‘How big can we go?’: How the Sacramento region aims to end food insecurity

·10 min read

This is the second installation in a Sacramento Bee series on local food insecurity. To see Part 1, click here (link).

In the middle of March 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic slammed daily life to a halt for many Californians, Sacramento leaders met on a Saturday for a kind of emergency war council to tackle the region’s response to the all-consuming public health crisis.

Sitting in Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s office, they huddled around a whiteboard with a list of priorities, said policy advisor Julia Burrows. One of the most urgent issues was a basic problem tens of thousands of people in Sacramento faced.

“At the top of the list was caring for unsheltered residents, and making sure people still had food,” Burrows said. “And I raised my hand and said, ‘I really want to lead our food efforts.’”

Almost overnight, school districts, local restaurants, community nonprofits, regional farms and more collaborated to deliver thousands of meals to residents in need, college students in dorms and seniors isolating at home.

“We took resources from FEMA and state funding and figured, ‘How big can we go?’ ” Burrows said.

While the pandemic has waned, food insecurity persists throughout Sacramento. It is woven into the fabric of the city. Both private and public entities have invested unevenly in the city’s neighborhoods, depriving them of economic opportunity, competitive schools and good health.

Low-wage jobs and skyrocketing rents force families to tighten purse strings. Fast food restaurants flourish on busy traffic corridors. Pop-up food events in under-resourced neighborhoods don’t draw crowds.

So how do you correct an injustice that’s so thoroughly baked into the fabric of Sacramento life?

The pandemic spurred a sense of unprecedented urgency to address food insecurity. But as the duress of COVID-19 subsides this summer, advocates and officials are still tasked with building off new programs, relationships and research forged during the public health crisis to ensure Sacramentans can buy and eat healthy foods.

Long before the pandemic, thousands were going hungry in Sacramento. A Bee analysis of new data from the national nonprofit Feeding America estimated more than 187,000 Sacramentans struggled with hunger in 2019, meaning they didn’t always have reliable access to affordable, nutritious food. And the health consequences of hunger can be serious and long-lasting.

Help on the way

For some local agencies, getting an up-to-date sense of the food landscape in the Sacramento region, with a focus on equity and disparities, is the first priority.

Sacramento Food Policy Council president Brenda Ruiz helps oversee the USDA-funded Sacramento Food System Assessment and Partnership Project. She and leaders from 11 other partner organizations will research Sacramento County’s food equity barriers, with considerable community input, until September 2022, when they’ll present a report to the Sacramento City Council. Then it’ll be another two years writing an action plan to address the issues.

Similarly, the Sacramento Region Community Foundation and Valley Vision will be updating its 2015 assessment of the region’s food system to identify actionable goals and prevailing gaps.

But food insecurity in Sacramento is here now. Something must be done, leaders say.

“If the only thing that’s going to fill someone’s stomach is a bag of potato chips, that’s a crisis,” said Councilman Sean Loloee, who represents north Sacramento and owns the local grocery store chain Viva Supermarket.

The city of Sacramento just won a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to begin designing three new “food-anchored resilience hubs” — spaces that can host farmers’ markets, offer charging stations and more — in low-income under-resourced neighborhoods, Burrows said.

In an ideal world, there would even be a food policy czar at the city, just like for cannabis planning, Burrows said. But fundamentally, she said, tackling the hunger crisis requires the region tackling the spiraling housing crisis.

“When you have to spend 50, 60% of your income on housing first, then you have less money for food,” Burrows said. “We have to, as a city, build more affordable housing. We have to do that first.”

Even before the pandemic, it was obvious that “food has been interwoven with the injustice south Sacramento experiences every day,” said Councilwoman Mai Vang who spent years as a community organizer.

That’s led her to plan to assemble a task force to address food insecurity in the city, she said. She’s also looking into potentially starting a farmer’s market Meadowview, and finding a tenant for the now-vacant Food Source on Mack Road.

Loloee said he plans on bringing a proposal to City Council soon that would shepherd city dollars into North Sacramento, though he declined to share more details. And more than two dozen properties owned by the city, most of them in his district, could potentially be primed for new development later this year.

Other social safety net policies like the pilot guaranteed income program in Stockton have captured the attention of some health and food policy experts, who see the no-strings-attached checks as a key way of helping residents have more flexibility. Local nonprofit United Way started a two-year pilot program in June, giving 100 residents $300 a month; The city’s Measure U committee is exploring starting a similar program, potentially with the support of state funding.

As a whole, city and county officials need to be prepared to put their money where their mouth is in pursuit of racial equity, Vang said. She pointed to the city’s 2021 climate action plan that included a component on food access and urban agriculture, but had no funding resources attached.

“COVID-19 revealed the structural failures we have in our system,” Vang said.

Food banks like River City Food Bank have long been a family’s last line of defense against hunger and homelessness, but it doesn’t have to be that way, said director of fund development Erika Fatula.

