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Localizing our Food System

Research, Action, and Policy Discussed in Two-Day Agrifood Systems Workshop


Until about two years ago, UCSB professor of environmental studies David Cleveland imagined Santa Barbara County’s agrifood system to be a model for the rest of the United States. The county ranks in the top one percent for value of agricultural products, and 80 percent lies in fruits and vegetables. Local farms both big and small employ organic or sustainable practices, and they vend their produce at almost daily farmers markets throughout the county.

But opponents of conventional agrifood networks are not necessarily impressed by overall product value, organic certification, and farmers’ market frequency. Trucking or shipping produce quickly undoes damage averted through sustainable practices. That’s why the Santa Barbara County Agrifood Systems research group at UCSB, led by Professor Cleveland, began in 2009 to research just how local the county’s agrifood system is.

Localizing Our Food System
Click to enlarge photo

Localizing Our Food System

The group found that 99 percent of produce grown in Santa Barbara County is exported and 95 percent is imported, involving faraway farms in Chile, Argentina, and New Zealand. Proponents of localization argue that this divide is not only illogical but also detrimental; localization would improve nutrition and decrease environmental impact. In fact, research revealed that even if S.B. County implements 100 percent localized policies (meaning all produce consumed in the county is grown here), the county would still export 89 percent of produce. This divide stems not only from the fact that the county is agriculturally ideal, but also from low demand by the community for local produce.

It was with these concepts in mind that farmers, eaters, distributors, researchers, activists, and policy makers convened Friday, May 20 and Saturday, May 21 in a strategic workshop at UCSB’s McCune Conference Center. The workshop, which focused on Cleveland and his students’ research, was at once a giant action and policy brainstorm — a local, sustainable, two-day feast that could sway even the most diehard anti-environmentalist. In a series of three sessions, research teams presented findings before conference participants engaged in panel discussions with Q&A, divided into “breakout groups” for small group discussions, and ultimately reconvened to share ideas with the whole group.

Session 1 kicked off Friday at noon by delving into food production processes in the area including farmland acquisition, farmland conservation, crop selection, fertility management, water management cultivation, harvesting, labor, marketing, and sales. After students Stephanie Gaffney, Niki Mazaroli, and Catrina Pesl presented research findings, panelists Cathleen Fisher, the county agriculture commissioner; Anne Coates, executive director of Cachuma Resource Conservation District; Teresa Figueroa, UCSB Chicano/a Studies professor, Noey Turk, owner of Yes Yes Nursery in Los Olivos; and Jay Ruskey, farmer at Good Land Organics discussed how to reduce imports, conserve our best farmland, compensate labor justly, cope with climate change, and increase energy efficiency. Discussion also brought into question the Federal Farm Bill, how it affected production, and in which issues the community should engage in light of renewal of the bill in years to come.

The second session began at 8 a.m. Saturday with a breakfast comprised solely of local ingredients provided by UCSB’s University Dining Services that related to the focus of the morning: institutional purchasing and distribution. This includes processes like transportation from farm to stores, institutions, and homes, storage, packaging, and processing. After students Kai Hinson and Alex Tranovich presented research, panelists Wesley Sleight of Farmer Direct Produce; Terry Thomas, Systems Coordinator of UCSB Residential Dining; Kathleen de Chadenèdes, Director of s’Cool Food Initiative; and Melissa Cohen, general manager of the I.V. Food Co-op discussed goals and barriers of distribution and purchasing produce from local farms. Specifically, they discussed use of local produce in University Dining Services, which, according to Thomas, has increased to 7 percent in the last year. Furthermore, Cohen expressed excitement that while the purpose of the I.V. Food Co-op is as much about education and community outreach as it is about business, sales are currently higher than ever.

Saturday afternoon, Session 3 concluded the conference with research conducted by Nate Gamsky, Allison Gracer, and Mikaela Burns on consumption, food access, and nutrition in SBC. Panelists Gerri French, nutritional educator at the Sansum Clinic; Scott McCann, director of health at the Public Health Department; Laurel Lyle, executive chef of Peabody School; Anthony Carroccio of the Organic Soup Kitchen; and Jennifer Koch, from the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County discussed options for getting local fruits and vegetables into low-income homes, schools, and hospitals. Discussions aimed to get a diversity of opinions about how to improve nutrition across the community’s socioeconomic spectrum while minimizing negative environmental effects.

One outcome of the conference was a consensus that investment in education about local, sustainable agrifood systems would benefit the county. Several specific ideas were proposed, including ways to get more fresh produce into more homes through a system of donations: the wealthy buyer of a CSA (community supported agriculture) box could, for instance, pay double in order to put a CSA box in a low-income household.

Two meals provided by the I.V. Food Co-op used produce from Rancho Santa Catalina, Coleman Family Farm, Lane Farm, Givens Farm, Tutti Frutti Farm, and Somers and Friends Ranch. The Student Food Collective’s two meals used produce from Givens Farm, Shepherd Farm, Hilltop & Canyon Farm, Beylik Family Farm, and Fat Uncle Farm. The five elaborate meals of the event were also made possible through donations from Caribbean Coffee, Farmer Direct Produce, Alma Rosa Winery, The I.V. Food Co-op, Student Food Collective, and University Dining. Event sponsors included UCSB’s Academic Senate Sustainability Champion Program, Interdisciplinary Humanities Center, and Environmental Studies Program.

Professor Cleveland and his 12 research assistants (20 students have been involved over the two years since the comprehensive study’s start) hope to implement outcomes of the conference into local policy to significantly increase the percentage of produce grown in the county that is consumed in the county from 5 percent.

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