Food Security

Despite being the nation’s largest food producer, California currently imports more than half of its food.  According to the International Society for Ecology and Culture, 43% of California’s raw farm tonnage is exported, and 59% of our state’s demand for raw farm products is brought in from elsewhere. Ironically, California imports many of the same agricultural products that it also produces for export, resulting in duplicative trade and wasteful use of resources.1

Our food system is particularly energy-intensive and vulnerable to fluctuations in energy prices. The Center for Sustainable Systems calculates that the U.S. food system requires 7.3 units of fossil fuel energy to produce just one unit of food energy. Of this total, approximately 12% is used in production; 8% in chemical fertilizers and pesticides; 15% in transportation; 35% in processing, packaging, retail, and commercial foodservice; and 30% in home storage and meal preparation.2

Income is the biggest factor in enhancing food security, and economic inequalities based on race, class, and gender all too often determine who suffers from a poor diet or goes hungry.  A UCLA study estimated that 33.9% of the residents of the Bay Area cannot afford enough healthy food, an alarming proportion that rises to 38.8% for the Bay Area's African American, Latino, and Native American populations.3 Increasing costs of living due to rising energy costs could make food insecurity a grim reality for even more Bay Area residents. Fundamentally, more equitable access to education, health care, housing, security, political representation, and economic opportunity will help enable all members of our communities to put food on the table. Cities including San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley have passed resolutions to uphold these basic social and economic human rights – including the right to food – in their jurisdictions.  The successful food security programs of the Brazilian metropolis Belo Horizonte provide an exciting and cost-effective model of how municipalities can uphold the right to food while localizing food production (see text box, “Belo Horizonte’s Department of Food”).

In Focus: Belo Horizonte’s Department of Food

The municipal government of Belo Horizonte, Brazil’s fourth-largest metropolitan area with over 3 million inhabitants, is ensuring the human right to food while promoting localization.

“I knew we had so much hunger in the world,” states city administrator Adriana Aranha, one of the program’s masterminds. “But what is so upsetting, what I didn’t know when I started this, is it’s so easy. It’s so easy to end it.”i

Fueled by the belief that food security is a public good on par with education and health, Belo Horizonte established a department to ensure access to food. Using roughly 1% of the municipal budget, this department collaborates with community groups, NGOs, and private retailers to fund and coordinate an astonishing array of cost-effective programs that reach every sector of the population.

Many ideas being implemented in Belo Horizonte are also advancing in the Bay Area, including local farm-to-institution marketing programs, urban gardens, farmers markets, and local low-cost food programs in underserved neighborhoods (like the People’s Grocery Mobile Market in Oakland).

Belo Horizonte has also pioneered innovative programs such as a city-run cafeteria serving thousands of healthy meals to the public each day (usually for under $1.00), and an urban orchard program that plants fruit trees in low-income neighborhoods for all to harvest.

A vital lesson from Belo Horizonte is that city governments can effectively use their power to fund, coordinate, and implement food security programs. ii In the Bay Area, many nonprofits and community groups still struggle for acceptance of some of these ideas, leaving many untapped opportunities for the public sector to demonstrate support for their oft-stated goal of food security for all.


i    Quoted in Frances Moore and Anna Lappe. Hope’s Edge (New York: Putnam Press, 2000).

ii   Cecilia Rocha, An Integrated Program for Urban Food Security: The Case of Belo Horizonte, Brazil (Toronto, Ontario: Department of Economics, Ryerson Polytechnic University, 2000).

Localizing ecological food production, developing better access for local producers to Bay Area markets, promoting fresh food with minimal processing and packaging, and increasing commitments from local governments to improve food security will help keep food plentiful and affordable while stimulating the region’s economy and improving public health.

Localization of the food sector is a viable option for the Bay Area. Although extensive sprawl has taken its toll on arable farmland, the nine-county Bay Area still boasts more than 580,000 acres of dedicated cropland, pasture, and grazing land,4 and the Central Valley and Central Coast hold vast potential for producing a wide variety of foods and agricultural by-products needed in our region.  A 2005 study published in Food Policy documented that buying food from within a 12-mile radius has a more positive environmental impact than buying organic. Within urban areas, citizen groups are harnessing the potential of backyards, school yards, community gardens, empty lots, and even rooftops to grow food, providing rich opportunities for nutrition and science education as well recreation, income, community building, and fresh produce. For example, Oakland’s City Slicker Farms grows 2.5 tons of food annually on just seven urban plots totaling 1.25 acres.5 However, the dramatic showdown over the Los Angeles South-Central Farm highlights the difficulty of establishing long-term land tenure agreements for urban farms, and the importance of policies that value community access rights to arable land.

