Influencing Local Land Use Comes Down to Making Your Voice Heard

By Sustainable Solano

When it comes to how land is put to use in your community — whether rural or urban — it is important to remember that each local citizen has a voice and that those voices can influence government decisions around planning and zoning.

Experts on planning and land use discussed how to be informed and take action around such decisions at the Rural & Urban Land Use: Planning, Zoning & the Local Food System event on Nov. 3 hosted by the Solano Local Food System Alliance. The online event started with keynote speaker Dr. Catherine Brinkley with the Center for Regional Change at UC Davis, and a panel that included Solano County Planning Manager Allan Calder, Solano Land Trust’s Tracy Ellison, and Vacaville Senior Planner Tyra Hays. You can watch the video of the event below.

While the topics covered were wide-ranging, several highlights emerged.

During her keynote, Brinkley talked about the importance of looking at where similar zoning and planning decisions have been in effect and also analyzing where the gaps exist. This is difficult because city and county general plans have not been kept in a central location and, when they can be found on government websites, they are not always easy to search for the particular land use that is being researched.

“Not all plans are in the same place,” she said. “You can’t Google ‘I’d like a recipe for food security’ the way you do for pumpkin pie.”

That’s why the Center for Regional Change has been collecting general plans and creating a database that can be searched for keywords that will help to cut through the dense text of general plans. Searches show when the plans were created and can help to see if nearby jurisdictions are doing something similar or if a municipality might be the first to have an innovative policy in place. This can support everything from community advocacy to supporting general plan updates.

In the local food system, this might mean searching agricultural plans that affect policies and purchasing, development rights, or greenbelts in agricultural areas; looking at food equity policies; or exploring urban growth boundaries. You can learn more about the database here.

Another part of influencing the planning process around the food system is making sure you are involved. This is true for citizens of any age — even if you’re not yet old enough to vote, you can make your voice heard to influence planning decisions. Sometimes what it takes is showing up.

Hayes recommends speaking with city council members or bringing forth a proposal around planning issues. It can be involving yourself in general plan update meetings and land use discussions. Having interested residents who support an idea helps greatly, she said.

Calder said there are often technical or citizens advisory committees involved in shaping new plans, and these are opportunities to participate as a citizen in planning and zoning updates.

The panel also touched on hot topics including urban agriculture/community gardens; the use of prime ag land for greenhouse growing; agritourism; and foreign entities buying local farmland.

Interested in learning more about the local food system? The Solano Local Food System Alliance holds public educational events every quarter to address different topics that affect local food. The Alliance includes 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. You can learn more about the Alliance here.

Vallejo Food Rescue Project Promotes Community Collaboration to Share Information, Resources, Food

By Sustainable Solano

The Vallejo Food Rescue Project had its official launch meeting in early June at Loma Vista Farm, bringing together people from organizations involved in current food rescue and distribution operations in the city and seeking guidance on how to streamline and shape food rescue efforts in Vallejo.

“So much of what we do is not about lifting a box of food,” Food is Free Solano Executive Director Heather Pierini said. “It’s about getting food to people in need.”

The Vallejo Food Rescue Project seeks to do just that in a pilot project that could serve as a model for elsewhere in the county — perhaps elsewhere in the state and nation.

Starting the meeting in the shade of the large tree that centers the entrance to the educational farm and surrounded by pollinator and native plants, the attendees acknowledged the indigenous stewards of the land’s history and shared about their own work in the food system. Organizations represented at the meeting included the Islamic Center of Vallejo; Emmanuel Arms Community Inc., the nonprofit arm of Emmanuel Temple Apostolic Church; Catholic Charities of Yolo-Solano; and Vallejo Together.

Many related how the need for food has grown in the community and they could serve many more people if they had more access to food for distribution. Food pantries quickly empty out, and hundreds of people show up for meals or to pick up food.

Heather noted that the meeting brought together a diverse group of individuals and organizations. Each of these groups can reach different communities, and it’s important to make sure resources are spread out so that people feel they have someone to reach out to, she said.

The Vallejo Food Rescue Project is a joint effort between Food is Free Solano and Sustainable Solano under a grant from the Office of Environmental Justice at the EPA. It seeks to support current efforts by creating a network of organizations and individuals and develop an app that can be used to streamline the giving and receiving of excess food within the city. The app is being developed by Kim Quach of FreeBites.

The project is using a collaborative problem-solving approach under EPA guidance.

“The people doing the work actually design the solution,” said Lauren Gucik, the SuSol program manager involved in the project.

