$1.5M North Coast project to improve food access even during disasters

May 22, 2023

$1.5M North Coast project to improve food access even during disasters

May 22, 2023

New food systems partnership to aid disaster response in Del Norte, Humboldt, Mendocino, Sonoma, Napa and Marin counties

To improve people's access to food during disasters, University of California Cooperative Extension advisors Dorina Espinoza and Julia Van Soelen Kim received a combined $1.5 million from the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service Regional Food Systems Partnership Program and crucial matching contributions from local government, nonprofits and foundations. Over a three-year period, they will create a California North Coast Emergency Food System Partnership across six counties – Del Norte, Humboldt, Mendocino, Sonoma, Napa and Marin – to strengthen local and regional food systems and build community resilience.

“We wouldn't have been able to access these funds without UC providing the backbone,” said project partner Suzi Grady of Petaluma Bounty, an urban farm and food security project. “The trusted relationship with UC allows us to broaden our reach and scope; the neutrality piece is also really important. It's a natural fit for UC to step in.”

While some organizations are highly visible responding to disasters by feeding, clothing and sheltering people, UC Cooperative Extension coordinates efforts behind the scenes. Acting as the connective tissue, UC Cooperative Extension helps link local response efforts with service providers and local governments to ensure communities get food assistance during disasters and to strengthen food systems resilience.

Grady added, “I'm excited by this opportunity because UC can provide evaluation, reflect back to us what happens in disasters, and help build our collective capacity when those of us who are busy doing are too busy to step back and reflect. Having academic partners helps us retain institutional knowledge, learn from the past and strategize for the future."

Meredith Knowles with the Del Norte and Tribal Lands Food Security Project agreed, “I have seen so many times that the relationship building, coordinating and making space for sharing is so important and the momentum that comes from that is powerful. I'm excited for the space to share that.”

Learning from past disasters

Following earthquakes in Humboldt County last December, UC Cooperative Extension advisor Espinoza took part in the Community Organizations Active in Disaster or “COAD,” collaborating with local government, agencies and organizations to support a Local Assistance Center in Rio Dell, the town hit hardest by the quakes.

Espinoza and partners worked to connect impacted neighbors with local, state and national services, including ensuring community members could access food right in their community through the local food bank and local food trucks, which prepared meals for residents who were unable to use their kitchens.

In January, with storms in the forecast, Mimi Enright, UCCE Sonoma County community food systems program manager, activated the COAD's Emergency Food Group in Sonoma County. She discussed with Van Soelen Kim, UCCE North Bay food systems advisor, as well as local emergency food providers, how their network could respond to food needs that might arise if flooding occurred. 

“Before the storm, we met and asked, ‘What populations might be most impacted? What organizations might be offline because of the storm? Who will be able to deliver groceries and meals to sites in the community?'” Enright explained. 

Further north in Del Norte County along the Oregon border, there are limited entry points and no major highways, leaving the region vulnerable to natural disasters. Road access to and from the county is frequently blocked by landslides, wildfires and floods, resulting in disruptions to food deliveries.

The Del Norte and Tribal Lands Community Food Council – a group that works to build a more local food system by providing healthy, culturally appropriate food to families – learned from past closures and from the pandemic the importance of having local and regional systems in place to better respond to the emergencies that impact the isolated area of the state. Their Choice Pacific Pantry includes local products in its food distribution programs and their Pacific Fresh Mobile Market brings food directly to vulnerable rural communities with limited access to nutritious food.

Over the past five years, Northern California has experienced catastrophic wildfires, floods, landslides, drought, earthquakes and the pandemic, all of which have put increasing pressure on local producers, the local/regional food system and emergency food aid.

“Food is implicated in every disaster,” said Patti D'Angelo Juachon with the Marin Community Foundation.

Through the various challenges to their communities, Espinoza, Enright and Van Soelen Kim have extended their expertise related to emergency food systems. Collectively the UCCE team has gained firsthand knowledge about what works well and what doesn't in getting local food to food-insecure community members. They hope to share this knowledge with partners regionally and expand collaboration at a larger scale.

“Local food production is critical to the resilience of the North Coast,” said Lynda Hopkins, Sonoma County District 5 supervisor. “I'm thrilled that UCCE will be working with our farmers to ensure that we can feed our residents healthy, local food no matter what disaster we're facing – be it future flood, fire or pandemic. This is a huge step towards food security for Northern California!”

Collaborating across the North Coast

The grant-funded North Coast Emergency Food System Partnership brings together a diverse set of partners including food producers, food policy councils, community-based organizations, local and tribal governments, Cooperative Extension, and emergency planners to build on shared experiences from responding to natural disasters and emergencies. The project will assess needs and resources – such as locations of farms and gardens, emergency food providers and evacuation centers – to understand community assets and resources that can be leveraged in disasters.

“The Regional Food Systems Partnership Program will help to build a more resilient and stable food system in times of disaster and in times of stability,” said Heather Irwin, founder of Sonoma Family Meal. “This is very important work for the future of Northern California disaster relief efforts, and we are excited to be part of it. During disasters, Sonoma Family Meal coordinates resources between the restaurant industry and emergency meal providers in order to provide quality emergency meals for those who have been impacted.”

One way the team hopes to strengthen local and regional food systems is by reducing the risk of lost income and creating additional market channels for local food producers in emergency food supply chains. The team also plans to create a network of partners, develop emergency feeding plans, and inventory local emergency food supply chain infrastructure. They also plan to create recommendations for policies and practices that support local/regional emergency food supply chains.