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