(By Fred Allebach) — Of Sonoma County’s population of 495,000, 184,500 renters and home owners have income at or below the median income, and of these, a substantial portion have cost burdens and housing problems that erode access to affordable, healthy food. The county has a high hunger index, with 34-million missing meals per year. In this way, the Sonoma County food system is marked by the same type of socio-economic inequities seen in the housing market.
Treating the Symptoms: Sonoma’s charities and food purveyors
Access to food mirrors the class spectrum, from hunger to opulence. In Sonoma there is no food store where of the poor or struggling middle class can afford to shop and find a decent selection of healthy food. For the poorest and homeless, symptomatic hunger-relief efforts by Redwood Empire Food Bank, F.I.S.H, Meals on Wheels, Brown Baggers, and Catholic Charities are offered. For the lower class with some minimal income is Dollar Store; and for those at the top of the economic ladder are Whole Foods, Sonoma Market and farmer’s markets. Safeway is now just as expensive as the top tier. The lower and middle classes must resort to conscious cost-saving strategies when they shop. The lack of affordable local food forces Sonoma Valley citizens to drive out of town to Grocery Outlet, WinCo, WalMart, Trader Joe’s or Costco, assuming they own a car.
It would appear food system changes are called for, but the question facing Sonoma County is how to best develop and enact them? Government and a variety of local organizations are attempting to address food system inequity, but their approaches differ and at times seem to be at cross-purposes.
Sonoma County’s Food System Alliance
In 2009, the Sonoma County Food System Alliance was created through a partnership between AgInnovations of Sebastopol, the County of Sonoma and hundreds of interested stakeholders. It’s main thrust, as explained on its website, is to target food system issues and create quality ideas that lead to effective action.
In service of this systems view, a Food Action Plan was created that addresses problems and/or areas for improvement in four main areas: (1) ag and natural resources; (2) economic vitality; (3) healthy eating and (4) social equity.
As Genevieve Taylor of AgInnovations explains it, “The Food System Alliance is not a government program, it is a group that is representative of the food system, to the best of our abilities; the Food Action Plan is a plan that reflects a process that involved approximately 350 stakeholders.”
Within the Food System Alliance, Market Match programs, food redistribution programs and legislative action, particularly by the Petaluma Bounty group, are notable. Market Match doubles low-income government nutrition benefits — formerly known as Food Stamps, now as Cal Fresh—at farmer’s markets. WIC benefits (Women, Infants and Children) are also accepted in Market Match programs.
Suzi Grady, program director of Petaluma Bounty, calls for moving from hunger relief to community food security. Her organization boosts actual sustainability and calls for a system that takes into account the long-range economic, social and environmental impacts of intended actions. This is an effort to go beyond simply addressing the symptoms of hunger. Yet despite many regionally-based ideas, studies, forums, surveys and other research, the Food System Alliance has yet to make a clear impact, especially within the City of Sonoma.
The Sonoma Valley Health Roundtable is supposed to be the Sonoma Valley entity responsible for seeing Food Action Plan goals enacted locally. The group includes members from the Sonoma Valley Hospital, Sonoma Valley Community Health Center, the City of Sonoma, La Luz Center, Sonoma County Health Department, Sonoma Ecology Center, Sonoma Naturopathic Medicine, Sonoma Valley Boys and Girls Club, St. Joseph’s Health System, Vintage House Senior Services, private medical practitioners and professionals, and community members. According to one member, to date there have been no Roundtable Food Action Plan actions or successes.
The Health Roundtable, along with AgInnovations, the Food System Alliance and Sonoma Mayor Laurie Gallian, among others, have pledged to build a comprehensive response to findings in the Portrait of Sonoma County research paper. The study named hunger as a major problem.
The role of local government
The Sonoma City Council passed a resolution to support the Food Action Plan in 2014. However, according to City Manager Carol Giovanatto, this resolution by the council did not authorize or imply any action — only support for the actions of others.
Meanwhile, the City of Sonoma Community Services and Environmental Commission (CSEC) endeavored to support Food Action Plan goals through its purview with the Tuesday farmer’s market, and found it difficult to isolate clear, actionable goals to support. (“Increasing community resilience” is one example.) The challenge appears to require translating Food Action Plan goals into specific, actionable measures.
Change, therefore, is hard to come by; the Sonoma city council recently repealed the CSEC’s Farmer’s Market subsidy of $3,500, intended to defray costs to the Farmer’s Market of expanding vendor Market Match acceptance of low income citizen’s Cal Fresh and WIC benefits.
The Food Action Plan works in conjunction with the Sonoma County Department of Health Service’s Health Action Initiative, commonly called Health Action. Health Action has four goals: that all families have the economic resources to make ends meet; residents participate in community life; residents eat healthy food; and residents have health care coverage.
The current county thrust with Health Action is to reduce a legacy of socio-economic inequity, particularly as it pertains to food and housing. It is in this arena that differences in values and ideology emerge.