That’s why it was important to have this first meeting with selected stakeholders. Upcoming meetings will be open to the general public and involve more wide-ranging discussion around how the Vallejo community can share food between institutions, organizations and individuals.

The issue is two-fold: The state is now requiring that excess food go first to people, then animals, then compost to keep food waste out of landfills. There is also an increased need for food, with hunger rising sharply in the county during the pandemic. Organizations that seek to distribute food run into myriad challenges, from restaurants that are hesitant to donate food due to liability concerns to not having enough ways to get information out to people about the food distribution and other services they are offering. The Vallejo Food Rescue Project seeks to address that by increasing collaboration, food security, better health for our communities and a reduction in landfill waste, said Cristal Gallegos with Food is Free Solano.

A big part of that is the app, which the group discussed. Kim developed FreeBites while a student at UC Davis. She witnessed first-hand how food was often thrown away after university-catered events, while at the same time there were students who were hungry on campus. She created the app as a direct response to this and to help bridge the disconnect. As part of this project, she’s further developing the app to help with the logistics and build community around food sharing.

The app will allow posting of surplus food, create a map that shows available food resources based on distance, and match donors and recipients.

Heather likened the use of the app to the way someone might post an item on Facebook Marketplace. It’s a way to share what is available locally with those who might be interested. But through using filters, those donating food and those receiving it are able to narrow down who gets the notifications. So if a caterer has 30 extra meals, their post would go only to those organizations that have said they could take that many meals and distribute them properly.

“That right there takes me five texts,” Heather said. By shortening the communication chain through the app, the process can become easier and more efficient.

The excitement and interest around the app was apparent as the group discussed what support they could use. But something else was also going on during the meeting — connections were happening within the room.

“I’d like to acknowledge the collaboration happening here,” Cristal said, noting how when the meeting started people were talking about how they didn’t know what each other’s organizations offered, and now that they had shared and did know, they were already seeking ways to work together.

By the end of the meeting, people were inviting each other to come volunteer and observe their distribution events and to find other ways to connect. They said they left feeling hopeful, optimistic, informed and energetic and that doors were opening and help was on the way.

The project will be working on a prototype of the app through the end of July. At the next meeting, on Wednesday, Aug. 17, members of the food rescue community and the general public will be asked for feedback on the app and the possibilities and challenges they foresee.

Vallejo Food Rescue Project Community Meeting

The next VFRP community meeting will be Aug. 17 at the John F. Kennedy Library at 505 Santa Clara St. in Vallejo. The meeting will be an opportunity to learn more about the project and the app.

More details will be announced soon. Learn more here.

Outgrowing Chicken Tenders

By Cecilia Abiva, St. Patrick-St. Vincent Catholic High School Graduate

Cecilia Abiva blossomed week after week in our six-week culinary class at St. Patrick-St. Vincent, gaining confidence, having fun and, as a senior in the group, stepping up as a sweet-natured leader bringing the boombox with music every week and oftentimes staying late to help with the dishes with her crew of friends. In the SuSol Youth Cooking Program, we seek to create spaces for young adults to explore their creativity in the kitchen while developing culinary skills they can use to feed themselves and their community. The program is rooted in the fresh food available from our local food system, and promotes health and community culture. Not every student will choose to become a chef, but we hope, like Cici, they will walk away empowered for their future path with a deep respect for where food comes from and an affinity for vegetables.

Cecilia Abiva, third from left, during cooking class

Like most kids, my diet consisted of only the crème de la crème: dinosaur chicken nuggets slathered in ketchup, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and pineapples cut by my mom (and my mom only). While such comestibles provided adequate nourishment for a child whose days were filled with endless hours spent outside playing hopscotch in the warm sunshine or building castles in the living room with couch cushions and pillows, the contents of my stomach became a concern when my juvenile palate neglected to mature with the rest of my body. I was an 18-year-old who scoured every menu for anything that consisted of or bore a resemblance to chicken tenders.

Unfazed by the criticism of my family, who always managed to point out the contents of my plate during family dinners, I did not make any drastic changes to my diet until recently. Following the flurry of events that transpired during the first semester of my senior year, I found myself with an abundance of free time. Finally unfettered by the stress of finals, college applications, and being a candidate for homecoming royalty, I decided to add a new skill to my repertoire: cooking! I joined a culinary class offered by my school with a few friends. And as you can imagine, it was no easy feat. Although I had found success in the classroom as I am the valedictorian of my graduating class, being a student in the kitchen was a humbling experience. The extent of my culinary expertise at the beginning of my cooking adventure was limited to the use of a microwave. However, I faced an even bigger dilemma: Would I actually be eating the food that I was cooking?

