Omar Passons

County of San Diego Supervisor Candidate Questionnaire – Omar Passons responses

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We invite you to share your vision for how County of San Diego can build on existing initiatives (ex: the County of San Diego’s Live Well San Diego Food System Initiative) and/or create even more innovative solutions to address these issues in order to develop an equitable and sustainable food system. Please limit each answer to 250 words. 

1. Food Insecurity: How will you address food insecurity in San Diego County? We know that 13% of the total population in San Diego County, half a million, is food insecure, which includes families, seniors, people with disabilities, and veterans struggling with unemployment and underemployment. However, the Federal administration is currently proposing drastic cuts and structural changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). San Diego County also has one of the worst CalFresh (California name for SNAP) enrollment rates in the nation with estimates putting in enrollment at only 49.5% of eligible residents. What role do you think the County of San Diego should have on a local, statewide, and national level on this issue? 

Answer: My experience at Health and Human Services at the federal level provided me an understanding of how social services and public health function. The County has an opportunity to improve the distribution of and access to resources that come from other levels of government. It is also important that we consider the root causes that are leading people to rely on programs like CalFresh and ensure that we are supporting opportunities for a living wage and access to affordable housing. This will decrease the long term need for many family-supportive social services. I intend to work with internal departments, such as Eligibility Operations, as well as external partners, such as the San Diego Hunger Coalition, to identify additional opportunities to improve our own processes and meet the needs of more individuals. We need to better support ensuring that Eligibility Operations and the SNAP Ed dollars the County receives are better aligned. Further, having taken the time to sit down with the CEO of Feeding San Diego on two occasions, I recognize that part of our problem is in the efficiency of getting available food to those in need in a more efficient manner. For this reason, I have called for more County sites to become school meals sites. I also would aggressively look for ways to address the staggering food insecurity among our seniors, which is why I have sat down with Paul Downey of Serving Seniors to delve deeper into ways to improve support for our existing systems. 

2. Equitable Access to Healthy Food: How will you support equitable access to healthy food for underserved communities? San Diegans face daunting health disparities, where the most food insecure residents also face the highest rates of obesity in the county, and limited access to healthy, affordable food is disproportionately concentrated in low-income communities and communities of color. What would you do to remove barriers? How would you work with cities to create land use incentives to improve the quality of food and beverages sold in neighborhood food environments (healthy neighborhood markets, farmers markets, full service grocery stores, full service restaurants, wellness centers, community gardens, etc.) in underserved communities? 

Answer: I am a huge advocate of furthering development of local businesses, especially those that are providing healthy options. My experience as a land use attorney also offers me a unique perspective in understanding what types of unnecessary regulations, permits, etc. there are that stifle continued development. I will use this knowledge along with research as to how other cities and counties have provided land use incentives to encourage more healthy food businesses in underserved communities. My vision is to have the County work more closely with the City of San Diego councilmembers in Districts 3, 4, 8 and 9, the Mayor, and other leaders in communities with high need in other cities in the County to review potential solutions such as overlay zones that could provide services to historically disinvested communities. I would also like to work with our Department of Ag, Weights, and Measures to continue to promote certified farmers’ markets, and embolden more farmers’ markets to accept CalFresh, WIC, etc. 

3. Support for Small-Scale Farming and Fishing: How will you support the viability of small-scale farming and fishing in San Diego? San Diego County hosts the most number of organic and small farms than any other county in the nation. With ready access to the Pacific Ocean, San Diego also consists of a vibrant fishing community, with over 65 locally-available fish species. Supporting a thriving farming and fishing industry in our region creates local jobs, contributes to multiplier effects to our economy, supports global sustainability goals, and encourages regional resilience. However, the average age of small food producers, both farming and fishing, are over 60 years old. These food producers operate on slim margins with high resource inputs (such as water and land access for farmers), making it challenging to compete with cheaper imports from countries with lower labor costs and less-stringent regulations. What would you do to support the viability of the small-scale local farming and fishing community in San Diego County? How would you ensure that these critical occupations are preserved for the next generation? 

Answer: I am fortunate enough to have Tommy Gomes of Catalina Offshore as a supporter of my campaign and he can reinforce my commitment to local seafood. We are fortunate to have the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market on the border of District 4 and we could do more to promote the weekly market as well as ensure it can continue as discussions around development of the port are occurring. I spoke directly with purveyors about their experience with the market and they indicated that one of the challenges is the County’s difficulty in flexibility for how seafood can be prepared at these markets. We have a great resource in the University of California Cooperative Extension who can provide research on new water-wise techniques and other farming operations that can support continued production of local produce. While most of the larger farm operations in the county are not within the boundaries of District 4, I still think there is a role for me to play as a supporter of urban agriculture as well as in our unincorporated areas of the County and finding opportunities to sustain those operations. 

4. Food Waste: How will you support San Diego County’s food waste reduction, donation, and recycling goals? In San Diego County, we generate at least 700,000 tons of food waste per year and our composting facilities process around 2% of the total food waste generated. Many reasons contribute to the food waste problem including ambiguous date labels, lack of proper planning and storage, and aesthetic preferences of consumers. Behavior changes are necessary to waste less with edible food being donated to feed hungry people in San Diego County. The remaining food waste has the potential to be turned into compost, livestock feed, or energy, which would reduce our the County’s greenhouse gas emissions and create jobs. The County of San Diego’s High Waste Diversion Plan includes many of these strategies. What would you do to ensure that the County meets the targets identified? What is the County’s role in ensuring that the entire region is making coordinated progress towards these goals? 

