About 125 community leaders gathered in Yolo County last week to launch a new effort to end hunger in that county. The Yolo Food Summit brought together advocates, government workers and other stakeholders to brainstorm answers to the thorny problem of how to make healthy food accessible to people throughout the county.
It’s ironic that Yolo County is primarily an agricultural county and yet more than 17% of its citizens are food insecure. But that’s not the scariest statistic in Yolo County, according to Don Saylor, a Yolo County Supervisor who helped convene the food summit.
“The thing that is quite troubling to me is that 25% of children in Yolo County are food insecure,” Saylor said. “To me, that’s a call to action. When one in four children don’t have access to food in an area where â¦ our economy is based on ag, that’s really troubling. This is a wonderful agricultural community, yet there’s this irony of hunger amidst abundance.”
To change that, Saylor helped bring together people from various agencies and programs that deal with poverty and nutrition.
“I see this [food summit] as a launching pad, not a landing strip,” Saylor said. “To bring us together to see all of these efforts as a food system rather than a number of individual programs.”
Yolo County has about 580,000 acres of active agricultural land, according to Saylor. The top crops there are tomatoes and rice. Saylor has a series of maps he unveiled at Friday’s summit that show levels of participation in Cal Fresh and other food supplement programs around the county. Areas of higher participation coincide, in large part, with farm production areas, he said.
“Farmworkers often have limited access to fresh food,” he said. “When we think of food deserts, we think of urban areas. But we forget about the rural areas. There is limited mobility, and there is greater distance from grocery outlets.”
Saylor said he was energized by the cross-pollination of ideas at the summit. He said stakeholders were excited to participate in fledgling hunger efforts across the county. “The summit itself is just one of the strands of our effort,” Saylor said. “We’re already addressing this issue with action.”
For instance, he said, the Shared Harvest program involves farmers sharing their surplus crops with the local community (“One farmer dedicated 10 acres recently,” Saylor said, “which is about 160,000 pounds of rice over the year.”). The Harvest of the Month program links the agricultural department in the county with the schools, so a single crop is highlighted every month and a series of school activities are organized around it. And at the Children’s Farmers’ Market, students are given play money to use to shop for fresh produce, which they bring home at the end of the day.
“California ranks 50th — that’s 50th out of 50 — in participation among eligible people in the SNAP program (the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program),” Saylor said. “And in Yolo County, we are 50th among the 58 counties in the state in participation rates.”
That means the majority of people who are eligible for SNAP in Yolo County don’t get it, Saylor said, and that carries a number of costs.
“Every dollar that goes in [with participation in the SNAP program] results in $1.80 into the local economy, and it brings food to hungry people in low-income communities,” he said.
Summit participants said the county needs mobile food distribution and a countywide food policy council.
Saylor hopes a coordinated approach can be replicated in other communities, and said there are similar efforts in other farming communities around the state, such as Tulare and San Joaquin counties.
A recent survey in Yolo County of the needs of low-income people there revealed that one of the top needs was food, Saylor said. “I find that heartbreaking,” he said, “and very moving, frankly. I’ve been a county supervisor for two years, and this issue just keeps popping up at every turn. It’s true, it is amazing to me that we’re talking about something as basic as access to food. But that’s the need.”