Many of us living in contemporary cities are increasingly disconnected from food. Compared to previous generations we are less aware of where and how it is produced. We are increasingly less connected to nature. As our cities grow, we live further away from farm lands and our private open spaces for growing our own food at home have shrunk. Modern food systems provide additional seasonal variety, however means we are commonly eating food from thousands of miles away. The accessibility (and affordability) of prepared and take-away meals from supermarkets and restaurants has lead many of us to cook less (if at all). Compounded with this is, in wealthy cities, is our extreme lack of value of food - not only do we waste it, we over-consume it leading to obesity epidemics and we undermine the value of responsibly putting our food scraps to better use. Many people in cities experience food insecurity too. This may be a result of lack of money to purchase good quality food or due to lack of options to purchase healthy food in the community - food deserts occur where there is a lack of healthy eating options in local communities leading to a dependence on fast food.
Seattle has recognized the environmental, social, cultural, and economic imperatives of improving our connection with, and value of food. Through several unique strategies, the city promotes access to healthy local food and encourages citizens to minimize their food-associated wastage. In the process, these strategies support community health, equity, food education and environmental sustainability.
Pike Place Market is Seattle's pantry. Operating since 1907, it is one of America's most highly regarded markets, a major tourist attraction and provider of fresh food and other produce. In addition to the famous downtown market, Seattle has several farmers markets which serve the city's many neighborhoods. The local markets provide residents with access to fresh produce direct from farmers on different days and times of the week. Farmers markets in Ballard, Capitol Hill and West Seattle operates every Sunday; the U-District every Saturday. In the summer months, the markets in Columbia City and Wallingford are open on Wednesdays; Lake City and Queen Anne on Thursdays and Phinney Ridge on Fridays. The markets enhance the social experience of food shopping. Often there are buskers, crafts people selling their wares, advocacy groups or politicians campaigning, and even food trucks. The stalls enable people, especially children, to get up close to fresh fruit, vegetables, cheese, meat, and baked goods.
Many of Seattle's neighborhoods have community gardens affectionately known as "P-Patches" (the "P" comes from the Picardo family who owned the land which formed the first P-Patch). P-Patches are open to all Seattle residents and are run by the City of Seattle.
"P-Patches are an open space resource for all members of the community, not just gardeners, and are places to share love of gardening, cultivate friendships, strengthen neighborhoods, increase self-reliance, wildlife habitat, foster environmental awareness, relieve hunger, improve nutrition, and enjoy recreational and therapeutic opportunities." (City of Seattle).
The garden is managed by staff, volunteers and non-profit groups. Some P-Patches offer only collective gardens, while some also offer a small garden plot for individuals to rent. The plot rental fee encompasses a $26 application fee plus $12 for every 100 square feet plot, making it a very affordable option for apartment dwellers to grow tend their own garden. The P-Patch Trust offers rental assistance to community members who cannot afford these fees. The P-Patch has a few rules - the garden must be maintained organically with no synthetic chemicals and must be cared for all year with gardeners contributing 8 hours for common good of the garden each year. Gardeners can grow any vegetables, small fruits, flowers or herbs. Members are encouraged to share their produce with family, friends, neighbors and those in need. Most P-Patches provide fresh produce to those in need through a giving garden program and many have plots designated for food bank donation. Members can also sell their produce through the P-Patch Market Garden Program.
Curbside compost collection
While most cities are still trying to establish paper and plastic recycling collection, Seattle has been collecting compost from the curbside since 2005, one of the first cities in the USA to introduce such a program. Composing food waste significantly reduces the emission of methane, a contributor to climate change. Food and yard waste is collected from homes every week. Residents are charged a small rental fee per month for their composting bin (the City believes this acts as an incentive for people to use something which they are paying for). Despite the success of the initiative, approximately 30% of Seattle's garbage is comprised of compostable products. To address this issue, in 2015 the City of Seattle will introduce new composting policy which fines residences and businesses for failing to compost food waste and compostable paper correctly. If compostable products comprise more than 10% of the trash, a $1 fine will appear on the next garbage bill for individual housing and a following two warnings, a $50 fine for apartment buildings.
Recyclable and Compostable Packaging
The City of Seattle introduced food packaging policies in 2010 which require food businesses to use alternative packaging to throw-away containers or replace all containers used for one-time use with recycable or compostable products. In addition, businesses with disposal stations for customers discarding of packaging must clearly label bins for recycling and composting and send it to the relevant facility for processing. In 2012, the City introduced laws to ban plastic bags out of concern that many of the 292 million plastic bags used in Seattle each year, were ending up in Puget Sound. The plastic bags in the Sound could not biodegrade and were causing health issues for marine life. The City prohibits retailers from using plastic bags. Instead customers can purchase a paper bag made from at least 40% recycled content for a minimum of 5 cents. The policy helps to encourage customers to use reusable bags. This policy has particularly had an impact on supermarkets, who in most cities are a huge generator of plastic bags.
Affordable local food
The Fresh Bucks program encourages low-income people who are eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables from local markets in Seattle. The initiative is offered by the Seattle Office of Sustainability and Environment, the Washington State Market Association and Seattle farmers markets. Fresh Bucks seeks to encourage healthy eating choices whilst minimizing the cost barrier of fresh fruit and vegetables. The initiative gives a bonus to people using their SNAP benefits for shopping at farmers markets. Aside from the health and economic benefits of encouraging people to consume more fresh food, Fresh Bucks generated additional market shoppers which in turn supports local farmers in the region. Another important element is the improved social connection with food:
"Shoppers participating in the Fresh Bucks pilot valued being able to take their children to the farmers market, being able to purchase fruits and vegetables that their children request, and meeting the farmer who grew their food." (City of Seattle).
Planting produce in public space
The City of Seattle has policy and guidelines for residents investigating the appropriateness of growing food in planting strips (nature strips). Many cities face challenges with establishing similar policies. Cities may want to encourage local food production as a good use of an underutilized (often empty) resource. However they are faced with many liability concerns: the area is public space so it is impossible to control how pets or people use the space or the soil may be contaminated. The City of Seattle requires a free permit for the construction of raised garden beds to ensure public safety.
More food for thought...
Carolyn Steel and Jamie Oliver talk about many great reasons as to why it is essential that people are well connected with healthy food in cities. By their accounts, it seems that other cities could learn a lot from exploring Seattle's priorities for food policies and projects.