Got Specialty Crops? Sustainable Solano Embarks on New Project, Funded by CDFA

By Stephanie Oelsligle Jordan, Local Food Program Manager

In our mission to create a local food system that is environmentally sustainable, economically viable and socially just, Sustainable Solano applied for a “Specialty Crop Block Program” grant from the California Department of Food and Agriculture. We are pleased to announce that we received the grant! The overall purpose of these funds is to support projects that increase competitiveness of specialty crops in California. Specialty crops are primarily those that we eat (fruit, vegetables, tree nuts, culinary herbs) but also include nursery products. As you might guess, over 100 specialty crops are grown in Solano County!

Sustainable Solano’s project is titled “Solano County Farm to Institution and Public Education Project,” and will take place from November 2019 through March 2022. There are four interrelated parts to the project. The first is development of an “info hub” of specialty crops, farmer profiles and collateral materials to promote Solano-grown specialty crops. Second is building a foundation for in-house hospital kitchens and culinary professionals (restaurants/caterers) to introduce one to two seasonal specialty crops per month. We will help bring attention to these foods through signage and other promotional materials developed in the “info hub.” Third, we will host 88 cooking classes all over the county (yes, 88!), to increase knowledge on the health benefits, sourcing and preparation of specialty crops. Finally, we will partner with Solano County Fairgrounds for a special event called Bounty of the County, which will pair farmers with restaurants for special tastings, educational events and more. We will also examine current county policies on agritourism and work to improve those that do not fully serve our farmers.

You might be wondering why “farm to institution” and “public education”? This project is in response to the results of a feasibility study led by our partners at UC Davis, which concluded that pairing farms with institutional customers (not end consumers) would provide a steady demand and allow them to increase capacity. The feasibility study also showed the need for increased public awareness on local, seasonal food around us and education on cooking/preserving those foods. Our place-based public outreach program seeks to establish personal relationships between communities and the farmers/food around them. Our ultimate goal is to have communities that value local food, leading to greater economic stability for our specialty crop farmers.

Stay tuned for updates, and keep an eye out for those cooking classes! We will be looking for people who know how to cook and want to share that knowledge within their communities by leading these classes. If you’re interested or have questions, send a message to stephanie@sustainablesolano.org

Building Alliance Toward Action on Solano County’s Local Food System

By Sustainable Solano

Solano Local Food System Alliance members and key stakeholders during the Listening Sessions.

In the pursuit of building a system that supports farmers and generates demand for local food, Sustainable Solano held Listening Sessions on October 22 and 23 with the Solano Local Food System Alliance to find out what key stakeholders need and want to see accomplished. The two-day event built upon previous efforts in the county, including “food oasis” and corner store makeovers that brought fresh produce into areas that previously had little access, often known of as “food deserts.” The Listening Sessions included farmers, institutional customers such as schools and hospitals, agency representatives and elected officials and were facilitated by Allison Goin, a strategic consultant in food systems and specialist in USDA grants.

Part of the conversation centered around the definition of “local,” which can carry so many connotations that it often means little to those who come across it. Some agencies dictate that local be within 100 miles or 400 miles or even within the same state, which in California covers a vast area.

A recent research article co-authored by Alliance member and UC Davis Assistant Professor Kristin Kiesel found there was more value in branding food as coming from an area or region rather than simply as “local.” In Solano County, there is a strong desire among farmers and other stakeholders to bring back the “Solano Grown” marketing label that lets county producers benefit from coordinated marketing and gives consumers a way of knowing where the food originated.

There was also a lot of interest in farm-to-institution efforts, particularly farm-to-school programs that could bring more food from area growers into Solano County schools and give students a better understanding of where their food comes from and the importance of food quality and good nutrition.

Listening Session participants gather to reflect before sharing a meal

Some have already started to make those connections. Vacaville Unified School District Director of Student Nutrition Juan Cordon recalled working with Cloverfield Farm and one of the district’s produce suppliers to bring seasonal peaches to the serving line — and how delicious those peaches were. Opportunities were floated for student field trips to local farms to see how vegetables that would appear on their lunch trays the next day were grown, and challenges raised, such as the Solano County Fairgrounds’ efforts to get more third-graders to participate in its annual Youth Ag Day.

The farm-to-institution conversation also touched on Sustainable Solano’s work with Kaiser Permanente in Vallejo on a pilot program that will replace some of the fruit and vegetables served in the cafeteria with locally grown seasonal produce and build community awareness through strategic signage that gives consumers a way to learn about the food and farmers behind it. Kaiser Nutrition Department Manager John Healy participated in the Listening Sessions. Through this partnership, we hope to both amplify current opportunities at Kaiser and engage other hospitals in similar work.

Community leaders and elected officials tour Be Love Farm with farmer Matthew Engelhart

The Solano Local Food System Alliance grew out of Sustainable Solano’s local food advisory board, which was an instrumental part of our efforts under our USDA Local Food Promotion Program project. The Alliance brings together a wide variety of stakeholders committed to fulfilling the mission of creating an environmentally sustainable, economically viable, socially just and equitable local food system in Solano County. The Alliance’s work and the Listening Sessions are made possible through a grant from Solano County Public Health in partnership with the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation.

