Volunteers, donations being overwhelmed; federal food box program leaves out local farmers

The beautiful bounty of Sonoma County, one of America’s most desired, delicious and diverse growing regions, is being severely tested by fire, disease and recession. Farmers are planting fewer crops because they have lost market partners such as restaurants and hospitality establishments. The lines at free food giveaways are the longest ever with wildfire victims, thousands of unemployed workers, the chronic homeless, fixed-income seniors and families with school-aged children cued up in drive-thru, no-touch vehicle distribution points. Grocery store prices are high and some food inventories are spotty. Many local community leaders are saying these food-related emergencies will be with us for many more months or years to come.

“It is not just one thing,” said Redwood Empire Food Bank’s (REFB) David Goodman, the organizations Hunger Relief Worker and CEO. “There is a wave coming at us that none of us can imagine.” Goodman’s comments were made during an early August newspaper interview several days before the LNU Complex of wildfires struck and thousands of people were forced to evacuate. REFB is by far the region’s largest free food distribution source in Sonoma County. But very little of its fresh produce and other products come from local farms. This is just one of several food-to-family ironies that are long ingrained in the region’s farming and food production, processing and distribution networks.

“There are not enough farms and farmers in Sonoma County to supply all the food our local population would need,” said Tim Page, of FEED Sonoma, a “food-hub” community of 80 growers that sponsors a weekly produce bin purchase and delivery program. “But, at the same time, we don’t come close to being able to sell everything we grow.” That’s because farming in Sonoma County is more expensive than almost any other place because of high land costs and related factors. It’s also because there is a lack of processing facilities and supply chain access.

REFB purchases 20 million pounds of fresh produce a year, but very little is locally produced. Goodman said he’d love to buy as much local produce as he could. “The problem is we can buy carrots, fruits and other produce for three to nine cents a pound (through a vast food bank network), he said. “Local farmers can’t make a living or stay on their farms selling at those low prices.”

A recent federal economic stimulus program by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) was launched in April to address the dual problem of supporting local farmers and getting more free food to families. Sonoma County didn’t get much.

Under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, the USDA awarded almost $1.2 billion in various sized contracts to local and regional food producers and distribution entities. A $12.2 million contract was awarded to Sebastopol-based Travel Well Holdings, an airport-based kiosk outlet that sells wellness products. Nonprofits like REFB were not eligible for the USDA program and Travel Well Holdings has not worked with local farmers, instead joining larger regional networks.

Page, among others is upset. “You have to remind yourself that anything that comes out of Washington D.C. is not for us small farmers. It’s all corporate.” Some of the Travel Well Holdings’ “Farmers to Families” food boxes have been donated to REFB and Goodman said he is grateful for the extra food but would have preferred to win a larger USDA grant instead. (Redwood Empire Food Bank has joined with nine other California-based nonprofit food banks to seek USDA funding in a promised second round of federal stimulus programs.) Travel Well Holdings did not respond to calls for this article. Desiree Rodriguez is listed as the owner who received the USDA grant.

The USDA program has been the subject of complaints of favoritism and poor management elsewhere. Some of the food box contracts were awarded to large food corporations such as Tyson Foods and some were granted to non-agricultural entities such as an events planner in Texas, a trade finance corporation and a bankrupt dairy corporation.

“We felt the program was massively disappointing,” said Mimi Enright, of the local office of the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) who is a member of the Sonoma County Food System Alliance, formed in 2007 by the county’s Board of Supervisors and other partners to address the gaps, ironies and shortcomings of the regional farm-to-family and market networks. “There was no local sourcing and not a lot of transparency.”

Page and FEED Sonoma applied for one of the USDA grants but was rejected without explanation. “We were overlooked while organizations that have never made food boxes were awarded millions.”

Meanwhile hundreds of Sonoma County farmers and producers are “pivoting” away from selling to restaurants and other outlets that have closed during the pandemic. Page said his FEED Sonoma farmer partners experienced an 80 to 95% drop-off of sales in April and May. “People aren’t planting their usual crops because they don’t have a market.”

FEED Sonoma is hoping to expand its Feed Bin service where families can order a weekly box of fresh produce for $35 and receive 8-9 items. The delivery is enough to feed a family of four as many as 4-5 meals. Information is available at www.feedsonoma.com.

The Healdsburg-based nonprofit Farm to Pantry has expanded its gleaning and food giveaway efforts since the coronavirus pandemic descended on the local economy causing mass worker layoffs. Volunteers continue to harvest unsold crops from local farmers and backyard gardeners and have added distribution points with Alliance Medical Center, Corazon Healdsburg and Reach For Home. The organization also gathers up donated unsold produce at the weekly Healdsburg Farmers Market to add to its food boxes.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic economic shut-down in March, REFB distributed 10,300 food boxes to families and individuals, some of them distributed through partner nonprofits and faith-based food pantries. By July, REFB was distributing 30,000 boxes a month and that number is multiplying by the week. REFB distributed $40 million in food supplies last year, relying on a staff of 70 and an army of 8,500 volunteers.

“The really challenging part about the COVID-19 crisis is not just the virus, it’s about the huge need for empathy and how so many people are now living so close to the edge,” said Goodman.

Volunteers and staff at the food giveaways are seeing new faces every day. “People should not wait until their shelves or cupboards start to deplete. They need to come get in line now,” said Goodman.

Among other needs at the regional nonprofit, the food bank now needs as much as 16,000 square feet of extra warehouse space to stock all the mounting food inventory. That amount of space would cost the food bank another $60,000 a month, Goodman said.

A list of free food distribution locations, food supplemental programs and other relief programs are available at www.SoCoEmergency.org. Included is CalFRESH, homeless, local farmers markets, elderly programs and school-based food programs.

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