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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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Facilitating Food Alliances, Ag Innovations Network Aims to Boost Local Food Production and Health of Citizens

April 15, 2013 |

Is healthy, locally produced food on the endangered ‘agri-list?’ Some think so and are taking a round-table approach to ensure local fare stays on the menu and local farmers keep their hands in the soil. Cultivating those grassroots is what this movement is all about, as volunteers address systemic issues in food production with a focus on local, sustainable cultivation.

The Sonoma County Food System Alliance created a forum to bring public-health advocates, farmers and ranchers together in a round-table work group. The goal according to the group’s website is fostering an awareness that cultivation of healthy food in a community is an ecosystem, with each part essential to supporting the whole.

The Sonoma County Health Department partnered with Ag Innovations Network (AIN), the Redwood Empire Food Bank and the Ag Commissioner’s Office to convene the Alliance in 2007, according to the group’s website.

Ag Innovations Network is a California-based non-profit organization that sponsors the Alliance project and works to enhance the long-term viability of agriculture and the food system. AIN provides neutral facilitation for multi-stakeholder collaboratives comprised of farmers, ranchers, agricultural organizations, and others involved in the food system, according to the group’s website.

Alliance members aim to tackle such pernicious issues such as loss of farmland, the health impacts from a diet heavy in processed foods, and transportation barriers. For low-income residents lacking affordable transportation in the state’s urban areas, obtaining fresh, affordable produce is often out of reach.

Lisa Badenfort, with Ag Innovations Network (and Coordinator of the Sonoma County Food System Alliance), says the group promotes a highly democratic, collaborative approach to address the primary barriers to a secure, equitable and vibrant food system. Ag Innovations Network brings a structured process “container,” then works with groups (Alliances) to identify and act on the county’s greatest needs and opportunities.

Here’s how the group operates: The Sonoma County Food System Alliance, similar to other Alliance efforts, uses a collaborative approach to decide which issues are most pressing within the local community. Topics of concern span a cornucopia of food-related initiatives, all guided by the vision of a sustainable way to cultivate healthy, affordable food and bring that to the family dinner table. Alliance members determine which specific concerns the group will address. Those concerns are then codified into a charter that guides the group going forward.

For example, the Sonoma Food System Alliance members chose to focus on the local food system, detailing their findings in a white paper. Neutral facilitators then steered both the work and the process so maximum collaboration occurred. Last year, the Sonoma County Food System Alliance produced the Sonoma County Healthy and Sustainable Food Action Plan (FAP), a guide to local action on food production, land and natural resource stewardship, job development, public health and equity in our food system. The FAP has grouped the primary food system opportunities and concerns into four pillar/action areas: Agriculture and Natural Resources, Economic Vitality, Healthy Eating, and Social Equity. Throughout 2013-14, the Alliance will host four pillar forums designed to leverage the broader community’s participation in advancing the goals of the FAP. In addition to these forums, the SCFSA will soon launch a countywide effort to secure endorsements of the FAP from local governments, businesses, individuals and related public entities, and in turn, work with those entities to further specific FAP priorities.

The Alliance network includes both Food System Alliances (FSAs) and Ag Futures Alliances (AFAs), which are currently functioning in eight California counties. Ag Innovations Network also facilitates regular communications between FSAs to foster an innovative atmosphere where cross-fertilization of ideas and sharing of best practices are primary tools.

The FSA’s are formed with the intention of becoming a local institution that endures and contributes vitality to a community’s food production over the long haul, according to the group’s website. Names of potential collaborators organically arise in the initial meeting and the effort takes off from there. Those who have a passion for such an endeavor will likely be invited by others who heard about the initial event, as the names of sustainable agriculture advocates often seem to bubble to the top in such endeavors.

These collaborative bodies then take on various projects that are crafted to meet the challenges of a particular locale. For example, in Ventura County the local alliance focused on the use of pesticides applied in close proximity to schools, while the Yolo County alliance took on the issue of ways to stem the loss of agricultural land to development. Other activists marshaled efforts to harvest food from untended orchards.

It’s a veritable cornucopia of solutions all aimed at boosting the long-term health of both residents and local food production.

If you’re a foodie and know fellow foodies with a passion for getting those hands dirty, launching an alliance is a non-traditional way to shape the future of local agriculture in your community. Be prepared to talk a lot, and listen even more. And just maybe you’ll catch the ears of those in your community that have an itch to see a fresh layer of sod turn over a new leaf in local food production.

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