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by Carole Brodsky, July 30, 2014
If Mendocino County consumers purchased only 15% of the food they need for home use directly from county farmers, this would produce $20 million of new farm income in Mendocino County.
—Ken Meter, Food Economist, Crossroads Research Center
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Mendocino County has always been a food-producing region. For thousands of years, Native Peoples organized their travels and daily activities to take advantage of the availability of seasonal foods. Today’s farmers and ranchers struggle with the vicissitudes of climate and consumer demand, struggle to adhere to increasingly complex and even contradictory regulatory concerns and struggle to locate lucrative markets for their products. The mechanism for how to bring cohesion and support to one of the county’s most important industries has been, in the words of musician David Crosby, “a long time comin’.” Most communities don’t have a Department of Food. Even the federal government does not have a Department of Food. Issues facing farmers, health care workers, consumers, business people and governmental officials are inextricably and inarguably bound together. For years, food activists, local governments, farmers and food producers have struggled to find a common voice to address agricultural concerns, assist with long-range planning, protect water and farmland, support legislation, regionally organize, educate the public and promote local food production. The release of the Mendocino County Food Action Plan, spearheaded by the Mendocino County Food Policy Council represents the efforts of hundreds of people who spent hundreds of hours providing input, attending meetings, compiling and organizing data, creating a comprehensive list of goals and actions and producing a landmark document – among the first of its kind in the country and probably the only plan created utilizing grass-roots, community-driven inputs and efforts.
The evolution of the plan dates back to 2006, when county residents gathered to create The Steps Toward a Local Food Economy and organized regional Healthy Food Summits. This was one of the first times that food activists came together to discuss ways to strengthen the local economy, preserve and protect agricultural land, increase the county tax base and address health challenges associated with poverty and food insecurity. In 2010, a Local Food Summit convened in Ukiah brought together approximately 145 individuals to discuss the access, supply and distribution of locally grown food. Participants included representatives from the Cities of Ukiah, Willits, Fort Bragg and Point Arena, the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors, the University of California Cooperative Extension and the Mendocino County Farm Bureau, along with farmers, food producers, educators, institutional food service representatives and members of the health and non-profit communities.
From there, community meetings were convened in Caspar, Willits, and Ukiah. The Mendocino County Food Policy Council compiled the material from all of these meetings, the goals from the Steps Toward a Local Food Economy, ideas from Transition Town proponents, and feedback from industry experts and stakeholders to form the foundation for the Food Action Plan.
“People had been working on separate portions of these issues for a long time, and what was needed was a common vision. Food summits were held in many areas of the county. People from all sectors of the food community- health care workers, farmers, retailers and community members came together, participated in a process and discussed what they thought was needed to create a resilient food system that would be beneficial for everyone. Goals and actions were created, and as it turned out, there was a lot of commonality in what was discussed,” notes Jen Dalton, Wellness Coordinator for North Coast Opportunity’s Community Action and coordinator for the Mendocino County Food Policy Council. “We are very proud that our plan was created through a community process. Most other plans have been created by agency department heads, from the top down,” Dalton continues. Terry d’Selkie is the Program Director of the Garden Based Nutrition Education Programs at the Ukiah Unified School District and Mendocino County Schools. She is also a member of the Food Policy Council and one of the Food Action Plan Committee Members. Other Council members who were members of the Food Action Plan committee include Cliff Paulin, Coordinator, North Coast Regional Food Systems Network, Miles Gordon, Coordinator, The Gardens Project of North Coast Opportunities Community Action, Tarney Sheldon, Nutrition Basics Program Coordinator, North Coast Opportunities Community Action and Patty Bruder, executive director of North Coast Opportunities. “We’ve been looking at these issues for a long, long time,” says d’Selkie. “There wasn’t enough food being grown. Why? Because there weren’t enough farmers in the county. Why weren’t there enough farmers? Because they don’t get paid enough. That’s where we started. Farmers need to make a living wage in order to grow affordable food for our residents,” she explains.
The plan is divided into sections, beginning with a history of agricultural practices in Mendocino County. The five remaining sections, entitled, “Our Farmers,” “Our Economy,” “Our Health,” “Our Land and Water” and “Our Community” feature a narrative component, lots of stats for the wonkishly inclined, quotes and input from a wide variety of professional, community and governmental stakeholders. The topics in the plan touch on practically every aspect of Mendocino County life. Proponents argue that a vital, robust food system will help keep county dollars local, employ more local residents and enhance the wine and tourism industry. The cultivation of “niche crops” could offer farmers lucrative earnings, if an affordable, efficient transportation system could be created to help get their crops to market. Each year, Mendocino County’s agricultural economy loses an average of $83 million: $18 million through farm production losses and $65 million buying agricultural inputs from external suppliers. The fisheries community is increasingly dependent upon the recreational sector to bring in the necessary funds to support a thriving, working waterfront, but increasing regulations on recreational fishing make it more difficult to rely on this important source of revenue. Only 1% of Mendocino-County raised livestock were purchased by Mendocino County consumers, and in 2007, the costs of obesity in Mendocino County came to a staggering $23.7 million due to direct health care costs, worker’s compensation, absenteeism and presenteeism (not being productive at work). All of these issues and countless more come back to one thing – the food we choose to eat and consume, and these issues cannot be addressed without commitment at all levels – from individuals choosing to support local farmers and eat more healthily, to institutions finding the extra dollars it takes to provide healthier food to students, patients and clients, to governmental agencies finding the votes and political will to protect ag lands, support appropriate zoning regulations and engage in the necessary discussions around the future of this county as an agricultural producing region. These represent only a small fraction of the issues raised in the Food Action Plan.