Answer: I understand the County has developed a Strategic Plan to Reduce Waste and is in the process of developing a Food Donation Action Plan. A first step in my approach would be to review both of these plans and meet with the respective departments to better understand what the potential barriers are to meeting the goals of the plans. There is likely synergy between these two plans where the proposed actions of the latter can help meet the goals of the former. I would also support the continue dissemination of the Save the Food San Diego and Ad Council campaigns around food waste to educate our residents about the importance of this issue. Further, I have taken time to sit down with a company that focuses on waste diversion and recycling to try to understand how we can make room for these commercial opportunities to meet our climate goals while shifting waste out of our landfill before it gets there. 

5. Food Procurement: How will you use County contracts to increase purchases of Good Food? The County of San Diego adopted the EatWell Practices in December 2016 to commit to using its public dollars to buy nutritious foods grown locally and sustainably. The County staff is now working on implementing the EatWell Practices. There is an opportunity to ensure robust measures are in place and take this to commitment to the next level by adopting the nationally-recognized Good Food Procurement Program (GFPP). GFPP would strengthen the County’s support of the local economy, environmental sustainability, workers’ rights and animal welfare, as well as nutrition. What would you do to leverage the County's food purchasing power around food procurement? 

Answer: The County spends around $20 million a year purchasing food for the various populations we serve, which is a significant amount of public dollars being spent on food. There is potential for us to review our current food service operations, food-related contracts, etc. to see where we can leverage these dollars to support the local economy and more sustainable practices. I would greatly appreciate the opportunity to work with the Health and Human Services Agency and the Live Well San Diego Food System Initiative to better understand where the barriers are to implementing the EatWell Practices or how the GFPP would bolster the ongoing efforts. Further, as noted in our Opportunity4All economic inclusion plan, I see the need to revisit our procurement process across the County to determine the best mechanism for better ensuring some of these contracting opportunities are in neighborhoods that have been historically disinvested – which happen to be the same communities so often in need of the very food at issue. 

6. Urban Agriculture: How will you increase food growing opportunities such as community gardens and urban farms in your district? Urban agriculture provides a myriad of community, health and environmental benefits, including increased green and open space, improved access to fresh food and neighborhood beautification. Some cities have reviewed their land use codes as well as created incentive programs (Urban Agriculture Incentive Zone). What steps do you propose to encourage and support residents growing their own food? 

Answer: Although not in my district, I have been a colleague of Diane Moss for some time now and have been impressed with the work she has done at the Mt. Hope Community Garden and think other communities could benefit from her expertise and her vast knowledge. Similarly, I am a big fan of the work the International Rescue Committee has done with their community gardens serving to provide a level of food sovereignty for their refugee clients. Working with my counterparts at the City of San Diego and in other jurisdictions within the County, we can identify additional places to cultivate community gardens. I especially would like to coordinate efforts to promote the Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones to property owners throughout District 4. 

7. Food Labor: How will you support food system workers? One in seven jobs in San Diego County is in the food system. These jobs include farm work, food processing, distribution, food service, and retail. The average wage of food system workers has increased at less than half the rate of wages across all sectors (at $24,693 annual). Most workers in the food system do not make a living wage for the high-cost region. How would you address these inequities? 

Answer: It is appalling that the same people feeding us cannot turn around and afford the food they are growing or plating or washing off of a plate. I am definitely a supporter of ensuring San Diegans under the jurisdiction of the County are able to earn a living wage across the region. We can and should also look at the work of nonprofit organizations such as the Restaurant Opportunities Center United or the Food Chain Workers Alliance to understand what they have done to create more equitable opportunities for food system workers and see what can be adopted locally to support those in the San Diego region. 

8. Support for Food Entrepreneurs: How will you support food enterprise and entrepreneurs, particularly those who expand access to nutritious food in under-served areas? Food business opportunities abound to facilitate innovation and job creation with mobile vendors (food trucks and sidewalk pushcarts), neighborhood market owners, restaurateurs and micro-processors, distributors and others. How would you support the growth of the small and micro-enterprise food business sector? 

Answer: As you survey District 4, you can see many of my supporters include locally-owned food enterprises and entrepreneurs. These business owners understand that I authentically support their work and as their Supervisor I will continue to identify ways to support their growth as well as the growth of other food businesses throughout the region. I’m watching closely both SB 946 and AB 626 which could impact sidewalk vendors and microenterprise home kitchen enterprises, respectively, to see where the County will fit into the equation if either of these state-level policies pass. I would also greatly benefit from the opportunity to hear from the San Diego Food System Alliance and other local food system organizations to hear what efforts they think could successfully support this type of work. In addition, our Opportunity4All plan specifically calls for a range of opportunities to better train and invest in entrepreneurs in our urban communities so that true opportunities for economic self-sufficiency are more available to all. These opportunities are critical, especially in the communities for which discriminatory housing policies have made wealth accumulation severely challenging and in some cases impossible. 

9. Broad Vision for Supporting San Diegans: Please share your vision for supporting the needs of San Diego families. 

Answer: Our campaign has laid out a broad set of visions in Housing4All, related to housing affordability, StrongStarts4All, to better support things like high quality child care and access to support for youth, Hope4Homeless, to provide leadership for our most vulnerable San Diegans, and Opportunity4All to better connect San Diegans to economic futures that are sustainable. Each of these plans provides portions of a broader regional blueprint for economic inclusion and prosperity. Our housing plan includes incentives to make child care and senior facilities more affordable and available. Our youth plan includes fully subsidizing transportation for all young people aged 14-21 and four months of fully paid family leave for all County employees. We believe this is an opportunity for a new, more progressive vision for what the San Diego region is and can become and I have taken very seriously the opportunity to lay out clear steps in that direction. 

NOTE: All of the plans referred to above can be downloaded from the campaign website at www.omarpassons.com/issues 

Also, please find our podcast, “A Fresh Face for a Fresh Start” also on our website that provides 15-minute mini-episodes regarding key aspects of the above plans