Michelle Gomez

County of San Diego Supervisor Candidate Questionnaire – Michelle Gomez 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: The problem of food insecurity is a multi-faceted issue. Addressing the contributing factors accurately requires us to take a systemic approach to combating the root causes of food insecurity. By addressing our lack of affordable housing and ensuring access to Health and Human services, we can increase the amount of money that the county’s poorest residents have to spend on their nutritional needs. Rectifying these immense problems is only half the battle however. Our Board of Supervisors must also focus on creating economic opportunity for county residents. Our county is currently facing labor shortfalls in key departments. By utilizing our current $2 billion reserve to back fill some of these positions, we create a stronger economy by enabling struggling families to find secure jobs that pay a livable wage.

By addressing the root causes of food insecurity, namely poverty and lack of opportunity to overcome poverty, we will be able to ensure the success of working families despite any proposed cuts to SNAP coming down from Washington. The real solution here is not in signing up all eligible participants with CalFresh, but rather in assisting individuals in overcoming the economic hurdles that cause them to be food insecure to begin with. I look forward to addressing these issues and making San Diego County an example to the state and nation about how to overcome food insecurity in a sustainable manner which uplifts community members.

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: Our County isn’t alone is experiencing the blight of obesity in our most underserved communities. The problem is how to provide fresh and healthy choices at a price that working families can afford. In District 5, we have some of the poorest residents in the county. High end “health food” stores would be hard pressed to compete in a city such as Vista where the median income is nearly $20,000 lower that the median income statewide. While many of these establishments do accept SNAP benefits, they do so with restrictions on items such as hot food. Ending the restrictions on certain food items (but not liquor or other prohibited purchases) could make a big difference in determining whether an overworked single parent will be able to provide a hot fresh meal vice something out of a box or can.

To address this lack of access to fresh and healthy food in a more immediately, I would like to empower nonprofit organizations such as Community Resource Center which seeks to end hunger and homelessness in North County. I have had the pleasure of meeting with Rebecca Palmer the Chief Programs Officer and Yanira Flores the Food and Nutrition Manager at CRC. In touring their facility and food distribution center, they showed me how a community organization is able to successfully execute extensive programs for meeting the needs of low income and chronically homeless families. Their example could be used to greater benefit if employed by our county in developing larger scale solutions.

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 an ardent supporter of our County’s General plan which calls for protecting our natural resources and maintaining the character of rural and semi-rural areas through an “environmentally sustainable approach to planning that balances the need for...economic vitality.” Part and parcel of supporting the General Plan is in supporting the continuation of small scale agriculture and fishing which has characterized our county since the beginning.

District 5, which encompasses all of North County includes a large amount of agricultural land, especially in the unincorporated portions of the District. Owners of family farms are worried about losing their legacy for a variety of reasons including overdevelopment, increased operating costs, and low market values which as mentioned are typically impacted by imports.

Younger members of these families see the writing on the wall and are moving into other professions, another death knell for family farms and fisheries. I believe the answer to preserving these important local businesses, for the good of our regional culture, is in boosting our promotion of agritourism. Cities such as Oceanside have already invested heavily in this direction and I would like to see a greater effort made at the county level. Businesses such as farmer’s markets, wineries, craft breweries, and bed and breakfast retreats paired with equestrian centers and permaculture gardens provide destinations which draw an ever increasing tourist base seeking a bit of the California “good life.” This can translate into high profits for entrepreneurs are properly educated to make the most of these opportunities.

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: Every year in San Diego County, millions of gallons of water are wasted growing crops that may be plowed over without even being picked. Businesses are struggling to stay afloat amidst rising organic waste costs, and families don’t have enough to eat while wasted food poses a threat to our environment. Thankfully, these problems can be resolved. The truth is that food waste reduction is a matter of re-education. We need to better inform the public about how to mitigate the causes of food waste. A similar yet modified approach can be taken to getting food service businesses onboard.

Last summer, I attended an organic waste symposium which focused heavily on the environmental and societal impacts of food waste. Presenters from the Orange County Health Care Agency told how they have had a significant impact on reducing organic waste, decreasing food waste as a whole, and boosting food recovery efforts by sending out health inspectors to better inform restaurateurs and other food purveyors in how they can address costs and benefit the environment by better managing their waste. I believe that a similar program carried out by our equivalent, the Registered Environmental Health Specialists of our County’s Department of Environmental Health can yield similar if not better results, particularly since we can reach out to Orange County to help us ensure we are moving such programs ahead and following best practices and lessons they have learned along the way.

