Food network challenge

SN&R chats with Don Saylor about an innovative program to end hunger in Yolo County

Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor wants more people to take advantage of CalFresh.

Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor wants more people to take advantage of CalFresh.

Photo By priscilla garcia

Don Saylor knows a thing or two about tackling complex problems.

In fact, like many local elected officials, he became an accomplished problem solver while serving on the Davis Joint Unified School District, the Davis City Council and, finally, as the city’s mayor from 2008 to 2010. Now, a member of the Yolo County Board of Supervisors, Saylor has set his sights on ending hunger in Yolo County. SN&R sat down for a talk with Saylor about his push with Yolo Food Connect.

Jeff vonKaenel: Let’s start by talking about hunger in Yolo County. How big of a problem is it?

Don Saylor: Hunger is one of the critical issues here because 17 percent of the Yolo County population has been defined as “food insecure.” One in four children lives in a household where they are not sure where the next meal is coming from. It’s an interesting problem to have in Yolo County because we live in an agricultural treasure. But we do have a couple of food deserts, located in parts of West Sacramento and parts of Davis. One of the bigger challenges in a place like Yolo is that we have rural communities with little access to fresh fruits and vegetables—this poses a challenge when it comes to distribution systems. Ironically, many of the people who live in these rural communities and have food-access issues actually work on farms. Another big challenge we have is to understand why many who are eligible are not participating in CalFresh.

This is a problem we are having for all of California—we still have one of the worst CalFresh participation rates in the country. In Oregon, 90-something percent of eligible people participate in food stamps. We only have about 51 percent.

Over the past couple of years, people seem to have become more aware of this challenge. That’s because for every dollar that comes into the local economy for a CalFresh benefit or a supplemental-nutrition assistance benefit, a $1.80 boost in the local economy occurs. People who receive a CalFresh benefit don’t send the money to the Cayman Islands, they spend it immediately in their local grocery store or their farmers market. It’s an immediate boost to the local economy. That means local jobs, and it means connecting with existing food distribution through the retail system.

Let’s move on to the food coalition that you have put together. Tell me about that.

So, we started with a look at how we could increase the participation rate for CalFresh. But we realized as we worked that hunger is really a systemwide issue. So we need to work at it on a systemwide level. The way we have started that attack is to bring together a coalition—an ad hoc coalition we call the Yolo Food Connect—that includes growers, many nonprofit groups, individuals involved in the food support system, farmers markets, food cooperatives and school-nutrition programs. We started with a group of about eight or 10 people and a steering committee, then expanded to a working group of 45 or 50. In October, we conducted a full-scale Yolo Food Connect Summit on the campus of UC Davis. Basically, we want to build a sustainable food system with abundant and healthy affordable food for everybody in the region and in Yolo County.

So you’ve gathered all the players that have any connection to this issue?

Yes. There are multiple strands of activity and, in Yolo County, we’ve got such an amazingly creative group of people working on the inner-play between agriculture and the economy, between agriculture and the environment and all of the local food movements and the farm-to-school efforts. Each of these efforts has some connectivity possible with other work. Unfortunately, in many cases, those connecting points had not been drawn. So part of our effort has been to bring the connections together in one place.

What seems to happen often is that we have to make decisions in silos. If you talk to people running the school cafeterias they say, “Our job is to run things as economically as possible,” so they buy more processed food, and that food is not as healthy. And that has a cost. So we’re in silos, and nobody’s looking at the big picture.

Well, let’s take that as an example of what we’re trying to do. The school food-service directors in each of our school districts have a very finite budget—its pennies per meal that they must comply with. But they are a pretty creative bunch, these food-service directors! Having had extended conversations with a couple of them in what they are doing is trying their best to source … high-nutritious-value products into their menu planning. They have to be pretty clever to ascertain which products they are sourcing that are locally produced, because a lot of times the labeling is not clear enough to identify it. Now, tied into this we have two school districts that have had very well-established farm-to-school programs with school gardens and curriculum around how food grows and putting salad bars together with local produce, etc. As these expand, it’s going to involve a lot of community support because it involves a scaling up of the food system that supports it. In other words, we need more suppliers and more growers who are growing specifically for that purpose. And we need aggregation facilities. And the list goes on. These are really interesting, engaging projects—they excite people.

What’s your No. 1 goal in the next two years?

I would love to say my goal is to have no hungry people in Yolo County, but that ain’t going to happen in two years. But we will have increased access to fresh fruits and vegetables throughout the county in the remote areas. Second, I think that we will have a good, strong food-policy council with broad representation. Third, we will have increased CalFresh participation. I would like to have 90 to 100 percent participation.

And in terms of the food-system-enhancement projects, what’s the big goal there?

It would be to have one or more aggregation hubs in place to supply our kids farmers-market food from local growers and to have a series of individual projects in place that support the bigger picture.

We in Sacramento are, of course, eating much of the food that’s grown in Yolo County, including Capay Valley. How do you see your effort in terms of a more regional approach?

Well, Valley Vision has a food council that we participate in, and we should increase that. The chefs in the Sacramento area have started this farm-to-fork effort, and Yolo will be participating in that. … I am a member of the [Sacramento Area Council of Governments] board of directors, and I’ve been active in the rural-urban connection strategy set of projects there. … There are a number of things that we can do regionally, and I’m very interested in continuing our engagement there. When you look at hunger, it becomes very clear very quickly that you are talking about poverty and how our society responds to the issues of poverty. By attacking hunger we are going to leverage societal change, and by building awareness about hunger among us, I think it causes us to really reflect on who we are as a region.