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Oakland Food Policy Council plants seeds for a fall harvest

on January 22, 2010

The Oakland Food Policy Council held its first meeting of the year Thursday night in downtown Oakland. Council members ate quiche (no pizza and chips for this crowd) and discussed their plans for 2010, when members hope to develop and present a set of food policy recommendations to City Hall in time for the harvest season.

The OFPC is the result of a 2006 City Council resolution to assess Oakland’s local farming potential; its goal is to eventually provide thirty percent of the city’s food needs from locally grown sources. The resolution led to several academic studies in the years that followed, which found great potential for increased food production in Oakland and advised the creation of the OFPC in order to foster that growth and make policy recommendations to city government.

When Oakland North spoke with OFPC coordinator Alethea Harper in November, she described in detail the problems areas like West Oakland have with food access and malnourishment, and outlined how the council hopes to boost the local food economy and increase access to healthy foods in the community. “We have about 400,000 people in the city. 100,000 of them live in the hills, which has 9 or so full service supermarkets,” she said. “The other 300,000 people live in the flatlands with, at last count, I think two?  That means that people have inadequate choices available to them when they go out [to shop]. If you go out to try to select a healthy diet but there’s nothing to choose from, then you don’t really get to make that choice.”

Because residents in these areas cannot shop for healthy foods, she said, “You’re going to have some negative health outcomes, The rates of diabetes are higher in Oakland than in the rest of Alameda County—and that goes for diabetes, obesity, heart disease… all those rates spike when you come into Oakland.”

The Oakland Food Policy Council’s goals, she said, start with creating a “healthy local economy.”

“That means businesses across the food sector with local ownership and employment of local people in living wage jobs, with fair working conditions—and again this is from the pile of the plate, the entire spectrum of the food supply chain,” Harper said. “The next goal is a healthy environment—that covers everything from composting our food scraps to using sustainable agricultural practices to not over-packaging food.”

The last step, she said, would be equipping Oakland residents to help make healthy choices. “They need to be able to make informed choices and know what is going to be the outcome for my personal health and the health of my neighborhood, my city, and my environment when I make a particular choice about what I’m going to buy for myself and my family to eat,” Harper said.

Harper said that one policy recommendation that the council is exploring is the idea of a “fresh food financing fund,” which would provide loans, grants, and tax incentives for local business owners who want to sell healthy food. “Lets say you own a small corner store in West Oakland,” Harper said, “and you’d really like to be able to have a cold case and offer fresh produce to your customers. You could use this financing strategy to get the capital you need to make that kind of improvement.”

At the Thursday meeting, there wasn’t much discussion about the specific food policy reform recommendations the council intends to present to the city in September. Instead, the council’s various work groups discussed the potential for collaboration with other Oakland community groups, and began planning several events to come throughout the year, culminating with a “Healthy Food Day” that would coincide with the autumn announcement of the council’s recommendations.The atmosphere around the table was laid back, with calm voices coupled with occasional bouts of laughter, and council members only rising from their seats in order to claim another Asian pear.

While the council won’t make its recommendations until fall, OFPC member Heather Wooten said that her work group within the council is already working to make changes to Oakland’s zoning code, which currently restricts opportunities for sustainable urban agriculture in many parts of the city. She said that the issue could be addressed as early as this month’s City Council meeting, and would make it easier for local farmers to procure plots of land for farming in the city.

Aaron Lehmer, another OFPC member, expressed excitement about the Oakland Climate Action Coalition, which is led by the Ella Baker Center and is pushing the City Council to enact meaningful policies to address climate change in the community. Lehmer, who is part of both the OFPC and the Climate Action Coalition, said that the city is poised to act on a climate plan as early as March and that there may be an opportunity for the OFPC to incorporate some of its recommendations into the climate plan. Since one of the Climate Action Coalition’s six “Action Areas” for reform is to “increase the consumption of local healthy food, reduce the consumption of carbon-intensive foods and expand urban forestry initiatives,” it could be an opportunity for the two groups to join forces in pursuing better zoning regulations for urban farmers and creating incentives for Oakland businesses to sell locally-grown produce.

Later this month, Oakland North will publish a special news package on Oakland’s food production potential, with much more information about the Oakland Food Policy Council and other local food groups.

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