The Sonoma County Food Forum was held last Thursday, February 24th, at the Showcase Cafe in the Sonoma County Fairgrounds facility. The event was co-hosted by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and the Sonoma County Food System Alliance, a working group of organizations and individuals concerned about good food and healthy farms.
The day was filled with presentations and conversations with the goal of providing the Sonoma County board of supervisors a roadmap for policy action. Presenters included:
- Former USDA Deputy Secretary Richard Rominger on his family experience with farming in Yolo County.
- Paul Vossen from the U.C. Cooperative Extension presenting on the history, challenges and opportunities for Sonoma County agriculture.
- Mary Maddux-Gonzalez, MD from the Sonoma County Department of Health Services on the linkages of food to health.
There were also two panel discussions. The first considered the needs and opportunities for local food production, and included GoLocal member Sheana Davis from the Epicurean Connection. The second evaluated opportunities and needs for healthy local eating, and included Tom Scott, GoLocal Board Member and General Manger of GoLocal Member Oliver's Markets.
Two small group brainstorming sessions were held to tap the collective knowledge of forum participants. The first was a visioning exercise on where the we want the food system to be in ten years. The goal of the second session was to boil the broad vision down into concrete next steps for proposal to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and the Sonoma County Food System Alliance. The Food System Alliance is tasked with compiling the report from the collected information.
While many ideas bubbled came out of the small group sessions, there were a number of themes that rose to the top.
- There is a need to increase capacity for local food processing, aggregation, distribution, and other food system services.
- A strong Sonoma County product label, brand, and marketing program are needed to increase demand for Sonoma County products.
- Nutrition education and healthy food in schools is a community priority that needs more attention.
- Government permitting and regulation needs to be streamlined, and not put an undue burden on food producers.
A note on the last item about regulation: There was a group of agricultural producers that separated themselves into the back corner of the event, and a conversation with one producer revealed the feeling that people trying to change the food system do not really understand the realities of food production. This was echoed by Doug Beretta of Beretta Dairy during the producer panel, who emphatically made it clear that excessive regulation, especially from voters who don't understand the industry dynamics, hurts local family farms.
Surveying the crowd, it appeared that the forum participants were mostly food activists. It appears there is still a need to bring a more balanced group of stakeholders to the table to ensure everyone's needs are considered, including producers, distributors, retailers, workers, and eaters. Indeed, this is a primary goal of the Sonoma County Food System Alliance, which currently seems to be the primary conduit for these discussions to take place.