San Luis Obispo County local food roots are strong, can support growth
A new report assessing San Luis Obispo County's food system links the vitality of the county's agriculture with the health of its residents and its food businesses.
Conducted by the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (UC SAREP) and Central Coast Grown (CCG), the San Luis Obispo County Food System Assessment examines the relationships between agriculture, regional environmental quality, human health and local livelihoods.
“We found that the county food system in San Luis Obispo is thriving with increased agricultural sales and school districts beginning to participate in garden-based education,” says Jenna Smith, executive director of Central Coast Grown. “But there are many opportunities for improvement. With excitement building around local food and improved nutrition, it's vital for a county to see an honest accounting of where it stands in those arenas.”
In 2007, farmers in San Luis Obispo County sold agricultural products valued at $4.3 million directly to consumers, an increase from previous years. The report suggests that continued promotion of local and direct marketing of food can assist all producers, including new farmers, in entering the marketplace and bolstering the local food system overall.
Those markets will be especially important as the number of farmers in the county grows. In 2007, there were 850 more agricultural producers than 10 years prior. But the majority of farms in 2007 reported gross sales of under $250,000 per year, with nearly half of all farms in the county reporting less than $5,000 in annual sales.
“Unfortunately, we have little information available to define who these small-scale farmers are, what they are growing, how they impact local employment, and how they might interact with the local food system,” said Mary Bianchi, director of UC Cooperative Extension in San Luis Obispo County, who advised on the report. “We need a better understanding of what these farmers produce, and how they can better participate in the local food economy.”
In a parallel survey conducted by Central Coast Grown, they asked farmers and restaurant owners about the challenges to selling and buying locally.
“Our survey reinforced the findings of the SLO Food System Assessment,” says CCG director Smith. “Both farmers and restaurant owners reported a need and value for localized distribution channels.”
The report also addresses access to healthy food as a component of the county's food system. Participation in food assistance programs like CalFresh and food distributed by food banks in San Luis Obispo County have both increased over the last decade, though overall food insecurity in the county has improved marginally.
While increases in food distribution may mean those outlets are accessing more people, it also means more people are in need of the assistance.
Beyond continued support from government food programs, the report recommends ways that increasing food access for the public and improving markets for local producers can reinforce one another. Food-focused community development strategies such as mobile markets, community farms, and farm-to-school bring agriculture into neighborhoods and schools and help close the gap between producers and consumers.
Gail Feenstra, deputy director of UC SAREP and one of the report's authors. “We're increasingly seeing the benefits from these partnerships.”
San Luis Obispo County also faces water quality and water quantity challenges that are echoed throughout the state. Nitrate contamination from both urban and agricultural sources affects local lakes, rivers and streams. Groundwater and coastal stream resources both present significant challenges for agriculture and rural communities dependent on them for drinking water.
“Accounting for those concerns within the context of the entire food system may bring a broader scope to the discussion along with the potential to leverage the efforts of the many groups already working on water resources issues,” Bianchi said.
The Food System Assessment was conducted in partnership with the San Luis Obispo County Food System Coalition. Coalition meetings are held quarterly to discuss local food system issues and are open to the community. The report was funded by the California Department of Food and Agriculture which also supports Central Coast Grown's upcoming release of a Public Land Survey that identifies underutilized agriculturally viable land county-wide.