Sonoma County has a rich history of agricultural prosperity, and a resilient and thriving local food system might seem like a given. But the landscape that Luther Burbank once called the earth's "chosen spot" still has quite a way to go toward food security for all of its residents, both in access to healthy local food for low-income residents and larger scale protection against potentially devastating disruptions brought on by natural disasters.
Plenty of food is grown within Sonoma County, yielding a problem that's largely in distribution. Currently, much of the "local food" in area markets and restaurants is grown or made locally, shipped to distribution warehouses in the Central Valley and then shipped back.
The Healthy and Sustainable Food Action Plan, created by the Sonoma County Food System Alliance and the Department of Health Services, is designed to change that, but its larger goals are far-reaching—namely, to "build a food system that creates health and prosperity for both our people and our environment," via policy, institutional and individual changes.
Approved by the board of supervisors in October—with big support from outgoing supervisor Valerie Brown—the plan calls for Sonoma County to become the healthiest county in California by 2020. It also follows on the heels of State Sen. Noreen Evans' April 2012 announcement of the creation of a senate committee set up expressly for studying local, organic and sustainable food systems throughout California—systems which encompass a complex quilt of relationships that include farming, processing, distribution and consumption.
The Food Action plan is based on a model that's proved successful in Oregon's Multnomah County, where Portland is the county seat. The plan is divided into four areas: Agriculture and Natural Resources, Economic Vitality, Healthy Eating and Social Equity, and a Declaration of Support that local governments, businesses, organizations and individuals will be asked to sign.
It's a commitment that could make all the difference in terms of health and economics, says Jana Hill, Sonoma County Department of Health Services program planning analyst. "If you enhance the food system, if more food is produced locally, you can better have the capacity to adapt to short-term disaster or long-term climate change," says Hill. "The question is, how do we build a more resilient food system that will help us in the long-term?"
The intention wasn't to write an action plan that just sits on the shelf, Hill adds.
"We've done the initial work to get people together with the Food Forum in 2011 and now the action plan, but this stuff just takes a while with a big group," she says. "We'll start getting legs, but it takes a while to move the mountain."
A November 2011 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that the local-food industry in the United States generates around $4.8 billion a year, four times larger than previous counts. Glenda Humiston, California state director for rural development at the USDA, says that Sonoma County has always been on the cutting edge of the local-food trend. The Food Action Plan is a natural evolution, she says, and one that resonates.
"We are totally committed to it," says Humiston. "A large focus is on the value chain between farm and the fork—that's the missing link, that's what is creating our biggest challenge in enabling regional food systems."
The county may have reams of fertile land (often at prohibitively high cost to beginning farmers) for growing a diverse assortment of food, but the challenges lie in making the land available to farmers, in addition to getting that food from the farms to restaurants and markets in a streamlined way.
The USDA has helped fund projects like the Farm To School Lunch Sales, a program that assists institutional buyers such as school districts, hospitals and jails in utilizing local foods. Humiston says that challenges remain. "A school district can't have a hundred farmers show up at the door," she says. "They need an aggregation hub to do the initial processing service for the food."
For this reason, the USDA gave grants to the North Coast Regional Food System Network (NCRFSN), which is working with Community Alliance for Farmers to create a regional food processing center, where produce from small, local farmers would be processed, packed, sorted and then made available for purchase by large buyers. Eventually, instead of relying on trucks to bring fresh produce in from large warehouses in Sacramento and other parts of the state, Sonoma County could actually process and distribute fresh foods directly from an aggregated food hub.
"Establishing local aggregation hubs is one of the biggest challenges," says Humiston.
A group called People's Harvest had worked to bridge this gap between small family farms and local institutions—leasing a 10,000-square-foot facility in Petaluma to be turned into a distribution and aggregation hub this summer—until Buckelew Programs, its funder, backed out due to high costs.
Cliff Paulin, NCRFSN project coordinator, says that his organization's main thrust is to support producers in Marin, Sonoma, Lake, Napa and Mendocino counties and to connect efforts across the five regions. They're also working to make it easier for small-scale producers to create sellable products without using commercial kitchens. In addition, the organization has worked closely with CAFF to create a functioning food hub for distribution of locally grown food, which might ensure that in the event an earthquake knocks out access to Highway 101, say, county residents would still have food.
"Food security comes down to actively utilizing our agricultural land to produce food," says Paulin. "We need to support existing producers and to bring in more new producers."
Unfortunately, the high cost and topography of land in Sonoma County can make it difficult to produce large quantities of food, unlike, say, the Central Valley. This is another component of the puzzle the Food Action Plan attempts to address.
Others are working on smaller-scale distribution. Tim Page is the co-owner of F.E.E.D Sonoma. In 2011, he and Michelle Dubin took over the 23-year-old business, formerly called Terra Sonoma. The company acts as a wholesale distributor/aggregator, or middleman, between more than 30 Sonoma County farms and restaurants, markets and caterers spanning the Bay Area. They move to the Barlow in Sebastopol sometime in late winter 2013.
Page says the overarching goal is to promote the microregional distribution of food, a model that, if successful, could be replicated in other places.
A former institutional stockbroker, Page decided to put into action his passion for working within and strengthening the local food system.
"It's our responsibility as a county and a community to do this as vitally as possible," he says. "There are a lot of best places to grow food on the planet and Sonoma County is definitely one of them. If we can't do it as a community, then who will?"