Collaborative research and partnerships are guiding investments in a more connected, more effective regional food system—for all.
This article is excerpted from the Winter 2021 issue of Impact magazine.
In the “Farm to Fork Capital of America,” food and agriculture are major economic drivers. But despite the area’s agricultural abundance, disparities remain in food production, distribution, access, and consumption—vital components of a regional food system that works for all.
Take, for example, food and nutrition insecurity. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately harmed our region’s most vulnerable, food and nutrition insecurity were persistent challenges for so many. For years, the increasing cost of living in the capital area and stagnant wages have forced many residents to skip meals, buy cheaper fast food, and leave fridges empty. Further, historic underinvestment in some local neighborhoods—particularly, those that are predominantly Black, Hispanic, and multi-racial—has made it harder for residents to find and buy healthy, affordable, and fresh food.
The 2021 Sacramento Region Food System Action Plan is a roadmap to strengthen the capital area̕s food system.
According to data included in a recently released, Foundation-funded report, that number has grown over the past couple of years. In 2021, as many as 286,000 capital area residents are food insecure.
“When you dig into the reality of food insecurity in local communities, you get a glimpse at the tangle of problems facing our entire food system,” said Niva Flor, Chief Impact & Strategy Officer at the Foundation. “The stakes are high. Food insecurity is often a proxy for greater socioeconomic inequities, and we need strategic investments and partnerships to make a lasting difference.”
The 2021 Sacramento Region Food System Action Plan (Regional Action Plan) is a roadmap with those investments and partnerships in mind. Conducted by Valley Vision in partnership with the Foundation, the Regional Action Plan updates research from 2015 that was the first of its kind to assess the region’s entire food landscape and offer recommendations to build a healthier, more connected food system.
Informed by listening sessions with stakeholders across the region’s food sector and deep dives into quantitative data, the Regional Action Plan identifies specific opportunities and projects that, with sustained support, could facilitate meaningful change in the local food system—projects like food hubs, incubators, public markets, central and community kitchens, community gardens, mobile markets, urban farms, storage facilities, and other critical food system infrastructure.
“Food and nutrition security, ensuring no one goes hungry—those are the topics that immediately come to mind for many people when they think about food-related issues. The reality is that in an agricultural region like ours, the whole system is connected, the whole system needs to be strengthened,” said Trish Kelly, Managing Director at Valley Vision.
As a result, in addition to food and nutrition security, the Regional Action Plan identifies key assets, challenges, and opportunities in five complementary focus areas that affect the local food system: the viability of agriculture, environmental sustainability, local food economy, careers in food and agriculture, and health and nutrition.
Because of the system’s interconnectivity, actions in one focus area cascade to benefit others. For example, a concerted effort to increase CalFresh (federally known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP) enrollment for eligible residents would ensure those who are food insecure have increased access to healthy foods, and bring positive economic benefits to local farmers, distributors, and retailers—benefits to the tune of almost $150 million each year.
As the Regional Action Plan makes clear, in so many of the areas identified for action, the nonprofit sector carries a major share of the lift. Recognizing the critical importance of these organizations is vital for any agenda that drives change, said Kelly. She highlighted Alchemist CDC's work to make CalFresh benefits available at farmers markets, as one example. As another, she pointed to Center for Land-Based Learning’s apprenticeship program that trains incumbent workers to be farm managers, capitalizing on the knowledge they possess, offering career advancement opportunities, and creating a pipeline for sector leadership into the future; the organization’s program models the way targeted policies and support can advance the economic security of low- and moderate-income households in our community.
Supporting the progress made by existing programs like these and fostering new cross-sector partnerships will be critical to realizing the opportunities outlined in the Regional Action Plan, keeping more food- and agriculture-related dollars in the region, creating jobs and businesses, and getting more fresh and healthy foods to local consumers and institutions. It would foster programs that build a skilled workforce, support next generation farmers and food entrepreneurs, reduce food waste, promote climate-smart agriculture, and elevate food and nutrition literacy—the dimensions that make for a vibrant, innovative, and equitable food system.
Fortunately, said Flor, the movement to strengthen the region’s food system has a great deal of momentum and strong assets on which to build.
“The Action Plan calls on everyone in this space to leverage related activities already underway, and new state and federal resources that can be transformative. We know that to connect and strengthen the capital area's food system, we need regionwide partnerships, strategies, and action,” she said. “That's what it will take for real change to happen.”
Philanthropic investments can make a difference.
Case in point: Following a strategy recommended in the 2015 Regional Action Plan, the Foundation partnered with Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services (SFBFS) to streamline and strengthen its emergency food distribution system. With that sustained investment, SFBFS networked its partner agencies, improved its use of computers and databases to track the food its agencies distribute, purchased more trucks and forklifts to move food pallets with ease, and increased its refrigeration storage to keep foods fresh. As a result, at the onset of the pandemic, SFBFS was better positioned to meet growing need and respond to it effectively.
Six years—and a global pandemic—later, the second iteration of the Regional Action Plan can now influence the work of the hundreds of partners across private- and public-sectors who helped shape it, together with Valley Vision and the Foundation.
“This is the critical first step, because it clarifies solutions,” said Flor, “Now, we can roll up our sleeves and get to work, fostering a healthier community for all.
We invite you to learn more about our investments to Connect the Regional Food Economy and address challenges facing the region’s food system. The Healthy Food Economy Fund, built in partnership with our fundholders and other donors, helps resource these efforts.
Only through strategic, collaborative efforts can we address the complex challenges that affect our region’s entire food system. Join us with a donation to the Healthy Food Economy Fund.