Seattle’s Mayoral Candidates Talk Regional Food System

Ed Murray, Mayoral Candidate
Ed Murray, Seattle Mayoral Candidate
Mike McGinn, Seattle Mayor
Mike McGinn, Seattle Mayor

Candidates for Seattle’s mayoral election, Ed Murray and Mike McGinn, responded to questions by the Puget Sound food policy, planning, and advocacy community.

Seattle is just part of the Regional Food Policy Council, so the city and our mayor do not drive policy decisions, but strive to influence them.

At GoodFood World, we’ve reviewed the candidates’ answers and we have a few comments of our own.

Seattle proper packs 634,500 people into 142.5 square miles sandwiched between Puget Sound and Lake Washington. Any “urban agriculture” within the city must take place on very expensive land – or “spare space” in such public locations as parks, right of ways, and schools. Given that it takes an average of one acre to feed one person per year (based on potential production averaged across the US), only 91,200 of us would be able to eat if we leveled every building and roadway in the city limits. So what’s everybody else going to eat?

A city is fed by the surrounding “foodshed” and draws from larger and larger concentric circles, depending on the climate and growing conditions for a full range of foodstuffs. Yes, we can grow kale and spinach in our backyards, and tomatoes and peppers if you’ve got a good southern exposure without shade, but unless you have a greenhouse and a green thumb, you’re not likely to produce any citrus, bananas, or avocados.

Both candidates agreed that we must preserve and protect rural land for agriculture use. It is clear that the city can’t feed itself; in fact western Washington can’t feed itself. We must preserve and protect the surrounding land from encroaching development, whether that is through land trusts, exchange of development rights, or other methods.

Considering the size of the task of feeding 2/3 of a million people, even the most adventurous and creative city projects are token at best. Here is a quick list of projects that will allow residents to grow, process, sell, and distribute more food in Seattle, as outlined by Mayor McGinn in his commentary:

  1. The city has streamlined and reduced fees for farmers markets – that is, for the markets themselves, not for the farmers selling there.
  2. Institution of a Fresh Bucks program that provides matching funds for purchase of fruits and vegetables at farmers markets by low-income residents.
  3. Zoning has been changed throughout the city and now most zones allow urban ag and residents are now able to sell food produced on site at a farm stand.
  4. The number and species of urban livestock that residents may keep on a residential lot have been expanded.
  5. Some fruit trees can now be grown on city rights of way.
  6. A Farm to Table program now links local farmers with childcare and senior meal sites, bringing in local produce from farms outside the city.
  7. A pilot program is in place to lease vacant city land to urban farmers.
  8. The P-Patch Market Gardening and Large Tract Program will allow low-income residents to grow and sell food through farm stands, CSA, and other channels.
  9. The City of Seattle will have 90 P-Patches in place by the end of 2013.

All well intentioned, but taken in total these projects will feed a very small number of people.

So what is our mayoral candidate going to do about it?

McGinn’s commentary centers on more listening, more reports, more facilitation, more councils, and more talk, but not necessarily more action.

Murray tipped his hat toward the bureaucracy of the local and regional food community, but he addressed at least one area that could result in more local food making its way to city tables.

A key issue for both “urban” farmers and farmers like those in the Snoqualmie Valley and other surrounding areas is how to get food from the field to the table when they don’t have access to packing, processing, and distribution facilities.

In his commentary, Murray outlined steps to support local food production as a business, including the creation of an urban food hub that he describes as a district with concentrated food processing and treatment facilities, and storage and warehouse space with access to sufficient commercial transportation infrastructure.

From his description, I envision a light manufacturing area and a “terminal market” that makes it possible for small food processors producing everything from jam to cookies to packaged vegetables, and local farmer coops like the new Snoqualmie Valley Farmers Cooperative founded by Erick Haakenson, Jubilee Biodynamic Farm, and Matt Tregoning, Sol to Seed Farm, to reach new retail and food service customers in Seattle.

What SHOULD our mayor do about it?

Here are a few additional steps our next mayor can take:

  1. Expand the opportunities for private ownership and investment in food production, processing, and distribution businesses, especially for minorities.
  2. Broaden the base of training and education and provide better incentives for local farm and food production workers.
  3. Support better immigration policies that will result in better farm and food worker conditions.
  4. Address the major issue of water quality going into the Sound, including storm water management and non-point pollution control.Puget Sound is the second most depressed fishery in the US and the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife acknowledges that extinction of some species in Puget Sound is possible. Resurrecting the fisheries – finfish and shellfish – that used to exist in Puget Sound is a long-range, daunting task, considering the water quality conditions now existing in the south Sound.

Can any city feed itself? Hardly. Can the mayor of the City of Seattle truly change the food system? It’s not likely. But with real efforts focused on the business of local food production, we can certainly improve the quality and quantity of food for city residents, provide additional employment for immigrants and low-income residents, and support our local farmers.

Candidates’ responses to four food system questions

Ed Murray’s Responses : 4 Food System Questions for Seattle Mayoral Candidates – Murray

Mike McGinn’s Responses: 4 Food System Questions for Seattle Mayoral Candidates – McGinn

Additional reading

Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives, a book by Carolyn Steel

Can Western Washington Feed Itself?

New Snoqualmie Valley Farmers Co-op Delivers Organic Produce to Seniors

One Acre Feeds a Person

On the Puget Sound Fishery