On the first day of class, I cooked tofu stir fry with rice. The preparation of the meal went rather smoothly. Other than a few near mishaps with a knife and the flame on the kitchen stove, everyone walked out with all ten fingers and eyebrows intact. I sat at the table anxiously awaiting our meal. There was not a chicken tender or bottle of ketchup in sight. But the moment that I picked up my fork and reluctantly shoveled the concoction of onions, carrots, spinach, and celery into my mouth, my mouth curled up when I began to chew. It was pretty good! With just a little taste, my love for cooking came to fruition and it provided a new outlet to relieve my stress. And with a little bit of practice and patience, however, cooking became less daunting and more enjoyable. Being able to cook my own food and making an effort to eat sustainably also had a positive impact on my health. I also shared my affinity for cooking with my family as I became in charge of making Saturday night dinners. The sly looks that I once received at the dinner table were replaced with hearty laughter and the sound of our mouths voraciously eating our food.

Discovering this appreciation for cooking not only expanded my taste for food, but it also fostered an appetite for adventure and service for others … two traits that I hope to explore more at UC Berkeley. If admitted, I plan on continuing to nurture my culinary skills by joining the Cal Cooking Club while also exploring new ventures like taking part in the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the Red Cross. I look forward to trying new things, ketchup or no ketchup.

Reflecting on the Youth Cooking Program

Lauren Gucik, Program Manager

As SuSol’s first year offering a Youth Cooking Program comes to a close, we can surely say that many meals were shared, lessons were learned, and the farmers and specialty crops of Solano Country were celebrated! We facilitated 5 unique courses with St. Patrick-St. Vincent (2 sessions), the Girl Scouts, 4-H of Solano, and the Benicia Teen Center. We spent hours in the kitchen developing culinary skills and exploring easy ways to enjoy healthy fresh food. During our farm field trips, students met with farmers and land stewards and saw firsthand where our food comes from and what it takes to feed the community. And at our final session, students planned and cooked for their own families, serving multiple dishes in a family-style gathering.

In the kitchen, students met regularly with local chefs to develop comfort preparing fresh easy recipes. We began with kitchen safety and knife training and introduced students to simple preparations such as sauteing, steaming, roasting, and making a simple vinaigrette. Each technique was paired with recipes that highlighted local foods grown in Solano. As the seasons changed, so did the recipes. Many students said their favorite part was working with the knives and learning the different ways you can cut and chop and how what lends best to different preparations. It was very inspiring to see how students blossomed throughout the course, gaining more confidence in themselves and their abilities in the kitchen. Their openness to trying new things was an inspiration.

At the close of each class, we dressed the tables with fabric and flowers and shared the meal they had just prepared, experiencing how everyone had the same ingredients but each group’s final dish tasted a little bit different as inevitably one group cooked the onions a little longer or someone was feeling extra spicy and added more pepper flakes. Even the shyest of students opened up around the table when our discussion turned to the food system at large. We spoke of the economic, ecological and community health benefits of supporting local farmers and shared maps of farm stands and CSAs available in their neighborhood. These conversations set the stage for our farm visits, where students picked strawberries in the field, hung out with chickens and lambs, and ate a farm fresh lunch outside with produce harvested right before their eyes. They had the opportunity to see firsthand the challenges and rewards of being a small scale responsible farmer in Solano County. One student even said “This is the best field trip of my life!” right before we encountered three large snakes on our path to the bus! The youth are as brave as they are inspiring!

In these classes, we focused on creating a future of health and wealth in our communities and for our planet. In addition to cultivating comfort in the kitchen for high schoolers, we aim to strengthen relationships between farmers and their communities and foster an authentic, lasting appreciation for fresh local food. By the final cooking session, students were ready to step up to plan the menu and cook for their friends and family members. They stood tall in their responsibility; providing for their community. It is our hope to expand this program to continue to instill this understanding of local, seasonal food in Solano youth, with the possibility of supporting a healthy meal service to bolster our local food economy and our collective immune system.

We are currently pursuing funding to continue working with youth in the kitchen and on the farm. Please contact if you’d like to connect about future partnership opportunities.

Regenerative Agriculture: Health for the Land & People

By Sustainable Solano

Event speakers (from left) Harald Hoven, Michael Wedgley and Rose Curley (fourth from left), speak with Scott Dodson, Elena Karoulina and Priscilla Yeaney at the Pleasants Valley demonstration site

“Regenerative Agriculture.” It’s a buzzword, but just what does it mean?