“The (Food Action Plan) goal is to be an invitation and catalyst for what our broader community thinks, and because it is intended to be broad and a bridge-building document, not everyone may agree,” Taylor said.
Where there is no consensus, there is little action. Thus, in an age of part-time low service sector wages, poor benefits, government austerity, and backlash against New Deal-type programs, the delivery of necessary human services has in many cases defaulted to charities and non-profits. Charity seems to be able to act where others are paralyzed by bureaucracy or budget limitations. But when it comes to hunger, charity’s actions provide symptom relief rather than structural change.
The Portrait of Sonoma County report and other big vision programs like the Food System Alliance and Climate Action 2020 suggest that answers are to be found in a collective response and increased community involvement. Yet there appears to be little or no government participation through the commitment of funds. That charity is such a big player in providing hunger relief in Sonoma County is indicative of structural problems that government is not adequately addressing.
Recognizing the effects of poverty
It is natural that discreet interests participating in the Food Action Plan would concentrate on their own areas of expertise; the intent, however, is that all pull towards the success of the Food Action Plan vision as a whole. In such an ideal scenario, different experts would not ignore their linked, systemic nature; economic vitality would not forget social equity, farming sustainability would not forget affordable access to healthy food. And, individual, grass roots, government, non-profits and charity actions would all pony up and pull in the same direction.
As AgInnovations founder Joseph McIntyre said at a Food System Alliance Forum in April, “Poverty is the greatest enemy of a good food system, it leads to all-out war, to societal collapse. Raising income is the single best indicator and lever to keep our community from coming apart.”
McIntyre has a large vision, similar to author-anthropologist Jared Diamond or food systems writer Michael Pollan. According to Diamond, poverty has been a critical factor in the collapse of previous civilizations; it is a systemic problem calling for core changes in how a society does business. The so-called Arab Spring was kicked off by price-of-bread riots.
In recognition of the effects of poverty, the vision of the Food System Alliance is broad, proposing “… a county in which everyone has access to affordable, nutritious food. Local farms and operations play a primary role in producing that food. Each part of the food system, from seed to table and back to soil, is environmentally regenerative, economically viable, and supports a healthy life for all members of our community.”
Small farmers in Sonoma Valley
Sonoma County has 589,771 acres in agricultural production, yet only 5,500 acres of that is for food, and of that 5,500 acres, only one percent is for vegetables. Here in Sonoma Valley, a small number of small farmers are aligned with the progressive Farmer’s Guild and the local Grange. They are trying to get by economically and manifest ideals of healthy eating and environmental integrity.
Access to farming land can be difficult with agricultural land prices valued at more than $125,000 per acre. Small farms have high fixed costs, are labor intensive, and compete against an industrial food production and delivery system that sells produce at lower prices.
Accordingly there is incentive for the small local farmers to sell their produce for the highest price. “Price point is a huge sticking point,” said AgInnovations’ Taylor.
Making headway on the social equity pillar of the Food Action Plan has not been easy from any quarter. Local small farmers are supporting the healthy eating pillar of the Food Action Plan. Discussions with the Sonoma County Land Trust about making land available to small farmers free of charge or for reasonable rates have gone on forever without gaining much traction.
Barriers to Action
The food system as a whole contains beliefs and philosophical divergences that prevent the wide range of actors from pulling in the same direction.
At the last Food Action Plan Forum, in March, Sonoma County Supervisor Gore spoke of “bringing back integration… “putting together what the Industrial Revolution separated.” In referring to the plan, Gore also said, “let it be a community driven thing”, i.e. in his view, government would not be pulling for any structural changes to an inequitable, industrial system. Supervisor Zane had a bit different take, commenting that “social justice is at the heart of this movement.” During his comments, County Ag Commissioner Lineger wondered, “How can we grow a regional food shed”?
Yet to be answered is the question, can we end food scarcity, hunger and insecurity when the huge bulk of county agricultural land goes to producing wine? The fact remains, locally-grown food remains economically out of reach for those with low incomes.
In Sonoma Valley Schools, half the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Clearly, there is a major need for affordable food. Cody Williams, program manager of school Food and Nutrition Services, goes to great lengths to negotiate lower prices for local, healthy food that he can buy in bulk.
Charity, as noted, treats symptoms and does not provide a long-term solution to eliminating hunger. In Sonoma Valley it is hard to not notice the conspicuous absence of Food Action Plan programs, let alone awareness. Boutique and high-priced organic food predominate.
It appears the county food system is unsustainable and needs realignment at all levels. At the moment, charity is the only leg of the food policy stool that seems to be capable of supporting direct and effective action. Charity however, masks a sense of urgency needed to make structural changes. Thus Redwood Empire Food Bank and associated charities are meeting symptomatic food and hunger needs of county residents, while the Food System Alliance and Food Action Plan continue to struggle to find ways to address systemic causes and engage local governments to develop long-term solutions.