Visions of a 21st Century Food System – Bringing Food Back to the Community

What makes a great food city? While many might claim the answer is celebrity chefs and Zagat ratings, the answer lies not in the fine linen or artisan cocktails. It is a deeper question, one that goes back to the basics of food production. This past Sunday, SBCC’s Center for Sustainability fielded this very question, hosting “Visions of a 21st Century Food System – Inviting Food and Agriculture Back Into Our Cities.”

Seattle City Councilmember, Richard Conlin, speaking to a packed house at Santa Barbara City College.

The packed auditorium consisted of keynote speaker, Seattle City Councilmember Richard Conlin, not only a gracious interviewee, but also a remarkable government official. In 2008, Conlin spearheaded and helped pass Seattle’s Local Food Action Initiative, which envisioned a new urban agriculture model. In a few short years, the program has successfully increased Seattle’s access to nutritional foods while strengthening the security of its food supply. Sharing his experiences, the talk was successful at creating a conversation for Santa Barbara’s own local vision, re-inviting food and food production back into the hands of the community.

“The key to creating a local resilient food system is having leadership in local political offices and bringing the energy of the community into harmony with that leadership,” said Richard Conlin. “There are a lot of people who are really interested in local food – once they get the picture, change is bound to happen.”

Also present at Sunday’s talk was a brilliant panel of local changemakers, each sharing their own personal vision for a more sustainable food system. The panel included Das Williams of the 35th California Assembly District, Warren Brush of Quail Springs, Alison Hensley of SOL Food Festival, Meg West of the Goleta Planning Board, LoaTree’s own Eric Cárdenas, who also facilitates the Santa Barbara & Ventura Ag Futures Alliances, Lori Ann David of Eat Your Yard, Santa Barbara Edible Landscape Company, Krista Harris of Edible Santa Barbara, and Jasper Eiler of Harvest Santa Barbara.

When envisioning a resilient, local food system, one must first mention that Santa Barbara exports over 98% of its own locally grown food! Yet food offers a great economic opportunity, a huge potential growth sector for the Santa Barbara community. With innovative policy and design strategies, there is hope for our own local agricultural model that stands to bring increased revenues and jobs into our community.

“Food is something we can all gather around. It’s the idea of breaking bread together, the basis of community,” said Conlin. “All we have to do is give people the tools and opportunities to get people energized.”

Locally, the Foodbank of Santa BarbaraCounty serves 1 in 4 families, with 44% of those served being children. Aiding in issues of food

A distinguished panel of local food experts and advocates fielded questions from the audience.

access, the Food Bank’s Produce Initiative distributed over 5 million pounds of fresh produce in 2011, working with local farmers (and backyard farmers via the Backyard Bounty Program). Additionally, the Foodbank has created mobile farmers markets, delivering and distributing fruits and vegetables to the community each week, further connecting people back to their food source.

“We are now beginning to realize that food access is a much larger picture – hunger and obesity are totally linked together,” said Conlin. “Breaking that cycle fits perfectly with all the other things we want to do with local food.”

While Conlin has worked extensively with local food banks to increase fresh food supply, an increasing focus has been on creating opportunities for community members to grow their own food (via free seed handouts). Encouraging and empowering individuals is a key element to the success of our 21st Century food system. Locally, the Orfalea Foundation has aided in connecting students to the food they eat through their School Gardens program, cultivating food collectively and collaboratively. Since 2009, the program has installed or enhanced 29 gardens, proven effective for promoting healthy lifestyles for our local youth.

“The most appealing food system is one where we can all eat fresh, healthy, good tasting food,” said Conlin. “It’s a virtuous circle – if people enjoy the food, then they are more likely to support their local farmers, thereby creating better food for the community and the environment.”

With regards to cultivating local food, Conlin has worked extensively on developing urban farms in Seattle. With over 80 community gardens in the Seattle area, there is huge potential here locally to strengthen our own urban agriculture. But more importantly, we must protect our existing agricultural land from rezoning, thereby working alongside local government and encouraging people to explore and discover the benefits of local food production. Because as Lori Ann David of Santa Barbara Edible Landscape so aptly proclaimed, “we should all be eating our yards!”

The new California Homemade Food Act (“Cottage Food” Bill), may help us do just that, allowing people to make food in their own home kitchens and sell them on a small-scale basis, whether directly to consumers or at farmers markets. Removing the financial and logistical barriers of a accessing commercial kitchen, this bill will help small producers grow more local food and keep those products within the community.

“The first step is getting people to make that psychological change and realize that food is a local government issue,” said Conlin. “The whole idea is to make it more attractive to people. Once people get their hands on good food, it’s easy…we just have to get them started.”

The evening’s discussion was invaluable, an opportunity to connect community members in a synergistic relationship with local changemakers, with the hopes of planting seeds of change.

“Essentially what you are trying to do is create this level of energy all around the community,” said Conlin. “That will translate into the political system. If the community is organized, interested, and involved, then the people in elected office will perk up their ears.”

To read more about Richard Conlin’s Local Food Action Initiative, click here.

 By Rachel Hommel, LoaTree Food Writer; Photos by Rachel Hommel


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