Is the future of agriculture the neglected flower bed on Main Street? The San Francisco Chroniclereports today that Mayor Gavin Newsom has ordered all city departments "to conduct an audit of unused land--including empty lots, rooftops, windowsills and median strips--that could be turned into community gardens or farms." If the Mayor gets his way, you could just as well get an apple from the corner mart as from a tree growing on the street corner.
The announcement is the latest fruit from an "urban-rural" roundtable of food experts that Newsom convened last year to look for more ways to get locally-grown foods onto the plates of city residents. The effort began last summer with a quarter-acre "victory garden" in front of city hall--a big hit with locals and tourists; Newsom later announced plans to replicate the effort at 15 sites around the city. He also floated the idea of planting fruit trees on street medians, and experimented with a strawberry patch atop a bus shelter--ideas that could catch on under his new food directive.
Newsom's move builds upon a vibrant hyperlocal agriculture movement in the Bay Area and along the West Coast. Detailed in "Inside the Green Zone" in our March/April food issue, the movement encompasses everything from professional farmers who'll sow your backyard to urban fruit foragers who barter blackberries plucked from city parks. The efforts have taken on a timeliness in the midst of the recession as cities look for ways to fill lots that aren't being developed and provide healthy, inexpensive food. Indeed, the original "victory garden" was planted by Eleanor Roosevelt on the White House lawn in the waning years of the Great Depression to serve as a model for rugged self reliance.
Newsom plans to go a step further by also requiring the city departments serve only high-quality food. Within two months, he'll send an ordinance to the city's Board of Supervisors mandating that all food served in city jails, hospitals, homeless shelters, and community centers be safe, healthy, and sustainable. Of course, the switch will be much easier in San Francisco, which consumes a million tons of food a year but has 20 tons available within a 200 mile raidius, than it would in say, New York. Still, there's no reason an apple tree couldn't also thrive on a sidewalk in Brooklyn.
T. Boone Pickens' $10 billion plan to build the world's largest wind farm on the Texas panhandle has been scrapped. The high-profile project had benefited from the "Pickens Plan" media blitz in the lead-up to the 2008 elections, when the oil tycoon spent millions on TV ads promoting natural gas and wind power.
Though Pickens was lauded in the media at the time as an environmental hero, I was among a few reporters who questioned his motivation for building the wind project. His early plans would have used a right-of-way for the windmills' power lines to bring water from the Ogallala aquifer to cities downstate, draining a vast region of a fragile reserve. Pickens ultimately failed to find a buyer for the water, then faced a drop in energy prices due to the recession. In December, his Mesa Power LP put the wind project on hold before announcing last week that it would abandon it in favor of several smaller projects.
In making the announcement, Pickens cryptically cited problems associated with building his own power lines. It's odd that he can't tap those already being built to the Panhandle by the Texas Public Utility Commission. The Dallas Morning News reported that the lines "won't follow a path that Mesa had suggested" but didn't elaborate. Did Pickens' power lines fail because they needed the accompanying water pipeline to be profitable? A spokeswoman for Pickens didn't return a call.
Since I raised the possibility two weeks ago that sewage sludge fertilizer could have contaminated the Obamas' White House vegetable garden with lead, there has been a flurry of press on the subject. Various food and gardening blogs and dueling HuffingtonPosters weighed in, followed by the AP, Reuters, and the New York Times after a White House spokeswoman publicly addressed the lead issue on Thursday. Much of the coverage has sought to quell misperceptions that produce from the White House garden is unsafe to eat. Indeed, as I pointed out in my original post, the levels of lead in the garden are still well below those that the EPA says can cause health impacts. But in obsessing over whether the Obamas are poisoning themselves and their guests--and there's no proof that they are--most of the media missed the more interesting question: Is it really a good idea to grow vegetables on land that has been fertilized with sewage sludge?
The EPA thinks so, and has promoted the practice for decades as an alternative to landfilling sludge or dumping it in the ocean. In what was probably the single most effective component of a vast marketing campaign for sludge fertilizer, the National Park Service tilled it into the White House's South Lawn through much of the 1990s. Interest in the President's preferred brand of sludge spiked to the point that its makers had a hard time meeting the demand. Today, more than half the poop flushed in America ends up as fertilizer.