Rose Curley asked this question of about 30 people gathered for the regenerative agriculture event that was part of the Solano Local Food System Alliance‘s quarterly meeting. The event brought together three speakers to cover different sustainable agricultural practices. Rose is a GrizzlyCorps fellow with Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) in the organization’s Ecological Farming Program.

The crowd did its best to answer the question. Regenerative agriculture is ancestral traditions, self-sustaining, biodiversity, organic, no waste, healing, no till, place-based, nutrient-dense, abundant, soil-building, interdependence … the list had more than 25 suggestions.

The range of answers “speaks to how broad this term is,” Rose said. “You see it on farms, the produce section of large grocery stores, and tacked onto restaurant menus.”

Rose then went over some of the basics of regenerative agriculture and its intention to return health to the land while growing nutrient-dense food and building overall resilience for farmers and our communities. She brought a chunk of soil from the farm where she works to talk about the makeup of healthy soil and maximizing biodiversity above and below ground, and some cover crops that cover and nourish the soil. Regenerative agriculture asks for an emphasis on a more holistic approach to farming, but that can be gained through a variety of practices, she said. (On the topic of nutrient-dense foods, she said you can learn more about how healthy soil creates healthy food by reading some of the research that has been done at Singing Frogs Farm in Sebastopol.)

One of the most important parts of the conversation around water and soil health and conserving natural resources is the wealth of knowledge that farmers can offer to each other to build resilience, she said. This support is particularly important because of the barriers to farming in a regenerative manner: the higher financial investment needed, the time it takes to see returns and improved health in the system, and social and cultural barriers.

The conversation pulled in much of the audience, with observations offered about how the term “organic” has lost its meaning, the use of hydroponic growing that doesn’t use or return anything to the soil, how to better promote and support growers using regenerative practices, and the idea of making Pleasants Valley a demonstration corridor for different regenerative approaches to build more public interest and understanding.

The event was held at the farm site of Pleasant Valley School, with the seating and presentation area carefully arranged and decorated with spring flowers and sporting a table of Solano-grown food for the attendees (and eyed appraisingly by the three resident donkeys). Sustainable Solano is creating a demonstration permaculture site on the property in partnership with Pleasant Valley School, which will also pursue a biodynamic garden on site in accordance with Waldorf educational principles. The event had speakers on both approaches to the landscape.

This is a new scale of project for Sustainable Solano, which has not worked on a farm property before, noted our executive director, Elena Karoulina. The hope is to plant the seeds through the foundation of the permaculture site so that the school community can continue to grow it in scope and vision over the years.

Property owner Shea McGuire said the hope is to instill stewardship in the Pleasant Valley School students, giving them an understanding that they are part of the ecosystem and to “keep the noise of the world out of childhood.” Elena and Shea signed the partnership agreement for the demonstration project at the beginning of the meeting. We invite you to join us for a public planting day on Saturday, May 28, to create the foundation for this permaculture site.

Solano Gardens Program Manager Michael Wedgley, who is designing the demonstration permaculture site on the farm, spoke about permaculture. Permaculture is a way to grow plants in a harmonious way with nature, guided by principles that can be applied to everything from a landscape to how an organization is run. Recognizing the relationships of everything in the system, including the relationships of the plants to one another, is vital to the design, he said.

Michael addressed questions and conversation around a good introductory permaculture book (Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway), taking fire into account when designing in a fire zone, and the dangers of introducing non-native species to an area.

Harald Hoven, a retired biodynamic farmer who still consults regularly on the practice, talked about the history of biodynamic farming as it arose nearly 100 years ago. A main focus of biodynamic agriculture is building vitality into the system that then translates into the food we receive from the system – vitality that is often lost in today’s agricultural practices. Biodynamics also focuses on relationships, with plants and livestock kept in balance on the site to yield land fertility. Sometimes, things have to be brought onto the site, such as manure or compost, to build that fertility, but ideally everything comes from the land itself, he said.

Just as we are always developing and becoming something new, so the land grows and develops with our help and guidance, Harald said. Gradually, it all works toward the greater health of the land.

From all of the talks and conversation it was clear that these different approaches have the same objective: health, both for the land and for people who consume what that land yields.

Our next big event, Bounty of the County at the Solano County Fair on June 18 will recognize that yield through the produce of Solano family farms. You also can learn more about the Solano Local Food System Alliance at the event. Alliance members will be there to hear about your vision for local food and your commitment to supporting the local food system. Another opportunity is at the Alliance’s quarterly meetings, which are always open to the public. The next one on Aug. 4 will focus on ways to buy local food, from purchasing directly from Solano farmers to Cultivate Community Food Co-op and other retail locations.

