It would be advisable that a reporter who is writing an article about Mendocino County actually set foot in Mendocino County before drawing sweeping conclusions about the economy, culture and landscape of this place.
The San Francisco Chronicle published an atrocious article titled “In Mendocino County Fresh Affordable Food is Hard to Find,” which I found so upsetting that I canceled a trip to lay in the sun on the banks of the Navarro River this afternoon in order to respond immediately. Instead, I am sitting here with the heater on, wearing a down vest, typing furiously. In the words of the ever discerning Gowan, this article is “classist, ignorant and offensive.” Here’s one excerpt:
“Their drives sound extreme, but Mendocino County, for all its natural beauty, is actually a difficult place to be healthy. To name a few examples, it has rugged, unwalkable terrain, more fast-food joints than grocery stores, and high rates of premorbidity, obesity and coronary heart disease.” – Stephanie Lee, SF Gate
First of all, if it takes someone 8 hours to do the 140 mile round trip drive from Gualala to Santa Rosa, they stopped at too many wineries along the way. I realize she’s probably accounting for shopping time, but this line alone would discourage anyone from ever wanting to visit our neck of the woods. If Stephanie M. Lee had been to Mendocino County, she would discover that we do in fact have paved streets, and side walks, extremely fresh air, and tons of active, fit and healthy residents. Where the pavement ends, there are numerous hiking and biking trails, rivers and lakes for kayaking, oceans for surfing and diving.
But, what gets me most is what she said about food. In most cities and towns in Mendocino County, you actually have a hard time finding a fast-food joint. What you would find instead is a community that has, by large, resisted chains of any kind and is fueled by many innovative small businesses including locally owned grocery-stores, co-ops and collectives and farm stands, with a dedication to a high quality of life and well-being.
I love living in Mendocino County and I will be the first to admit that there are segments of this community that are seriously economically depressed.
I have struggled with this myself; the job market is very limited, and the cost of living is high. Poverty, hunger, malnutrition and obesity exist in Mendocino County, as well as depression, alcoholism, drug use and all the other problems that plague everywhere USA. And, yet, this is only one part of the picture. It is dangerous, and bad journalism, to speak to only one family in the parking lot of Trader Joe’s and make a few phone calls and surmise conclusions about the entirety of Mendocino County.
These obstacles are real, and yet, there are also many opportunities for people to access fresh, affordable and healthy food.
Gowan and I are living examples of this; we have eaten only the freshest local food, every single day for the last seven and a half months, on very limited budgets. We recognize that we have a lot of things working in our favor. We are two educated, middle class white girls, without any children or severe disabilities. Gowan has access to land where she can produce a lot of the food that we depend on. We know a lot of farmers and producers who are willing to barter, or give us food when they have abundance. Our project has become high profile, and strangers often appear with gifts of food or salt or just encouragement (which also really matters). We are very, very fortunate. And we are resourceful as hell and just as stubborn, too. So, we have been able to make this work on an extreme level.
All of this said, there are many ways that affordable, fresh food is accessible for everyone. Here are seven, to start:
1. Mendocino County is on the forefront of the Farm-to-School movement
Noyo Food Forest, located in Fort Bragg, CA, is a groundbreaking non-profit farm education program. They have built Fort Bragg’s community garden in Noyo Harbor, as well as ensured that there is a school garden at every school in Fort Bragg. At their two-acre flagship mini-farm, The Learning Garden, high school interns and community volunteers help grow food that goes directly into all four school cafeterias, feeding incredibly fresh, nutrient dense organic produce to a population where almost 70% of students are from a low income home. The farm also grows food for several of the best restaurants in town, several catering companies, and has a summer booth at Fort Bragg Farmer’s Market and a winter booth at the Caspar Community Center’s winter market. Their model of Farm-at-School is so innovative that Eco City Berkeley came and toured our gardens and interviewed the staff because they wanted to start a farm-to-school program in Oakland and NFF was the closest program they could find to what they wanted to create. Our school lunches are beautiful, vibrant, and fresh, as good as anything you’d find in a restaurant, and we are raising a community of children who are not only kale eaters, but garden lovers.
Gowan is the farm manager at the Noyo Food Forest and is pictured above teaching interns about worm composting.
2. Mendocino County Farmers Markets accept EBT/Food Stamps and WIC Coupons
In order to make the farmers’ markets more accessible to all, EBT Cards (Food Stamps) are accepted at all of the Mendocino County Certified Farmers’ Markets, located in Fort Bragg, Mendocino, Boonville, Ukiah, Redwood Valley, Willits and Laytonville. At some of these markets, EBT cardholders can benefit from Food Stamp Matching program where their food stamps are matched with grant funds or community donations, so they can receive an additional dollar for every EBT dollar they spend.
