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announced the first phase of the 2021 Sacramento Region Food System Action Plan (Regional Action Plan) on Dec. 2, which outlines recommendations for making sure everyone in the Sacramento region has access to nutritious food.

The plan says the Sacramento region is rich in some food systems, like its food banks, urban farms and food literacy programs. But it recommends more investment in climate-friendly farming practices, workforce development for agricultural workers, and places to get locally-grown produce.

“The Regional Action Plan is a roadmap to strengthen our region’s food system so it can best serve the needs of those who live here, as well as those who benefit from our agricultural output nationally and globally,” said Linda Beech Cutler, CEO of the Sacramento Community Foundation.

Sacramento County was not directly involved in the plan’s development, but county spokesperson Ken Casparis said in a statement that the county is “very supportive of their [Valley Vision’s] efforts.”

The Sacramento Food Policy Council, in partnership with the county, is working on a Food System Assessment for Sacramento County that exists separate from the Valley Vision plan. It will be completed in Sep. 2022.

The Valley Vision plan builds on the research completed for the 2015 Sacramento Region Food System Action Plan. It’s also an extension of the Food System Resilience Poll, produced by Valley Vision and CapRadio to examine COVID-19’s impact on the connections between farms, food and people in the Sacramento region.

The results of the poll, which surveyed over 1,200 people across Sacramento, Yolo, El Dorado, Placer, Yuba and Sutter Counties, were released in October. Around 16% of the survey respondents reported having low or very low food security, compared to 12% nationally.

Research for the Regional Action Plan found that food insecurity in the region grew by almost 25,000 people from 2019. And before the pandemic, Sacramento region food banks served around 287,000 people a month; during the pandemic, that number rose to upwards of 426,000.

Planning for food systems

Over 80% of Food System Resilience Poll respondents said they were concerned or very concerned about climate threats to the food system.

Dr. Catherine Brinkley, the director of the Center for Regional Change at UC Davis, said it’s important for cities and counties to start considering food access and impacts of food production as they come into compliance with Senate Bill 1000. The law, passed in 2018, calls for cities and counties to address environmental justice in their general plans.

One question they can ask, according to Brinkley: “How does the production of food or the expansion of urban areas impact air quality, water quality and much broader issues?”

Expand efforts to connect people with CalFresh benefits

The report also recommends more investment in CalFresh outreach and places to purchase locally-grown food.

While food banks have been a crucial part of the Sacramento region’s food system as it adjusted to the pandemic, Lorena Carranza, the CalFresh Outreach Manager at Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services, said that food banks will never be able to provide as much to the community as CalFresh — the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — can.

If all eligible people in the Sacramento region signed up for CalFresh, there would be an additional $146 million in federal money that those counties could use to support local farmers, and the benefits could provide more food and nutrition security to low-income families, the action plan said.

Researchers for the plan found that enrollment rates for the program vary greatly across the region.

For example, in Placer, El Dorado and Yolo counties, only 40-50% residents eligible for CalFresh are enrolled, compared to 93% in Sacramento County. And 61% of respondents to a 2018 USDA survey of SNAP recipients said that cost of food was an obstacle to healthy eating.

While CalFresh could help with that, barriers to enrolling in the program include the application itself — Carranza said the process “is very complicated” and “frustrating.”

“For clients like me, [for] who English is not our first language, even though the county, the state, the program itself tries to make all the information available in your own language, the wording is high-level and can be difficult to be understand even when it’s in your language,” Carranza said.

SFBFS has had a CalFresh outreach program since 2015, Carranza said, and has pivoted during the pandemic to assisting people over the phone and through a text messaging service. The food bank is the first in California to use a text messaging CalFresh assistance service; you can text FOOD to 74544 to go through a pre-screening in either English or Spanish and have the option to complete the application over the phone with someone from SFBFS’s CalFresh team. Soon, the program is adding services in Hmong.

The report, and Carranza, both recommend additional funding for county CalFresh staff. Carranza hopes that will decrease waiting times to get CalFresh approval, which she says can take up to a month.

“Imagine: I’m hungry today,” she said. “I don’t have anything to eat or feed my children, and I’m applying to CalFresh, hoping that because I’m an emergency applicant, I’m going to get approved, but I still have to wait so many weeks.”

Other CalFresh recommendations in the report include scaled-up use of the program at farmers markets via Market Match, to make sure vendors can accept those benefits and people can get healthy food.

Increase places where people can get locally-grown produce, receive nutrition education

Over one-half of Food System Resilience Poll respondents of color expressed an interest in community gardens, but say they don’t have access to the space for one.

Community gardens are an opportunity for people to get traditional vegetables they might otherwise have difficulty finding, learn to grow their own food and connect with their neighbors, and the report recommends increasing access to those gardens via providing food education and funding.

Other examples of local food access places that should be expanded, per the report’s recommendations, are mobile markets, community kitchens, community-supported agriculture, farmers’ markets and urban farms.

Brenda Ruiz, the president of the Sacramento Food Policy Council, said that expanding places to get locally-grown produce isn’t just about numbers, or how much produce gets moved around.

“If we’re talking about school food procurement, it’s also about advancing equity and justice in the lunchroom — [through] training for cafeteria workers, more connections to local farmers to directly connect local businesses to schools, more opportunities for kids to have input on what they want to see,” she said.

Brinkley’s Environment, Land and Food Systems Lab at UC Davis worked with Valley Vision and the Sacramento Region Community Foundation to produce current guides of the network of food providers in Sacramento, Placer and El Dorado counties. The lab aims to put together similar guides for every California county.

Jordana Fuchs-Chesney, the lab’s project manager, said these county community food guides are a way to connect eaters with the source of their food and increase understanding about both nutrition and farmworkers’ rights.

“Any and all ways to educate people, to support people in furthering their understanding of our food system, means that there are more people better equipped to speak out and make choices to change the system,” she said.

The second phase of the plan will be released in 2022, and will contain more specific funding strategies and models that can help with implementing the recommendations. To stay updated, or share ideas, resources and questions about the plan, you can email [email protected].

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