Pleasants Valley Demonstration Permaculture Site Installation

Join us on Saturday, May 28, to learn about sustainable landscape design and help install a demonstration site based on permaculture principles at a Pleasants Valley farm!

Learn more and register here

2022 Benicia & Vallejo Demonstration Food Forest Garden Tour Slideshow

By Sustainable Solano

We were so excited to visit with those of you who attended this year’s Benicia & Vallejo Demonstration Food Forest Garden Tour on April 23. It was uplifting seeing so many people able to return to the gardens, have meaningful conversations with the Food Forest Keepers and each other, reconnect with old friends and make new acquaintances. We appreciate all of you who attended and hope that you will join us for upcoming events (including the Fairfield & Vacaville Demonstration Food Forest Garden Tour on June 4), workshops, talks and more if you are inspired to bring some of these waterwise approaches to your gardens.

Learn about this year’s gardens here. And view the slideshow below to see each garden and some highlights from the day. Thank you to everyone who shared their photos!

Benicia & Vallejo Tour Slideshow

2022 Benicia & Vallejo Demonstration Food Forest Tour

This program is made possible by the generous support from the Solano County Water Agency.

2022 Benicia & Vallejo Demonstration Food Forest Tour is April 23!

By Nicole Newell, Sustainable Landscaping Program Manager

We will be opening up our demonstration food forest gardens in Benicia and Vallejo for the annual tour on April 23, and are thrilled to be back with our regular tour! Learn about this year’s gardens here.

Each garden is a unique expression of the homeowner and the land and was designed using permaculture principles. These gardens offer ideas and inspiration on how to use water efficiently while creating a lush thriving garden that supports life and provides food and habitat. During this pandemic, the food forest keepers have been doing really cool things to serve the Solano County community. This year some of the garden sites will have information on what they have been up to for the past two years: bees, honey, Monarch butterflies, Food is Free stands, native plants, local food and so much more. All of the gardens will showcase plants that thrive in Solano County!

When you pick up your full-day itinerary at Avant Garden in Benicia, you’ll have an opportunity to hear a talk on soil biology and soil health at 9 am. Want to join us for just the afternoon touring Vallejo sites? You can pick up your itinerary from noon-1 pm at St. Patrick-St. Vincent Catholic High School in Vallejo and have an opportunity to learn about what’s going on in local food. Find more details below!

For the past two years we were challenged to get creative with garden tours. We created a few video tours the first year of the pandemic that expanded our educational video library but couldn’t convey the full vision of what it’s like to stand inside these gardens. Last year the gardens were open to private tours.

Over the past two years I have missed seeing people smile and the magic that unfolds when people gather. We thrive when we are connected. Our deepest hope for this year’s tour is that people get energized and inspired to take action and become caretakers of the land and each other.

We look forward to seeing you this year as we return to a full tour, but with some changes that should add to your experience. Read below to find out more about the day’s events and what to expect in each garden so you can plan out your day!

Register here

This program is made possible by the generous support from the Solano County Water Agency.

Plan Your Day

Learn about each garden you can visit here

How It Will Work

You can choose to tour for the whole day or for half a day.
Learn about the gardens here
Benicia Demonstration Food Forest Gardens will be open 10 am-1 pm
Vallejo Demonstration Food Forest Gardens will be open 1-4 pm

Register here

Itinerary pickup and special events:

9-11 am: Itineraries will be available at Avant Garden in Benicia (400 First St.). This itinerary will include all of the demonstration food forest gardens in Benicia (open in the morning) and Vallejo (open in the afternoon).

9 am: Sustainable Solano Program Manager Michael Wedgley will give a talk at Avant Garden on how to have garden abundance with healthy soil biology, including the creation of compost extracts and teas to add soil biology where it’s needed. He will then apply compost extract to the community shared plot at the garden, which grows food for donation. ***Bring a mason jar and get some compost extract while supplies last.

12-1 pm: Itineraries for the Vallejo garden sites (open in the afternoon) will be available at St. Patrick-St. Vincent Catholic High School (1500 Benicia Rd., Vallejo)

12 pm: Learn about Sustainable Solano’s local food programs at St. Patrick-St. Vincent Catholic High School. The Local Food team will have details about Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs in Vallejo and Benicia where you buy directly from local farms, favorite family recipes from our Youth Cooking Program students, information about local farms, agritourism, and how to engage in food rescue and recovery. Stick around for student demonstrations and check out beehives and honey there on campus.