While finding and utilizing arable farmland is a large challenge to food localization, another challenge exists with regard to market access. Finding markets for crops is a challenge for small and medium-scale local producers. Large supermarket chains, which capture the majority of consumer food dollars, tend to purchase from a limited number of regional, national and international suppliers, reflecting an alarming corporate concentration in the food industry.  Local farmers struggle for shelf space and contracts for produce.  Institutional buyers such as schools, hospitals, the foodservice industry, and even local governments reflect this same purchasing trend, leaving local farmers with few options.7 Improving distribution opportunities for local food producers will be vital to localizing our food system.

The City of Oakland has taken a step in the right direction by commissioning a citywide food systems assessment.8 This assessment supports several other major studies of our regional food system in making the following major recommendations applicable to the entire Bay Area:

  • Increase local farmers’ access to markets.  Mandate public purchasing of local food from consortiums of small-scale producers to serve in schools, hospitals, and other institutions.
  • Support programs that grow and sell food in low-income neighborhoods, including the development of fresh food retailers and liquor store conversions in underserved areas.
  • Promote “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” campaigns, including public support for farmers’ markets and better opportunities for local producers to supply retail establishments.
  • Conduct a review of policy and zoning obstacles to local food production in the Bay Area, and support agriculture zoning designations, zoning maps, and general plans to increase land availability and tenure for both urban and rural farmers.
  • Develop Food Policy Councils and Departments of Food within local and regional governments to implement these recommendations. 

As the economic and environmental costs of household energy use continue to rise, options like co-housing or communal kitchens allowing multiple families to share refrigeration and food preparation will build community, decrease energy use, and ease pressure on household budgets.

Ironically, farmworkers are among the Californians most likely to suffer from hunger, due to low household income.9 Upholding fundamental human rights while relocalizing food production requires sourcing from growers, whether urban or rural, who pay their workers a living wage.  This concept is still a difficult one for farmers who face extremely narrow margins, but is supported by major progressive agricultural organizations such as the California Coalition for Food and Farming, the Organic Consumers Association, farmworker organizations, and a growing movement calling for domestic fair trade in agriculture.  Paying a living wage across sectors can help ensure that the price of food does not represent a trade-off between the hunger of farmworkers and low-income consumers.


1 Katy Mamen, Steven Gorelick, Helena Norberg-Hodge, and Diana Deumling, Ripe for Change: Rethinking California’s Food Economy (Berkeley: ISEC, 2004), 29-34.

2 Martin C. Heller and Gregory A. Keoleian, Life Cycle-Based Sustainability Indicators for Assessment of the US Food System (Ann Arbor: The Center for Sustainable Systems, 2002).

3 UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, “20032005 2001-R and 2003 California Health Interview Survey,” (accessed July 17, 2006).

4 USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, “2002 Census of Agriculture,” USDA, (accessed July 17, 2006).

5 J.N. Pretty, A.S. Ball, T. Lang and J.I.L. Morison, “Farm Costs and Food Miles: An Assessment of the Full Cost of the UK Weekly Food Basket” in Food Policy, Volume 30, Issue 1, February 2005, 1-19.

6 Serena Unger and Heather Wooten, A Food Systems Assessment for Oakland, CA: Toward a Sustainable Food Plan (Oakland Mayor’s Office of Sustainability and Univ. of California, Berkeley, Department of City and Regional Planning, 2006).

7 Kirsten Schwind, Going Local on a Global Scale: Rethinking Food Trade in the Era of Climate Change (Berkeley: Food First, Spring/Summer 2005).

8 Unger and Wooten.

9 California Institute for Rural Studies. Fresno County Farmworker Food Security Assessment. (accessed 7/30/06).

dahveed – 16 February, 2006 – 13:50