“If people would stop feeling like it’s a burden, and more of a responsibility as a community to come to work together to build each other up, it would be better for all of us,” Fatula said.

Investing in Sacramento’s neighborhoods

Hunger isn’t relegated to just a few neighborhoods of Sacramento County. Lining the bustling thoroughfare of Interstate 80, in the unincorporated “finger” of the Fruitridge Pocket, along the American River Parkway and beyond, Sacramentans of all walks of life don’t have steady access to nutritious food.

Many live in neighborhoods that have been frequently excluded economically, Loloee said.

“(For) years and years and years, the city has decided it is not the right time to invest,” he said. That has made it harder for residents in north and south Sacramento to secure well-paying jobs, attend quality schools, find affordable housing, and buy healthy food.

As neighborhoods languish, the signs of disinvestment persists.

“If a city or community is not invested in a neighborhood — not bringing in more jobs, or lowering unemployment, and (raising) incomes — then for the supermarkets and restaurants and food truck festivals … the numbers are not going to add up,” Loloee said.

It’s not just a lack of food-related investments. Food deserts — areas where grocery stores and food markets are scarce — are often the scapegoat for hunger in the United States, but health and food systems experts have cautioned putting too much stock into the narrative.

In her research, UC Davis food systems professor Catherine Brinkley has found full-service restaurants, recreational facilities, farmers’ markets, and specialty stores like bakeries and meat markets were stronger predictors of less obesity and diabetes in a neighborhood than proximity to a supermarket. That infrastructure is also a sign of government and private investment, and higher income levels.

“We’re talking about land-use planning that has historically done things like redlining, cordoning people off because of their skin color, and starving them of transit and libraries and museums and parks and recreational facilities,” Brinkley said.

The financial neglect some neighborhoods experience has long frustrated Frank Louie, executive director of the Stockton Boulevard Partnership, especially as he has seen millions pour into some parts of the city. “Downtown gets all the love because of the arena,” he said. “All of the older underinvested corridors are suffering.”

But Brinkley cautioned that new development to help lift neighborhoods out of poverty needs to be thoughtful, and engage residents in active and productive ways.

She pointed out the “flood of money” coming into Oak Park through UC Davis’ Aggie Square development, a large $1 billion medical technology hub that has raised fears that the very people who’d benefit most from the economic opportunity will be priced out of the neighborhood entirely.

“That investment is really difficult to balance,” Brinkley said.

‘Food apartheid’ in Sacramento

Food insecurity isn’t a citywide problem like potholes or the Kings threatening to leave town. It’s a gnawing, mostly silent problem that festers out of sight — hard to see, hard to track, easy to ignore.

“There are a lot of groups that would say … basically we’re not looking at food deserts, we’re looking at food apartheid, where it’s systematically designed so that certain ZIP codes are left out,” Food Literacy Center CEO Amber Stott said. “It’s the design of the system, and it’s not a unique problem to Sacramento.”

As more visible issues demand immediate attention, untangling and solving the complex problems surrounding food insecurity can be deemed too difficult, too risky, too low of a priority.

“Infrastructure is something really visible and tangible, we use it every day,” said county senior planner Todd Smith. “The food we eat is often behind closed doors, it’s hard to put your hands around that and understand” how thousands go hungry each day.

“(But) that’s the bigger picture of a healthy community. It’s not just infrastructure and streets and parks. Having a healthy community means people don’t go hungry.”

Governments and public agencies have not only a moral obligation but an economic incentive to ensure people are well-fed and healthy, Smith said. Fewer people going hungry is a sign that more are thriving — more dollars in the food economy, fewer medical issues, better education outcomes.

If, for example, every Sacramento household that currently qualifies for CalFresh actually signed up, it would inject another $90.5 million into the local economy, Nourish California estimates. That would mean more than 1,000 food retailers and farmer’s markets benefiting from additional business.

“There’s been a history of keeping people out, and a fear of fraud, and frankly a history of racism that’s led people in politics to design mechanisms that make access to public benefits more difficult,” said Nourish California senior advocate Melissa Cannon.

Food insecurity affects lower-income residents the most, but it’s “hitting our Black, Hispanic and multi-racial community members the hardest,” Cannon said. “Time and time again, the data is pointing that out.”

Seven of the 10 census tracts where food insecurity was worst in Sacramento County were communities where a majority of residents were people of color, based on analysis of 2019 data from Feeding America. The percentage of people living in poverty in those neighborhoods range from 21% to nearly 58%.

The trend echoes the pervasive racial and economic disparities that permeate American society, said Dr. May Wang, a professor of community health sciences at UCLA. Being able to buy healthy food, she said, “is, in some ways, a privilege.”

“In my mind, it should be a right,” Wang said. “But I don’t know if we’ve gotten there collectively.”

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