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Grant program aims to strengthen Northern California emergency food system

Wildfire evacuees pick up food in 2020.
Evett Kilmartin
University of California
Wildfire evacuees pick up food in 2020.

The University of California Cooperative Extension has received a $1.5 million grant from the USDA to provide increased access to healthy food during emergencies and help expand markets for local producers.

Northern California communities have experienced landslides, earthquakes, wildfires, drought, the pandemic and economic downturns in recent years. Those are some of the factors putting pressure on local food producers and the regional food system, according to the organizers of a new project aimed at addressing chronic and emergency food shortages in the region.

The three-year, $1.5 million USDA grant will mostly be used for work in Del Norte, Humboldt and Sonoma counties. Mendocino, Napa and Marin counties will be involved to a lesser extent. The goals are to create new economic opportunities for local food producers, address weaknesses in the region’s emergency food response and strengthen communication across the six Northern California counties to improve the emergency food system.

Dorina Espinoza, a Youth, Families and Communities advisor with the Cooperative Extension in Humboldt and Del Norte counties, said the new partnership will help address weaknesses in the region’s emergency food response.

"We have a very fragile food system in some of our counties that are remote. And some of our counties that are impacted by something like a landslide on [Highway] 299 or on 101 heading up to Del Norte County, that can really impact how food gets to communities," she said.

Details of the program are still being worked out, but the partnership will work with food banks, nonprofits, local and tribal governments and emergency managers to ensure food access is equitable and resilient throughout the region.

"The driver is to create a more robust and resilient and effective as well as equitable emergency food system. We have these fragile points. Sometimes we know about them, sometimes we don't until there's an emergency or disaster. And given those fragile points, what can we do to improve our food system?" Espinoza said. "Right now we have systems in place, but they aren't working at the best capacity that they can."

“Local food production is critical to the resilience of the North Coast,” said Lynda Hopkins, Sonoma County District 5 supervisor, in a press release. “I'm thrilled that UCCE will be working with our farmers to ensure that we can feed our residents healthy, local food no matter what disaster we're facing – be it future flood, fire or pandemic.”

Jane Vaughan began her journalism career as a reporter for a community newspaper in Portland, Maine. She's been a producer at New Hampshire Public Radio and worked on WNYC's On The Media. Jane earned her Master's in Journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.