Within each section, several individuals were selected to “showcase” their work, their point of view or their products or services. Mac Magruder of Ingel-Haven Ranch, Jessica Taaning of Inland Organics Ranch and Tyler Nelson, Mendocino County Farm Bureau member and owner of the Nelson Family Vineyards provided a diverse range of perspectives from the farmer’s vantage point. Westside Renaissance Market owner and Ukiah Farmers Market manager Scott Cratty discussed the economics of farming, retailing and food production. Staff and former students at Fort Bragg’s Redwood’s Rainbow farm discussed how exposure to gardening at an early age impacted their food choices later in life. Megan Van Sant, Program Administrator for the Mendocino County Health and Human Services Agency’s program, Food For All Mendocino discussed the enormous health and economic benefits of Mendocino County’s CalFresh program. Pam Olave, executive director of the Mendocino County Resource Conservation District took on the challenging topic of water conservation and how farmers and ranchers are working together with the District to come up with mutually beneficial solutions to challenging environmental problems. Noyo Food Forest’s executive director Linda Pack discussed the success story that is the Food Forest – a student-driven gardening project that is producing enough food to service coastal restaurants and students in the Fort Bragg Unified School District.
Following each showcase, a list of goals and actions encapsulates the recommendations that arose out of the regional community meetings. “Many of these goals and actions may take years to complete, but we are taking small steps,” says Dalton. Some actions, such as the incorporation of nutrition education classes in school classrooms have already been implemented, though health care workers strongly advocate for additional and more in-depth training in cooking and nutrition education for parents, teachers and students. Additionally, the Council has selected several goals within each of the five sections of the plan as immediate priorities. “Water is on everyone’s mind. We’re making sure that water is available for agricultural practices,” says Dalton.
d’Selkie perceives the beginning of a shift in the demographics of the farming population. “More young farmers are becoming attracted to the county. It’s hard to grow vegetables and fruits and make a decent living. Meat production is still a viable source of income, but we need to find a way to grow more grains, fruits and vegetables in the county. I hope the plan will move us forward in these areas. Zoning issues are being investigated, and the Council is participating in statewide projects that affect Mendocino County. We want the plan to help access funding to train farmers, to help with land acquisition – to support farmers who need equipment or more employees to grow more food,” she explains. “As an advisory body, the Council regularly sends letters of support. We’re starting to include relevant goals and actions into our communications. It helps us to articulate our position in the community. We’re committed to standing for the community’s voice,” says Dalton.
“Any farmer understands that planning is essential. When you thoughtfully take time to take time to set down goals, one is more apt to complete them. This is how the Food Action Plan directly supports farmers. I am constantly looking at how we can raise money to supply direct services to farmers. You can’t run a farm on a market analysis, but we need this information to know where to go. We’re all a part of this. We’re all working together,” Dalton notes.
Part of d’Selkie’s job has been to get a garden in every school. But like everything associated with food, even the simple act of planting a school garden carries with it a bushel basket of adjunct tasks and responsibilities. “In addition to gardens, we need food education. Once children are educated, families want to know where to get these foods, how to grow them and how to prepare or preserve them,” she continues. From there, providing comparable foods in the lunchroom provides the reinforcement for the work being done in the gardens. “Can Jim Stewart, head of food service at Ukiah Unified, source enough fresh, local foods and vegetables for all of our students? We want to be able to serve students the same food in the cafeterias as we grow in the gardens, and this is why we need planning – to help bring farmers, institutions, parents and school officials together, for the benefit of all,” says d’Selkie. “In order to strengthen the community, the Food Action Plan will act as a road map to a more secure, just food system. Our vision is food justice – equitable access to healthy food that farmers are paid fairly for growing – food that everyone can afford to eat. That’s our common vision for moving forward,” says Dalton.
The entire, 82-page document is now available online, and the Food Policy Council is beginning to distribute a “highlights” summary to various groups throughout the community, which was kicked off by a presentation at last Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. “This plan is a community resource. We hope that people can use it to guide their planning, for community-wide projects, grant-making, health education or simply to learn how to personally support farmers through better eating and purchasing practices,” Dalton concludes.
Reprints of the highlights document are being distributed at the Ukiah branch of the County Library, and Dalton invites anyone who would like copies for themselves, their clients or their business to contact her. “We’re making presentations to people all over the county,” says Dalton and encourages people to attend Food Policy Council Meetings. The next meeting of the Mendocino Food Policy Council is on September 8, from 2:00 to 3:30 at the Agricultural Commissioner’s Office on Low Gap Road in Ukiah. To view or download the entire Food Action Plan or visit specific sections, go to http://gardensproject.org/projects/foodpolicycouncil/. The plan is broken into sections at the bottom of the linked page. Hard copies of the plan highlights can be procured by contacting Dalton at firstname.lastname@example.org or phoning her at (415) 412-8784.