To make a strong local food system sustainable will demand policy action, such as guiding institutions to make a portion of their purchases local or looking at the regulations that affect farmers in rural or urban areas. On Oct. 23, elected officials and policymakers met for feedback on what had come out of the Oct. 22 Listening Sessions and through prior one-on-one interviews with those officials.

County Supervisor Erin Hannigan speaks with gathered officials at the Listening Sessions breakfast

Many of the concerns came down to two categories, Sustainable Solano Executive Director Elena Karoulina said: Community Health and Community Wealth. There was an understanding that good, nutritious food advances the health of a community and good farming practices mean healthy water, air and soil, she said. There was also an interest in keeping money spent local, building that local economy.

The Listening Sessions were held at Be Love Farm, a regenerative farm in Vacaville, and included tours of the farm, which gave some participants a first-time look at how the systems on a farm can work together to create healthy soil and healthy food. Discussions on local food and farming extended to questions and conversations on the tour. We’re grateful to Matthew and Terces Engelhart for the beautiful setting and farm insight vital to the meetings.

Many of the participants noted that the conversation gave them a better understanding of the other players involved in the local food system and the resources that may be available to them through those connections.

Following the sessions, participants were ready to direct their energy toward action. There was excitement around supporting a local food system among those who attended and a desire to move that forward, including building community awareness and consumer demand, creating policy that supports agriculture and prioritizes local food sourcing, not just the lowest bids, and continuing to make connections and share resources to grow the market locally for local farmers.

The Alliance will meet again in January. But you can take steps to support local food now. Check out our Local Food Guide here and find out what’s going on at our Local Food Happenings page. Join a CSA and get fresh produce while supporting an area farm. Do you have a role in the local food system and want to be part of the conversation? Contact Local Food Program Manager Stephanie Oelsligle Jordan at stephanie@sustainablesolano.org

 

Alliance Advances Conversation Around Creating Local Food System

By Allison Nagel, Communications Manager

Solano Local Food System Alliance members discuss the need to build community awareness about local food.

The Solano Local Food System Alliance held its first official meeting at the end of August to discuss how to foster a strong local food system within the county.

Though the Alliance is a new entity, its work grows out of the efforts of many Alliance members during the past two years as the Local Food Advisory Board. In that capacity, the group of leaders, including farmers, and those in private businesses, public agencies and local organizations, shaped the foundation of the tasks the Alliance will take on and address during quarterly meetings.

The advisory board’s work supported the vision to diversify, expand and safeguard a local, healthy food economy that will preserve farmland, its integrity and biodiversity in the county, and ensure food access for all our communities. The mission set before the Alliance is to do the work needed across stakeholders, organizations and agencies to create an environmentally sustainable, economically viable, socially just and equitable local food system in Solano County.

At the August meeting, Alliance members started the conversation and set goals toward accomplishing that mission. They discussed the challenge farmers face from the fees involved in selling their food at different venues, reviving marketing efforts around promoting food grown in Solano County, the need to gather better data about food grown and bought in the county and planning events that help promote local food, such as Bounty of Solano County, an event that would be held at the Solano County Fairgrounds to promote local growers and restaurants.

The Alliance received updates on ongoing efforts and discussed next steps.

Alliance members enjoyed seasonal items from local farms during their meeting.

Sustainable Solano continues its efforts to build a network of institutional customers, whether healthcare providers, schools or other institutions, that will source more of their food from local farmers. Part of that project aims to educate the public on where the food is coming from — building stronger community awareness of local food and offering experiences that help build consumer preferences for local food. There was discussion of promoting a “5 by ’25” approach, which would encourage that institutional customers and individuals seek to spend 5% of their food spending on local food items.

In October, Alliance members will meet with each other and key community stakeholders and policymakers for intensive listening sessions. Those sessions are supported by tribal funding that targets systems change, allowing time to work together to suss out the vital components of creating change in the local food system. More direction and action items will come out of those meetings.

Action items to be revisited at the January Alliance meeting include:

  • Determining the fees farmers pay and analysis of what is driving those fees.
  • Revitalizing marketing efforts for food grown in the county.
  • Informing Sustainable Solano of new retail and restaurants that source locally.
  • Moving Bounty of Solano County forward for 2020.
  • Starting a conversation around policy.

August’s Alliance meeting included a presentation on best practices from Greenbelt Alliance’s Amy Hartman, who also sits on the Solano Local Food System Alliance.

She discussed the value of encouraging policy change, such as urging Solano County cities to allow urban agriculture (Vallejo is the only one that permits urban farms at the moment). She talked about framing such conversations around new uses, such as San Francisco’s classification of “neighborhood agriculture” and focusing on the benefits to public health and activating vacant lots.

Curious about the Solano Local Food System Alliance? Learn more about the USDA grant that led to the creation of the Alliance and find out more about the group’s work here.