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: In order to promote the EatWell Practices goals of building better health, supporting a thriving economy, and fostering a resilient environment. I would like to see more of the food procured by the county coming in the form of those products which may never make it to market such as “ugly fruit.” Ugly Fruit is produce which is merely misshapen or discolored and has the same nutritional value as more cosmetically appealing specimens.

The procurement of ugly fruit (and products made from it) will allow local farms to turn a profit on produce they otherwise would’ve plowed over or discarded, the county will benefit from the decrease in water usage and also from the cost savings. Our environment will be the true beneficiary as less organic waste will result in lower carbon emissions which will help with meeting statewide mandates.

Our county’s custodial meal programs, cafeterias, meetings, and delivered meal services will all benefit from the readily available local produce and might even be able to reduce the carbon footprint in many cases.

In those cases where other sourcing is necessary, it is important that we adopt the Center for Good Food Purchasing’s standards which encourage the five core values of: local economies, health, valued workforce, animal welfare, and environmental sustainability. Our county’s institutions can take an active role in influencing food system change and encouraging smart and sustainable supply chains. We have no reason we shouldn’t.

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: In a District such as mine which includes a lot of large land plots and zoned agricultural space, there are already many people who are invested in producing their own food. The problem that I see however is that many of the people who could most benefit from the ability to grow their own food, are not the ones who have access to such opportunities.

There are many reasons why this is is occurring. Namely, because many communities do not have access to arable land for such a project. Also, many underserved communities lack the resources (if not the desire) to properly affect such a project as establishing a community garden.

If elected, I would like to focus on increasing access to affordable housing, but also on building robust communities that are oriented around activities such as communal gardening rather than just building housing for housing’s sake. These type of developments could be implemented county wide to give all residents a chance to feel the pride of producing their own food and the comfort of being more healthy because of it.

Given this dual purpose, I would feel more comfortable incentivizing developers who are willing to take a bonafide stab at creating these sort of green mixed use communities, but I expect them to honor any such arrangement and not pay lip service to the idea of building a sustainable community.

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: The county should be setting the example for the private sector by paying a livable wage to all county employees, and yet it does not. Sadly, county employed food system workers are not the only county employees not being paid a livable wage. This is a despicable practice which needs to be ceased. Our county is currently holding on to a 49% reserve which would better serve county residents if it were circulated back into the local economy. It makes no sense that money should sit in a bank vault shoring up a bond rating which would stay the same if our reserve were at 15-20%. Let's pay county workers what they are worth!

As a retired union worker myself, I stand with workers and working families and support the labor movement. I support the right of all food system workers (public or private) to unionize and seek collective bargaining to improve their compensation and working conditions.

Because it is well known that I stand up for working families, my campaign has received the endorsement of SEIU 221 which represents over 10,000 county employees, San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, and United Domestic Workers Local 3930 which represents some of the most underpaid workers on county roles. I will fight for them, and I will fight for food system workers as well.

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: I am a strong supporter of small businesses because being one’s own boss and having financial stability is a part of the California Dream. I am honored to know food enterprise innovators such as my good friend Pari Thitathan of Thai Burger. Pari and his wife Pang are a North County success story of two young entrepreneurs who built their business literally from scratch rising from a homemade grill at a farmer’s market, to a food cart, to owning their own restaurant in San Diego. I wish this type of success for many more professionals willing to dig in and do the hard work of building their business.

One thing that I have said for a long time now, is that small business and big business cannot be sensibly regulated in the same manner. They are two different animals. As difficult as it may be to pry the two apart legally, I believe that there is no time like the present to start making strides in that direction. At the county level that means providing incentives which level the playing field so that small businesses have a chance to compete against larger competitors this can happen in many forms from tax incentives to differentiated permitting requirements.

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

Answer: My vision for serving the working families of San Diego county is one where we value integrity, opportunity, and prosperity for all. We must end the hoarding of county reserves in order to begin to make an impact on the quality of life of all county residents. By redirecting those resources toward increasing access to affordable housing, ensuring access to health and human services, strengthening fire protection, and more we will grow our economy and rectify many of the county’s worst issues. It makes no sense to leave money sitting in the bank for a rainy day when health crises such as the recent Hepatitis A outbreak went unchecked and while children and military veterans slept in the streets and died of it.

I envision a county where there is help for those in need and a meaningful future for those who are ready to embrace a new challenge. One where we live in peace free from crime, disease, and pollution. Our county is close to achieving many of these goals. I encourage you to join me on the road ahead. I would be honored to have your vote on June 5th.