Sonoma County Department of Health’s Laurel Chambers came to La Luz Center last week for a workshop about healthy food. The goal? Bring more of it to Springs neighborhoods.
In the Springs, there are 13 food stores; five fast food venues, one community garden, one farmer’s market, one farm stand, one CSA, one summer lunch program, and six food distribution entities.
CSA, or community supported agriculture, is a system where people pay a fee and get a box of locally grown produce per week. This can be expensive. There is one CSA that delivers to the Springs. It is possible the price can come down by ordering by the week rather than by the season. Food farmers in Sonoma Valley pay high rents for land. These farmers also have high fixed costs. Food farmers here are people with ideals, not getting rich at it. The upshot is that reducing price barriers of access to heathy, local food will likely not come from the farmers themselves.
The summer lunch program serves a few hundred kids, out of the 2,000 who get school lunch assistance during the school year.
In support of the goal of bringing more healthy food to Springs neighborhoods, the County has a Communities of Excellence, or CX3, program. CX3 attempts to define what a healthy community looks like. The program targets physical activity, obesity, and preventive health measures. The county Department of Health also has a community health initiative that addresses the social, medical, and health care costs that come with too much unhealthy food.
CX3 canvass of food options
CX3 looks at what food and beverages are available. The county, with the help of the Center for Well Being, canvassed Springs food stores and venues, and with a “Neighborhood Nutrition Indicator Performance” index. This index determines the proportion of stores that sell unhealthy vs. healthy food. For the index, the higher the number the better, with 100 as best. The county as a whole rates at 18, average for California. The Springs rated at 5.88
In the Springs, there are seven small markets, five convenience stores, zero grocery stores, and one “other,” the Dollar Tree.
Springs food stores themselves were analyzed with other criteria. Do the stores accept SNAP (formerly food stamps)? Price: what is the average price of goods? Availability: quality and quantity of heathy food? And how much advertising for unhealthy vs. healthy food? These questions were then scored on a scale where at least 75 out of 100 indicates higher quality. Two out of seven Springs markets met this standard and three were close. This higher score reflects that all Springs markets have already been worked with by the county and the Center for Well Being. No convenience stores, or the Dollar Tree scored in the quality range. Fast food, as usual, has no healthy options.
Overall findings? The Springs is a food desert, where the sale of unhealthy food predominates, and access to healthy food is limited. Only 15% of Springs food stores met heathy food quality standards. One major access issue is lack of a supermarket within one mile.
The Springs has twice as much fast food as the county. Food trucks, and their growing prevalence, were not measured in this study. Their presence makes the fast food ratio go even higher. The anecdotal impression from workshop participants was that food truck food was either unhealthy on one end or too expensive on the other. Some food truck food may provide ethnic comfort food at an affordable price, making it an attractive option, even if unhealthy in terms of nutrition.
The price of food, like rent, is a serious problem. Pay walls and price barriers are real. One workshop participant pointed out that Sonoma Valley has high prices overall because its isolated geography makes it one big cornered market. With lack of transportation out of the valley, many residents are trapped having to pay inflated prices in the Springs for unhealthy food. To a certain extent, the food desert effect can be mitigated on an individual basis by making healthy choices, and learning to cook big batches of healthy food all at once to get an economy of scale for the price. However, the bulk of high price inflation for Sonoma Valley is primarily a structural problem and not something individual choices alone can overcome.
How far to go?
The question was asked, how far is too far to go to buy healthy food? A mile? Access is a package that simultaneously depends on price, quality, annual income, education, transportation options, etc. In many ways, people will continue to choose unhealthy food if they live in a food desert, and if the price fits their bottom line, and given lack of available transportation options. This is especially so given the demographic figures shown by a Sonoma Valley Fund report that Springs poverty is growing.
If people are living in poverty, then they are less able to make choices based on higher levels of self-actualization. For people living in poverty, the main worries are basic survival. In terms of healthy food choices, the well-off and actualized may not realize just how much bad food you can buy for the price of just a few expensive healthy items. The choice is clear for the poor: go for the bulk. The good stuff is prohibitively priced.
It also came put that 67% of the Springs Latino population is eligible for SNAP (formerly food stamps), but only a low percentage get it; $110 per month. Some 33,000 people in the county are eligible for SNAP. Access numbers have decreased after the Trump election, reflecting fear of government proportional to Trump’s immigration executive orders.
Larson Park Farmer’s Market
The Springs will have an alcohol-free farmer’s market at Larson Park beginning July 9th, Sundays, 4 – 7 p.m. Chambers noted that there is a perception that farmer’s markets are too expensive for average people. It is possible, she said, to buy food at peak deals, to learn how to shop for and buy food to cook in large quantities, and have the price come out as affordable. There is a certain lifestyle choice involved here, to want to choose healthy options, and to know how to prepare them on an economic scale.
Here again, education and individually choosing healthy options is great, but structural changes are needed to the food system as well.
Sonoma County has cutting edge ideas
The county has surprisingly good programs overall. The county and associated non-profits, has a sustainability-based Health Action Initiative. The upstream investment program, aimed at areas like the Springs, is part of this initiative. Also cooperating is Ag Innovations, a very cool group that has made up a great Food Action Plan. Good ideas are in no short supply. As I have pointed out for years now however, the price of food just keeps going up. Access to healthy food is not happening at a structural level.
Grocery Outlet model supply chain for the Springs?
The Petaluma Grocery Outlet is able to buy the exact same healthy items as Whole Foods and Sonoma Market, yet sell them for more than $4 less per item. What is it about the supply chain here, that Springs markets cannot duplicate? Maybe Benny from the Petaluma Grocery Outlet can help bulk order for Springs markets? One possible trouble, if substantial supply chain cost savings are made in market that charges high prices, how to ensure those savings get passed on to the poor?
Pay a living wage
If rents and food prices keep going up, and wages stay low, that leaves a few options. Pay a living wage to Springs, and county working class residents, lower the prices, have charity somehow make up the difference, or watch as the people gradually get externalized to Solano and Lake counties.
Food distribution services are charities that basically trickle back value that structurally should be paid to workers up front. But, the current economic system pushes each actor to maximize their own advantage, which collectively results in various flavors of tragedy of the commons. The winners of the game end up with way more than they need, and some have a conscience, and trickle that wealth back.
Take all the good ideas and roll them together. Use local leaders who see the issues clearly; and government’s ability to measure, analyze, regulate, and level the playing field; and philanthropy’s tremendous sequestered wealth, and target the needed areas and get the aid, and equitable pay, delivered, just as Hidden in Plain Sight suggests.
The Board of Supervisors could outlaw sugary drinks and empty calorie snacks, types of food with more costs than benefits for society.
Certainly this access to healthy food in the Springs is one big ball of wax with lots of moving parts. Given how the prices keep going up, and that poverty is growing, it’s time to do something now. Waiting, as sad MLK, is tantamount to nothing ever getting done.