Salt Lake City officials urge global United Nations attendees to pursue sustainable policies around food production

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Luke Cartin, Park City sustainability manager, joins a panel entitled "Local and Regional Governments Leading the Way to Sustainable Communities" during the United Nations Civil Society Conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Aug. 26, 2019. The three-day gathering, marks the first time a major U.N. event has been hosted in the United States outside the United Nations headquarters in New York City.

A panel of Utah elected leaders and government officials at the United Nations Civil Society Conference on Monday urged attendees from across the globe to follow their lead in pursuing aggressive policies to stem climate change.

While they offered tips on how to leverage local partnerships to increase renewable energy offerings and ways to reduce transportation emissions, panelists also outlined opportunities around a less-considered area for sustainability efforts: food production.

When Salt Lake City formed its sustainability office in 2008, “we started focusing on traditional environmental issues like environmental compliance,” calculating municipal and community carbon footprints and working “on traditional waste and recycling programs,” recounted Debbie Lyons, the department’s program director.

But because food production makes up about 25% of a household’s carbon footprint in Utah, “we were also asked to start looking at our food systems and food production,” she told a group at the Salt Palace Convention Center.

The city created a food policy task force to look at city code and evaluate barriers for growing food in Salt Lake City’s urban landscape. That led to the revision of many of the city’s zoning codes to allow for urban agriculture in more areas and enable urban farms and community gardens to sell on-site, Lyons said. The city also relaxed its chicken-raising and beekeeping rules and looked to differentiate greenhouses from structures like garages.

Promoting plant-based food production in Salt Lake City not only reduces truck and traffic emissions but also helps promote a shift from carbon-intensive meat and dairy agricultural practices. And in a state where just 2% of the vegetables and 3% of the fruits Utahns consume are grown in state, it can also improve overall community health.

“We know that a sustainable, low-carbon, equitable system that provides healthy food for an entire community is key to creating a climate-resilient and healthy community,” Lyons said.

In pursuit of these goals, the city has partnered with a nonprofit to create and promote community gardens, which the city sees as playing a key role “in supporting local agriculture and local food systems,” according to Supreet Gill, program manager at the city’s sustainability department.

As part of the city’s Green City Growers Program with the Wasatch Community Gardens, there are now six plots within city boundaries, and officials are looking at developing another.

The city has also worked to reduce waste, considering that some 40% of food purchased in the United States is thrown away.

Those include the FruitShare program, where harvested fruit is split between homeowners, volunteers and local food assistance programs that connect community members who need access to healthy foods — an effort to make use of the tens of thousands of pounds of fruit that fall to the ground and rot each year.

Lyons said she was “proud of the progress” the city’s sustainability team, other local governments and the state have made around sustainability when it comes to energy, food production and carbon reduction.

“We know that we have a lot of opportunities to keep improving,” she said, noting that the city plans to launch a pilot program that would help the department better engage with residents on sustainability projects — “especially those who have limited access to healthy food.”

The panel Monday was part of a three-day gathering of government officials and nongovernmental agencies from around the world in Salt Lake City. It is the largest international event the city has hosted since the 2002 Olympics and marks the first time a major U.N. event has been hosted in the United States outside the United Nations’ headquarters in New York City.

Conversations have centered on the United Nations’ sustainable goal No. 11, which seeks to make cities “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable by 2030” and to boost access to affordable housing, transportation and green and public spaces.

Other panelists on the local government panel Monday were Tyler Poulson, the senior energy program manager for Salt Lake City; Sarah Wright, executive director of Utah Clean Energy; state Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek; and Luke Cartin, sustainability manager for Park City.