Will L.A. Elect a Gardener-Mayor?

Eric Garcetti, who grows much of his own food, may get the city’s top job.

Garcetti won yesterday's mayoral primary in Los Angeles. (Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Update: Eric Garcetti won the mayoral run-off election, beating Wendy Greuel, on May 21. He will be sworn in as Mayor of Los Angeles on July 1.

The Los Angeles mayoral primary election was held yesterday, and Eric Garcetti, an 11-year-veteran of the city council, won nearly 33 percent of the vote. He’ll face Wendy Greuel, the city controller, who took just over 29 percent, in a May runoff.

If Greuel wins, she would be the first woman to lead the city; a victory for Garcetti would put yet another man in City Hall—but one who reportedly grows almost all of the food his family eats in his Silver Lake backyard.

From recalling the community garden plot his parents had in the San Fernando Valley to Los Angeles Magazine, to taking Dwell Magazine on a tour of the 19,000-square-foot terraced garden where he and his wife grew fruits and vegetables in Echo Park, or contemplating backyard chickens in a profile for the fashion magazine Paper, growing food is part of Garcetti’s personal narrative. Combined with frequent stops at institutions in his city council district, like Original Tommy’s, where he dropped by for lunch on election day (and tweeted a photo of his chili burgers), he appears to have a more complicated, complex relationship to food than most politicians.

The potential of a Mayor Garcetti leading the second largest city in the country has us wondering where the candidate’s personal approach to food might match up with his public politics and policy (the campaign didn’t respond to my request for a comment). As New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has shown with his controversial public health measures, like the soda ban, the bully pulpit of a Great City City Hall can influence debate—and policy—nationwide. With its long history of both growing food—Los Angeles County was once the top agricultural producer in the country—and unequal access, there are plenty of existing issues that could be addressed from the Mayor’s office. And the city, with its friendly climate and sprawling scale, has the underpinnings that could potentially support a new food system model.

As a city council member, Garcetti was involved in passing the Fruit and Flowers Freedom Act in 2010, which amended an outdated law that made it illegal to grow oranges or roses, for example, in your own backyard and sell them off-site. The Act was seen as a big policy victory for urban agriculture advocates, and as Zach Behrens reported for LAist at the time, Garcetti tied the law back to his own gardening efforts:

Garcetti says last year he grew 80% of his own produce at his Echo Park home. "There was no better feeling," he said. "Everything tastes better when you pull it from the ground and you didn't have go to the market to find something. You just go out to the garden to see what's growing and blossoming."

He added, according to Behrens, that Fruit and Flowers “has the potential to really create economic benefits for local sustainable jobs.”

But as a mayoral candidate, Garcetti appears to have brought more of that chili-burger-eating-politician side to his campaigning. Case in point: When he dropped by a Mexican food festival last summer, he talked with a number of local food bloggers about his vision for the city. His plans, as one person in attendance told me via Twitter, “revolved more around better food at L.A.X. and getting tourists to appreciate L.A. food.”

Elizabeth Bowman, a member of the L.A. Food Policy Council’s working group on urban agriculture, heard Garcetti offer a more expansive, democratic vision of food in Los Angeles at the opening of a community garden in 2011. Bowman was standing in a group of friends with whom the then-councilman was talking, she recalled in an email, “And, I forget how he phrased it exactly, but he said, in a very non-politician kind of way, not a big grand statement, but in a kind of genuine conversational tone, something like, ‘I would like to see a community garden on every corner in Los Angeles.’” Bowman told Garcetti that she was going to quote him on that, “and he encouraged me to do so.”

In the early days of the mayoral campaign, Garcetti had some stiff competition on the food-issues front from an upstart candidate: The L.A.-based edible landscaping outfit Farmscape. The business, exorcising its right to corporate personhood, briefly ran for mayor as a company, pushing an agenda that promised to “bring farms back to the city.”

While Farmscape was unable to get onto the ballot, it still hopes to affect agricultural policy in the city. “One of our core platforms during our campaign to be the first corporate mayor here in Los Angeles has been that we should end our city’s dependence on foreign soil,” Farmscape tells us in an email. Its approach would have involved working with developers and landlords to appropriate unutilized spaces—like empty lots, balconies and rooftops—for growing food.

“With better incentives or regulation to encourage green roofs on buildings and urban farming in undeveloped square footage, Los Angeles could be eating better, fresher food and providing good, green-collar jobs for the local economy. We hope that Eric Garcetti helps to continue our mission to ReFarm our city and make L.A. the agricultural hub it once was,” the former candidate writes. 

And like any defeated (or never-ran) politician, Farmscape is angling to get a job too: “Farmscape demands that if Eric Garcetti wins the L.A. Mayor’s Race, that he appoints us as Compostmaster General.”

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