Taylor and Nirenberg Find Common Ground: San Antonio Needs to Eat Better

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Doug Havemann, whose cattle are distributed throughout SA, spreads hay on his ranch at Mesquite Field Farm in Nixon, Texas.

Mitch Hagney for the Rivard Report

Doug Havemann, whose cattle are distributed throughout SA, spreads hay on his ranch at Mesquite Field Farm in Nixon, Texas.

Making food healthy, sustainable, and accessible for everyone in San Antonio is the goal of the Food Policy Council of San Antonio. Though it involves immensely complicated and seemingly intractable problems, we are pushing some solutions that would be a good start.

Our current food system isn’t pretty. Nearly a quarter of children in San Antonio live in food-insecure homes. The food that is available in many parts of the city is often unhealthy, contributing to our struggles with diabetes and obesity. Dropping the diabetes rate by just 1% could save an estimated $16.1 million per year in health care expensesThe vast majority of what is eaten here comes from outside the state, while local and regional farmers struggle to find a market and stay in business.

We actively research and improve water and housing through San Antonio Water System and San Antonio Housing Authority, but there has been no in-depth study of the city’s food system to date, nor is anyone within our municipal government employed to work directly on these connected problems.

We sent out a questionnaire to all runoff candidates, asking what they thought of five policies that could make a difference. The intention was to publicize differences between candidate to help voters decide who they should choose to support.

What we discovered is that while the mayoral race is contentious and divisive, on this issue at least, Mayor Ivy Taylor and her challenger Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) agree. Both candidates explicitly and enthusiastically endorsed our policy proposals, some of which will require city funding.

Those policies are:

  • Hiring a Food Policy Coordinator onto city staff, to connect departmental programs, engage community members, coordinate research, and suggest policy on the San Antonio food system and its resilience, production, and equitable distribution.
  • Executing a State of the Food System study to use a data-driven approach to assess current challenges and opportunities;
  • Creating a model local municipal procurement program to require a certain amount of food purchased is regionally produced
  • Establishing a Healthy Corner Store initiative in targeted neighborhoods to improve access to healthy foods and education programming to show residents how to cook them
  • Reviewing and updating livestock provisions of the animal code to ensure that San Antonians can raise their own food if they choose to without onerous restrictions.

Taylor stated:

“Last year, City Council adopted our first comprehensive plan, SA Tomorrow, which includes a Sustainability Plan. Sustainability focal areas include both Food System and Public Health and their target outcomes and strategies. I fully support SA Tomorrow strategies such as developing an urban agriculture pilot program (the community’s top choice) and those changes endorsed by the Food Policy Council of San Antonio.”

Nirenberg stated:

“I support the Food Policy Council goals and will work in partnership with its members to develop strategies to accomplish them. The work of citizens during the SA Tomorrow process has shown that the San Antonio Metro Health Department – and associated policy-making by City Council – should be data-driven around community health outcomes in all parts of the city. For this reason, I believe that the goals of the Food Council, including  a coordinator within SAMHD, will help achieve cost efficiencies and improved health outcomes.”

William “Cruz” Shaw, running for District 2 council seat, has also endorsed the above policies, along with Melissa Cabello Havrda, who is running in District 6.

“I believe that for sustainable growth in our communities, it is important to begin at a foundational level,” Shaw stated. “The idea of cultivating sustainable food is similar to cultivating a sustainable line of leadership in our community. It’s a matter that relies on foundational investment and empowering our communities with education on this kind of matter. The idea of affordable and healthy food isn’t possible without local government ensuring that the path to that is an efficient and replicable one. We have to make sure that bureaucracy is encouraging progress, as opposed to hindering progress. I look forward to pushing for regulations at city level to be logical and sensible, and I will encourage fellow officials and city staff to reach out to experts in these fields to assess/develop/implement pathways to make sure we are supporting improvement where we can.”

Havdra told us, “Finally, as San Antonio’s growth exploded over the end of the 20thcentury through today, the city’s land use and planning practices haven’t always had sustainability in mind.  Just as we incentivize weatherization, water conservation, and xeroscaping, we can incentivize gardening and cultivation inside the city limits and provide real education that will help residents take partial ownership of this problem. Ultimately, the problem of access to affordable, healthy food options is a question of culture:  do we care enough about each other to make necessary changes?  Are we willing to invest, provide resources, and see our efforts through?  Will we track our success and hold ourselves accountable?  As Councilwoman, I will do all these things, and will work with anyone to push my colleagues to do the same.”

