In October 2012, the city of Seattle released its Food Action Plan
, a robust strategy aimed at increasing residents' access to healthy food, promoting public health and supporting the regional food economy. Developed by the Office of Sustainability and Environment, the plan outlines four focus areas and 15 detailed sub-strategies to improve Seattle's food system.
In Seattle, chefs often build relationships with local farmers and grocers from whom they purchase ingredients, many neighborhoods have their own farmers markets and every week it seems like a new artisan eatery is opening for business. Even in a food-centric town, the city's food policy advisor, Sharon Lerman, recognizes a unique set of opportunities and challenges.
"The University of Washington and American Farmland Trust recently released a report estimating that 25 percent of the food consumed in western Washington is grown in western Washington. We have an incredibly rich agricultural base in Puget Sound, and we should be able to grow this share even more," Lerman said. "At the same time, 47 percent of adults in Seattle and 22 percent of Seattle youth in grades 8, 10 and 12 are overweight or obese, and one in five children in King County don't always have enough to eat. So we know that not everyone is getting to eat enough of that healthy, local food."
Despite the abundance of nutrient-rich food options available to Seattleites with money to spend, processed foods — including canned foods with high sodium and fat content, pasta made from refined white flour and packaged cakes and cookies — are more cost-effective and easier to obtain for residents on a tight budget. Processed foods, which can lead to a range of health problems, are staple foods for many low-income and underserved residents.
"In Seattle, we want to make it easier for people to eat fresh, healthy foods, and we want to encourage them to do so. We know that hungry kids can't learn, we know that obesity is driving up health care costs, and we know that many low-income people can't afford the healthy food they want to feed their families. Getting more healthy food to more people is important to the health of our community, our environment, and our economy," Lerman said.
A Connecticut native, Lerman moved to Seattle after gradating from Brown University and honed her skills in community-based food systems for 10 years before earning a master's degree in health and urban planning at the University of California. Upon her return to Seattle, she managed programs in urban agriculture and food systems at Seattle Tilth before becoming Seattle's food policy advisor.
Lerman's team, along with the community, key stakeholders and an interdepartmental group of representatives from other city offices created the Food Action Plan over a four-year period (2008-2012) and are now working to put those policies into action. Curious to see how the strategies outlined in the Food Action Plan have advanced between October 2012 and present, some of its initial successes and key learnings, we caught up with Lerman for an update.
MNN: The Food Action Plan was released in October 2012, about eight months ago. During that time, what goals and initiatives have been priority and how have they advanced?
Lerman: Seattle's Farm to Table program brings high quality, fresh, and affordable fruits and vegetables to child and senior meal programs. Our Human Services Department works directly with hundreds of childcare providers serving thousands of children around the city, many of whom are low-income. We know that children's eating habits are shaped when they are very young – we want to take advantage of this unique opportunity, so we have to work in the childcare sector. We're able to reach children when they are in the earliest stages of shaping their food habits and introduce them to the deliciousness of snap peas and cherries, rather than cookies and sugary drinks.
This year, the Farm to Table program will help 40 childcare and senior meal sites develop relationships with local farmers or producer co-ops to directly purchase healthy food. The program also provides assistance with menu planning and training in nutrition and scratch cooking. In our past sites, we've found that this initial investment of time and resources can lead to a wholesale change in the food environment of a site. Meal programs that were previously reheating frozen meals have started cooking healthy meals from scratch, childcares have built gardens and have taken field trips to local farms, parents have come together to cook and enjoy healthy meals together and cooking staffs have increased their job satisfaction because they enjoy ‘real cooking' and serving healthy nutritious meals. Good food has become a part of the culture of these programs.
Another program we've advanced since the release of the plan is the Fresh Bucks program. We know that during these tough economic times, more people are struggling to put food on their tables, and often it's the healthy foods that get cut out. Fresh Bucks helps low-income families afford healthy foods and keeps food dollars in our regional economy. Fresh Bucks is a nutrition incentive program that doubles the purchasing power for low-income Seattle residents who use their federal food stamp benefits (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers markets. So when someone spends a dollar of SNAP benefits at the farmers market, they get an extra bonus dollar to spend on fruits and vegetables (up to $10).
