It’s got to be a political first. Current San Francisco mayor and 2010 California gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom is making healthy and sustainable food a cornerstone position of his upcoming campaign. And he’s not just talking the talk. He’s walking the walk by using the power of his current office to issue a sweeping directive that places strict controls San Francisco’s food practices. Among other things, restaurants that want to cater or host a government meeting in San Francisco are now required to offer menus centered around healthy, sustainable and, preferably, local items. How is it that a candidate’s position on food has become a way to attract more votes?
Newsom isn’t the first politician to take a keen interest in food. Pres. Barack Obama has one, too, although we didn’t learn about it until he moved into the White House and gave Michelle and the kids the OK to install an organic vegetable garden on the White House lawn. Major food policy initiatives soon followed; more are in the works.
Which is why you’ve got to admire Newsom’s nerve. Not only is he taking a controversial position without being prompted. He’s taking on Big Food and Big Agriculture in a state where those two intertwined industries wield deep-rooted power and influence thanks to decades of savvy campaign funding and lobbying activities.
But Newsome thought he could gain political capital by staking out a strong position on food. So he did. Not just in word, but in deed, that deed being a “Healthy and Sustainable Food Directive” for San Francisco he issued last month.
This wasn’t a piece of legislation hammered out by the city’s board of supervisors and brought to the mayor for signing. Newsom came up with this one mostly on his own. Here’s part of what it said.
The overall theme: “The long-term provision of sufficient nutritious, affordable, culturally appropriate and delicious food for all San Franciscans requires the City to consider the food production, distribution, consumption and recycling system holistically and to take actions to preserve and promote the health of the food system. This includes setting a high standard for food quality and ensuring city funds are spent in a manner consistent with our social, environmental and economic values.”
Part of the fine print: “Whenever possible, City resources will be used to purchase and promote regionally produced and sustainably certified food.”
Who’s going to monitor all this? Newsom’s directive creates a 17-member Food Policy Council that will oversee the effort. One council seat is reserved for a restaurant operator, giving the industry the same level of representation as the Tenderloin Hunger Task Force. Among the policies the council will be enforcing is this:
“Beginning immediately, all city departments and agencies purchasing food for events or meetings using city funds will utilize guidelines for healthy meetings and purchase healthy, locally produced and/or sustainably certified foods to the maximum extent possible.” What does that mean? Go to www.sffood.org and click on “guidelines to increase the use of local foods at meetings/conferences” to see the kinds of demands chefs and operators are going to face as this directive takes hold. Suffice it to say that customers spending city money are going to want more input about not only what’s on the menu, but where and how the ingredients used to produce each item were grown.
We don’t know exactly how this will impact San Francisco restaurant operators, who are already reeling from previous costly mandates regarding health insurance and the minimum wage. But they’d better be ready to get ahead of this curve if Newsom becomes governor.
So will he? Right now, Newsom’s potential rivals include two-time California Gov. Jerry Brown, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, former eBay head Meg Whitman and others. Current Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is barred from running again. Given the depth of California’s current problems, economic and otherwise, it’s a wonder anyone is running for this job, let alone people of this caliber.
Stay tuned. The political race, and food’s role in it, is going to be interesting.