Just hearing the name of the Sol Food Festival tends to befuddle some people. But the organizers know that. “If there’s confusion, that’s okay,” laughs event cofounder Alison Hensley. “If people come for Southern soul food, they’ll get a dose of sustainable, organic, local food, which is our acronym. And then ‘sol’ so beautifully relates to the Latino community.”
The roots of the October 2 festival, not surprisingly, are in the Saturday Farmers Market, where Hensley works for Peacock Farms. She’d been considering a community organizing project that “worked on a sustainable food future for Santa Barbara. I wanted to invite people who were involved in that conversation and people jumped on board. The festival created itself.” It’s been a year-and-a-half since Hensley met co-organizer Heather Hartley, who “was the first person to say yes,” at the UC Santa Barbara Food Matters Series conference.
Now the Sol Food Festival will feature the chance to experience demos and discussions and to eat and taste responsibly from local growers, purveyors, chefs, and wineries that are already leading the charge into a more sustainable, organic, and local future. The fledgling festival also landed a star, famed first female Iron Chef and Santa Barbara resident Cat Cora, who will do a cooking demo and judge a cooking contest. Turns out a friend of Hensley was one of Cora’s yoga teachers, and through that connection, she came on board. “From the get-go, she was ready,” said Hensley.
That readiness wasn’t as easy for all the participants. Co-organizer Dave Fortson admitted, “When it came to find food vendors, we really had to target and internally question, ‘Do these vendors embody what the Sol Food Festival is?’ We don’t want this to just be another eco-marketplace. We’ve really gone after companies who are really pushing the envelope.” As an example, Fortson compared the Isla Vista Food Co-op to Trader Joe’s. “I say this as someone who shops at Trader Joe’s, but their food footprint comes from thousands of miles,” he explained, “while the I.V. Food Co-op sources locally and is very much a local business.”
The major fiscal sponsor for the event is the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County. Even it, said Fortson, has recently “been trying to transition to more local and organic food for their programs. They’ve been an incredible partner.”
Of course, just as the festival hopes to inform those who attend, they also help to educate everyone along the food chain: farmers, sellers, buyers, chefs, home cooks, and all of us who then make waste, too. “The borderline groups that aren’t quite sustainable or organic or local but want to be, we’ve been trying to facilitate them reaching that goal,” Hensley said. “In the future, we hope to see restaurants changing purveyor habits to take part in an event like Sol Food.” Fortson added, “We’re excited to have Chef Pink from Square One in the food competition that Cat Cora will judge. They’re one of the few [restaurants] where it’s not just about serving greens from Shepherd Farms, it’s about buying everything local.”
Fittingly, the fest is “really dependent on grassroots outreach,” even making sure they’ve walked all the neighborhoods around Vera Cruz Park to inform them of the event, Fortson said. “All-in-all, the festival has really matched its name.” They’re even working hard making sure it’s not a one-off by building up to the big day with a series of smaller events. This Thursday, September 23, at 7 p.m. in the Faulkner Gallery of the downtown public library, for instance, the group will screen the film Ingredients: The Local Food Movement Takes Root as a fundraiser (suggested donation, $10).
“We’re optimistic we’ll have a few thousand food fans. Even if we just get the Farmers Market crowd, it will be a really big event. This festival will grow like the movement is growing,” Fortson asserted. “We want people to walk out with new, inspiring ideas about how to improve their community with food.”
The Sol Food Festival is Saturday, October 2, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., at Plaza de Vera Cruz, right across Cota Street from the Farmers Market. Admission is free, and food and drink tickets will be sold at the park. The event is still looking for volunteers, too, so for more info about those opportunities or the festival, see solfoodfestival.com.