The safety of sludge might not be such a concern when it's spread your lawn and covered in a layer of grass, but chew on this: Food companies such as H.J. Heinz and Del Monte won't accept produce grown on sludge-treated land. The Netherlands and Switzerland effectively ban the use of sludge on farmland, and the practice is expressly prohibited by the USDA's organics standards. If sludge has been spread on the South Lawn anytime since about 2006, the Obamas' pesticide-free garden could not be certified as organic.
The human poop in sludge isn't necessarily the problem. Sludge can contain traces of anything that gets poured down the drain, from Prozac flushed down toilets to lead hosed off factory floors. The EPA sets concentration limits for several heavy metals found in sludge, including lead, but the limits are higher than what is deemed safe in some European countries. For example, the EPA permits sludge to contain up to 300 parts per million of lead, but the Netherlands raises concerns about soil with more than 40 ppm of lead.
Although President Barack Obama pledged that taxpayers would be able to monitor "every dime" of the $787 billion dollar stimulus bill, a government website that is supposed to track the expenditures is off to a rocky start. Months after going live, Recovery.gov provides only sketchy information about government purchasing and is undergoing a rushed bidding process to be revamped. The problems that Recovery.gov faces are the central problems of the stimulus: The need to roll out projects quickly while meeting long-term goals and preventing taxpayer money from being wasted.
From the start, Recovery.gov was an ambitious project. Never before has the government sought to provide so much data about contracting in a single, user-friendly format. Moreover, the Obama administration is requiring that stimulus money be tracked not only to recipients like state agencies--which is normal practice for federal spending--but also to sub-recipients that could include individual contractors. Yet so far, Recovery.gov hasn't delivered on that promise. It's little more than a collection of press releases and general breakdowns of spending.
After taking considerable flak over the site, the Federal Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board issued a request for bids to revamp Recovery.gov on June 15th, requiring proposals to be submitted a mere 11 days later. Bypassing the typical "full and open competition" bidding process, the board limited bids to 59 pre-approved contractors "because of the speed with which we have to handle this particular procurement," a spokesman told Federal News Radio. Whoever won the contract would have to roll out the new site in less than a month. On Tuesday, Federal News Radio reported that only two contractors actually submitted bids--far from an ideal level of competition.
"They are required to have open competition, but everyone pretty much knew that the incumbent vendor was going to get the contract," says Tom Lee, a technology director at the Sunlight Foundation, an open government advocacy group that had considered submitting a bid of its own. "There's just no way another organization could get up to speed quickly enough to get the work done."
A report released this week by two public interest groups found that states are on average using nearly a third of their stimulus transportation funds to build new roads while often ignoring a huge backlog of necessary street repairs and public transportation investments.
Produced by a transportation consulting firm for CalPIRG and Smart Growth America, the report paints a particularly ugly picture in California, which has spent more than 80 percent of its $2.6 billion in transportation stimulus money. Forty three percent of that money went to build new road projects, even as about $310 million in ready-to-go road and bridge repairs went unfunded.
Of course, California looks downright sane compared to Kentucky, where more than 38 percent of lane miles are in "poor" condition, a whopping 573 bridges are structurally deficient, and yet 88 percent of the state's $421 million in stimulus transportation money will go to build new roads. "If the state can't afford to maintain what it has now," the report asks, "how does it plan to maintain the new roads?"
Similarly, it's anyone's guess how states will maintain their ailing public transportation systems. A recent Department of Transportation report found that the nation's seven largest rail transportation agencies have a combined investment backlog of $50 billion. Yet the stimulus earmarks only $8.4 billion to public transportation, leaving other stimulus funds to fill the gap. Even then, few states with those rail systems are dedicating much of this money towards sustaining them. New Jersey, Pennnsylvania, California, New York, and Illinois each allocate less than 5 percent of their discretionary transportation stimulus funds to public transit.
It's not too late to change course. June 29th marked the deadline for states to commit at least 50 percent of the Act's $26.6 billion in transportation funds; here's hoping the next 50 percent will be spent more intelligently.