When we did outreach to develop the Food Action Plan, we heard from many low-income residents that cost was a primary barrier to eating more healthy food. Fresh Bucks helps them to afford more fruits and vegetables. In the process, it brings federal food assistance dollars into our local economy as more low-income shoppers shop at farmers markets. In 2012, we piloted Fresh Bucks at seven farmers markets in partnership with the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance. We saw such great results that this year we anticipate Fresh Bucks being available at all Seattle farmers markets. Last year, Fresh Bucks helped nearly 1,500 low-income shoppers, including 900 who had never shopped at farmers markets before, purchase healthy fruits and vegetables, provided an economic stimulus to local businesses and increased purchasing of fresh, local produce that made a difference in the lives of low-income families.
What focus areas are at the forefront for the remainder of 2013 and why?
Right now, the Food Interdepartmental Team is developing a process for leasing city-owned land to commercial urban farmers. We already lease some land to nonprofit groups to farm and provide educational activities. This program would create a system for identifying suitable city-owned land that is currently vacant or underutilized, and farmers would be able to apply to the city to lease the land. We've heard from many urban farmers that access to land is one of their greatest challenges, and if we have land that is sitting empty, we'd prefer to see it producing food.
We'll also be working on assessing the needs of local small and mid-size producers in getting their produce into larger markets. Some of our farmers are looking to sell their produce to hospitals, universities, or other institutions, but don't always have the volume or the ordering systems to work with these types of institutions. We'll be working with colleagues in the food and farming sector to see what needs and opportunities there are to improve access to these markets, and to get more fresh, local food into schools, childcares, hotels, and other places that cook many meals a day.
What are some of the most innovative examples of community-involved food projects in Seattle?
One of the things that makes Seattle such a great place to live is the entrepreneurial spirit in our community. Mix that with our environmental ethic, and you get incredibly creative answers to challenges facing our city. With the UpGarden project, we recognized that there was a need for P-Patch (community garden) space in the dense Queen Anne neighborhood. Land values in that neighborhood are high, and the city doesn't own any land there that could be turned into a P-patch. What we do have is a big parking garage. So why not try something new? The result is the UpGarden P-Patch - the first publicly accessible community garden on a municipal parking garage.
One strategy outlined in the Plan notes that there should be strong interdepartmental and intergovernmental coordination on food issues. Why is it important to have a healthy food system incorporated across governmental bodies?
The task of strengthening our regional food and farming economy, ensuring that all people have enough to eat and access to affordable healthy food, and preventing unnecessary food-related waste is a long-term commitment that will require collaboration across sectors. The Food Action Plan lays out the next steps that the City of Seattle will take in our departments, policies and programs to advance this work. But we know we can't fix our food system alone. To be successful, we need to keep farmland in production, we need farmers who are economically successful, we need to support and sustain federal food assistance programs that provide a safety net for many who are food insecure. Different levels of government have different levers. By working together, as well as with businesses, nonprofit organizations, and communities, we are able to pull more of those levers, and to do so in a coordinated way.
Our city government runs the solid waste utility, which means we have a vested interest in managing food waste — and preventing it so we have less to manage. Our city government provides funding for human services, which includes providing food for those unable to afford it. Our city government works to sustain a strong local economy – and we know that interest in businesses related to food, especially in healthy, local food is growing. Seattle promotes environmental sustainability – including protecting our water and land so it is available for future generations. Seattle works to improve public health, including developing policies and programs that help all people to be healthy and thrive. And Seattle also believes that strong communities are vital to our identity as a city – and that growing and eating food together are a time-tested way to build connections and make our communities strong. Food touches so many of our areas of work in city government that the real question is how can we do more to bring these areas of work together and to work with partners in the community to build the healthy food system we want to see.
One of the Food Action Plan's goals is to bring local, sustainable, affordable food to all. What are the best ways for residents to get involved in that ongoing process?
There are so many ways to get involved. Volunteer to help out at a school or community garden, support local farmers by shopping at farmers markets or buying a CSA, tell your local supermarket that you'd like to see them stock more local, sustainable food, start a cooking class at your local school or community center, garden in your front yard and share your harvest with your neighbors or the food bank, support some of the many dedicated community organizations that are teaching cooking skills, preserving farmland, training farmers, changing school meals, and advocating for policies and programs that support local, sustainable food for all, talk to your elected officials at all levels of government and tell them what type of food system you'd like to create for your children and grandchildren.