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Local Food, Inc. 

Sonoma County's Food Action Plan could entirely rethink the ways we produce, distribute and consume

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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?"

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