It is incredibly encouraging to see different candidates come together on common sense programs to make the city better. For those elected, we intend to see these commitments honored, and we’re looking forward to the collaboration that comes with crafting meaningful policies.

Want to know more, or to join the Food Policy Council in pushing for the passage of these and other policies related to a sustainable, equitable, and economically vibrant food system? More details, along with meeting times, are available here.


2 thoughts on “Taylor and Nirenberg Find Common Ground: San Antonio Needs to Eat Better

  1. I’m interested in many of the policy proposals above and would add that I think it would do San Antonio well to make local food business a bigger part of our identity and city strategy.

    The ‘Choose NJ’ (New Jersey) campaign (that San Antonio appears to have borrowed from) and which focuses to inclusive economic growth in urban centers has made ‘food’ one of their key industries to promote and support — and, along with ‘smart students’, a reason to consider saying in or relocating to NJ. http://www.choosenj.com/

    Local including legacy (25 years or more) and historic foodways such as production, neighborhood growing and street vending are essential to San Antonio’s identity as well as our importance to national and global heritage over time (for example, in the 1980s, The New York Times declared us Ice House Capital of the World; two books published in 2012 highlight San Antonio as an essential capital of the now global ‘taco’ culture emerging, in part, from our historic street vending practices). Local foodways are also possibly one of our main draws currently, along with climate and the natural environment, for raising, retaining or attracting ‘smart students’ along with boomerang residents and retirees as well as countless visitors.

    Local food business could also be better engaged to help anchor the improved walkability of our city streets. I just returned from LA where there’s good-enough city bus links with the airport (a free shuttle to a local bus hub near the airport; SAT and VIA could/should do that tomorrow with North Star) and, maybe surprisingly, where I walked at least nine miles a day as supported by fine new pedestrian paths within and between neighborhoods. Just as importantly, my walks were greatly improved by free-range churros and cut fruit vendors as well as outdoor cafes and ice cream shops open until 11pm. The street vendors not only supported more walking they complimented nearby and walkable brick-and-mortar offerings.

    The title of the article as ‘eating better’ is somewhat loaded and misleading (and a bit of a dog-whistle slam of some local legacy foodways), as the conversation seems to be about better local food-related policy and inclusive economic development and not necessarily about personal dietary choices. A healthy corner store doesn’t mean anything (how do you define one? ) if you can’t walk to it or any other surrounding outlet safely or pleasurably or afford what they have on offer once you get there. And is it really a ‘healthy’ corner store if the neighborhood or site is completely isolated from the economic benefits of particularly car-free tourism or visitation?

    I’m on board with most of the policy suggestions above but hope the conversation will move to pedestrian urban design and economic development planning with more of a local food and neighborhood focus. I also hope it will include some sensible food waste regulation – for example, as a river city we need a polystyrene and other non-recyclable food packaging ban (like LA and Miami but also San Marcos) as well as the policy and infrastructure to support waste reduction at food businesses (too many are still throwing out glass bottles, wasting food and otherwise not reducing waste).

    Currently much of San Antonio to a visitor seems a wasteful, pleasure-crushing non-city as we’ve made it so car-dependent and have been so incredibly restrictive of local foodways and social mixing; zipcode 78207 might map as ‘food insecure’ but at least I can find a place to get an ice cream or a flor de mango (if feeling ‘healthy’) or a taco there after 9pm. What I can’t do is walk to a 78207 shop comfortably from a nearby Airbnb unit – and mainly due to various local policies restrictive of this ‘healthy’ practice (eg. staying in a neighborhood, walking to a shop and/or getting around as a resident or visitor without a car).

    Just to say that with local food policy, I hope there is a focus to food business legacy, tolerance and pleasure and that efforts don’t overshadow or add to our problems with economic, physical and social segregation resulting from poor public design and management. More neighborhood food/family re-education (and particularly in the neighborhoods creating and containing much of San Antonio’s food heritage) — in a city missing thousands of miles of adequate ADA sidewalks and paths and pedestrian lighting and confronted by a stray dog epidemic and with still no reliable VIA option to the airport and now contemplating Airbnb restrictions related to phantom parking concerns — seems the wrong public ‘health’ priority.

  2. Beautiful illustration of the connection between food and walkability. Thank you for it! Thus far, the Food Policy Council hasn’t explicitly worked on the relationship between public space and good food, with the exception of urban agriculture. Please join us at our monthly general meetings or our more frequent work group meetings, Mark. Help push us in the direction you’d like to see the city move in.

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