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The Sacramento Valley is known for its agricultural innovation. Think sushi rice, Blue Diamond almonds, farmed sturgeon and other products. But can the region also make its mark by exporting innovative ideas about feeding the poor? The Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services is answering that question.
Over the last six years, this food bank has evolved from a traditional service model – collecting unsold food from groceries and distributing it from a central location – to one that takes a more holistic approach.
Instead of just giving away truckloads of processed and often unhealthy food donated by grocery chains, the food bank partners with local farmers to deliver a wide array of fresh fruits and vegetables. And instead of offering it only at a single central location, the food bank has created mobile distribution sites that attempt to create a connection with neighborhoods they serve.
Through that connection, the food bank offers families assistance in surmounting the challenges they face, ranging from literacy to access to health care to simple cooking instructions on preparing seasonal produce.
The Associated Press' Tracie Cone took note of this new food bank model last month, and her story got picked up nationwide, running in The Washington Post and numerous other newspapers. Two weeks ago, NBC's "Today Show" featured the food bank in a segment that further raised the profile of this Sacramento nonprofit.
As the region gets ready for its Farm to Fork Festival (Sept. 28, followed by a sold-out dinner the next day on the Tower Bridge) there will be celebrations galore, and for good reason. This region is home to a remarkable variety of farmers, grocers, vintners, chefs, foragers and eaters – as well as sensational soil, sunlight and water – that have made the Sacramento Valley an exciting hub for food.
Less glamorous, but possibly more transformational, is the hard work of food banks and other groups that, for years, have been trying to deal with an issue generically known as "food access." Even in a breadbasket as bountiful as Sacramento, there are far too many people, old and young, who regularly are hungry or subsisting on a diet that is anything but healthful.
Food bank goes mobile
To explore this issue and efforts to address it, I invited seven local leaders to join us for lunch at The Sacramento Bee in the second of our farm-to-fork round table discussions. The group included a mix of expertise and representatives from Yolo, Placer and Sacramento counties.
We started off by examining what is known about local "food insecurity." That's a USDA measure for people's lack of access, at times, to food needed to lead an active, healthy life for each family member.
According to Feeding America's 2011 Map the Meal Gap study, more than 251,000 people in Sacramento County are food insecure, or 18 percent of the county's population. And of course, these people are not evenly distributed. Based on mapping by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, many of them live in neighborhoods with little access to groceries and fresh produce, such as parts of Del Paso Heights, North Highlands and south Sacramento. Many of these areas have poor access to transit or automobile ownership, leaving residents few options other than fast-food joints and corner markets stocked with beer, chips and cigarettes.
Prior to 2007, the Sacramento Food Bank operated like many food banks. It aggregated and distributed food donated by grocery chains, much of it high in fats, sugar and salt. "What drove our organization to change our model was that people were getting a high volume of food, and it was the wrong food," said Blake Young, executive director of the Sacramento Food Bank. "Folks were getting bigger, and bigger and bigger. They weren't starving. They were just eating a lot of empty, high-caloric food that was just crap."
Soon after becoming director, Young decided the food bank needed to evolve. He set up relationships with Capay Organic, a family farm in Yolo County, and also with smaller outfits, such as Soil Born Farms in Sacramento. And instead of just depending on donated produce, the food bank started using part of its budget to buy discounted produce from farmers and wholesalers, helping relieve them of seasonal excess.
Last year, the food bank distributed 4.3 million pounds of food, including 1.5 million pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables at its 13 mobile distribution sites. Going "mobile" was also a big shift for Young. But it has allowed the food bank to reach people in need who, for lack of transportation or other reasons, had trouble accessing its Oak Park facility.
"Sometimes we use churches. Sometimes we use community centers or public schools," he said. "It's not just about creating access. It's about having a dignified experience that helps folks engage in a conversation about nutrition."
Various groups reaching out
Several other organizations in the region are trying to engage in a similar conversation.
Debra Oto-Kent, who heads the Health Education Council, a nonprofit based in West Sacramento, has been focusing on prevention of lethal diseases caused by smoking, poor nutrition and lack of exercise. Part of her approach is connecting with select ethnic groups through different methods of outreach.
"We work with a lot of churches. We are getting pastors to integrate messages about food and health into their weekly sermons," she said. "We even have fitness Sundays going on at African American churches where folks come in their workout clothes instead of their Sunday best."
At Soil Born Farms, the focus is on urban farming and education, much of it taking place on a 55-acre historic ranch within the American River Parkway, near Rancho Cordova. The group has organized community farm stands, school field trips and after-school programs to connect city dwellers with the benefits of locally grown produce.
"We look at the urban environment very differently than most people," said Shawn Harrison, a co-founder of Soil Born. "We see opportunities for food production and ways to connect people with healthy food."
Because of collaborations like that between Soil Born and the Sacramento Food Bank, other food banks – particularly those in Yolo and Placer counties – are making inroads into distributing more fruits and vegetables. It's a challenge, said David Martinez, director of the Placer Food Bank, "because we rely on these relationships with supermarkets." Even so, fresh produce now makes up one-third of 6 million pounds of food the Placer Food Bank distributes each year.
During our round table, there was tension on the question of food access vs. personal responsibility. At one point, the Sacramento Food Bank director broke in when the discussion turned toward policies to prompt neighborhood bodegas and groceries to sell more healthful products.
"I'll be honest. I run a food bank. I'm very compassionate toward people. But I'm also a little tired of folks not taking responsibility for themselves," Young said. "It's not just about access. It's also a willingness to change your behavior."
That triggered a robust debate, with some agreeing with Young, although noting the unique challenge of the working poor. Robin Krock, who specializes in food access issues for Valley Vision, a regional nonprofit, said she can sympathize with a parent who gets home tired from work, after standing on their feet all day, and they just want to make something quick, cheap and convenient for their family.
"When you're dealing with that lifestyle and you're basically just functioning day to day at a survival level, eating healthy is just not at the top of your list," she said. "That's where this gets messy and nobody really knows how to address it."
While obesity and diabetes are rising among many segments of the population, the highest rates are found among those in poverty. It's a perverse fact of modern California – people are regularly hungry but also dangerously overweight in a state that prides itself on its farm bounty and outdoor lifestyle.
If current trends continue, the obesity rate in California is expected to increase from 23.8 percent in 2011 to more than 46 percent by 2030, according to a report last year by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Such forecasts are prompting health foundations and government agencies to pour millions of dollars into programs to encourage healthier lifestyles and stem the epidemic of diabetes, heart diseases and other health problems. It's a campaign the nation can't afford to lose.
"You may think this is someone else's problem until you go to an emergency room and see huge numbers of people who have chronic illnesses that are largely preventable," said Chet Hewitt, president and CEO of the Sierra Health Foundation. "So this food conversation is also a health conversation, and everyone is a part of it."