combating food insecurity in the long-term by providing a reliable source of healthy food throughout the city and empowering people to take control of their eating. San Francisco should make urban agriculature a centerpiece in its long-term planning.

[i] Leigh Cuen, “Bayview community garden program in peril as funding dries up”, SF Public Press, available at (March 19, 2012).

[ii] Marielle Dubbeling, Cities, Poverty, and Food: Multi-Stakeholder Policy and Planning in Urban Agriculture, Resource Centres on Urban Agriculture and Food Security (2010).

[iii] Danielle Boule & Paula Jones, Hunger and Food Insecurity on the Rise in San Francisco, San Francisco Food Security Task Force (November 2010).

[iv] Economic Research Service, “Household Food Security in the United States”, United States Department of Agriculture (June 2009).

[v] Dubbeling, supra note 1.

[vi] “Urban Agriculture and Community Food Security in the United States: Farming fromm the City Center to the Urban Fringe”, Community Food Security Coalltion (Oct. 2003), available at

[vii] “Overview of San Francisco’s Urban Agriculture Zoning Ordinance”, San Frnacisco Urban Agriculture Alliance (2011).

[viii] Goldstein, supra note 4.

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