3. Community Gardens feed many families in Mendocino County
There is a vast network of community gardens throughout Mendocino County, coordinated by organizations such as the Gardens Project, the Noyo Food Forest, and many smaller neighborhood-based groups. These gardens provide affordable growing space to local gardeners and families, allowing them to grow their own food in a community setting with established infrastructure such as fencing, soil, seeds and irrigation. Community gardeners also have access to training and knowledge-sharing and this is a fantastic way to learn about growing food if you are a beginner.
4. Food Banks distribute fresh local food
The local food banks receive plentiful donations of fresh produce from many local farms and gardens and grocery stores, which are freely available to clients.
5. Farmer CSA accepts EBT/Food Stamps
Live Power Community Farm is an awesome 40-acre, solar electric and horse-powered, certified Biodynamic farm located in Covelo. Their Community Sustained Agriculture (CSA) Program allows consumers to invest in the farm by pledging financial support of the farm at the beginning of the growing season, and then they receive a box of farm-fresh goods every week throughout the season. They accept EBT cards (which are automatically billed monthly) to help make their fresh, high-quality produce accessible to all.
6. Nutrition education teaches students and parents about healthy eating
North Coast Opportunities and the Gardens Project, headquartered in Ukiah, run a variety of programs to support nutrition education and healthy eating. Visit the Gardens Project website for more information about these programs and others.
The Fresh from the Start Program is a nutrition and cooking class for the teen parents of Ukiah High School’s Young Parent Program. Fresh from the Start aims to help teen parents make healthy choices for themselves and their families. The program focuses on mother/adult nutrition, as well as infant and child nutrition, giving teen parents a well rounded understanding of their family’s health.
B.E.A.N.S (Better Eating, Activity and Nutrition for Students) is a program for high school students interested in cooking, healthy food, teaching and learning to become Teen Nutrition Advocates in Willits, Ukiah and Fort Bragg. This program trains teens as peer educators. Teens learn cooking skills, nutrition basics and gardening, then teach weekly classes to elementary, middle and high school students.
7. Mendocino County is a wonderful place to forage from the land and the sea
Our “un-walkable” rugged landscape is full of bounty, which is in many cases free for the taking. We forage many pounds of wild mushrooms and seaweed, collect bushels full of berries and tree fruit, and for only the cost of the license you can fish or dive for abalone or catch crab. Living in this county means living much closer to the land and all of its abundance.
Healthy Food = Healthy People
The only thing I can get behind in this article is the recognition that improved access to healthy food is essential for addressing health problems.
In Mendocino County, officials are using the money from the five-year grant to start healthy living programs, encourage locals to stop drinking soda and to walk more, and ban smoking from apartment complexes.
In the full-length version of the SF Chronicle Article, she discusses some of the County-funded and community-based programs that focus on prevention through healthy eating and other lifestyle habits. After painting a pretty gnarly and inaccurate picture of the County, she discusses some of the active programs that are trying to reverse some of the food and health issues in our community. This article could have been framed much differently, even titled, “Programs address obstacles to healthy food in Mendocino County.” Yeah, that’s quite a different, and far more productive, story – especially if the goal is to help more people find access to healthy options.
Food vs. “food”
It is also flawed to be drawing comparisons about processed food when making claims about healthy, fresh food. This Trader Joe’s shopping cart is filled with pre-made enchiladas and frozen waffles. This is not healthy, fresh food. And the produce buried underneath is arguably “fresh” – Trader Joe’s like most stores sources produce from all over the world, and by the time it gets to the shelf, it is far from fresh and wrapped in many layers of plastic, but that’s another story. While certain things are cheaper when purchased from chain stores (due to the simple economics of scale) often there is a perceived savings because certain items are cheaper, whereas others may be quite comparable to what is available locally. Most people don’t buy whole foods when they stock up at TJ’s or Costco – they tend to purchase cases of non-perishable processed foods. This more-for-less mentality has nothing to do with health and nutrition.
We cannot compare frozen waffles or cartons of chicken broth to a shopping list made up of whole foods. Yes, it takes more work and time, but it is often cheaper (and always healthier) when you buy whole ingredients and cook from scratch. This is one of the things that has made the biggest difference in our diets this year. You can’t compare Top Ramen to the price of potatoes; one is food and one is empty calories. And, we understand that there are times when the only thing a person can afford is Top Ramen. But, fortunately there are other options, such as the Food Bank or the opportunity to volunteer in community gardens in exchange for fresh produce.
The cost of healthy eating
When people ask if our local food diet has been more expensive, they are often surprised when we say, “no.” Imagine never going out to eat, cutting out all processed and prepared foods, and eliminating your daily latte. We purchase only whole foods, often in bulk quantities, usually direct from the grower/producer. This cuts out an incredible amount of the cost. And if we want waffles, we use the freshest locally milled flour to make them. The price per gallon of milk or per pound of butter is significantly higher than what people would pay at Safeway or Costco, but the quality is unparalleled, and you make up for that cost by not purchasing a lot of incidental, non-essential food items. Our budgets have been trimmed by eliminating crap from our diets. We understand the austerity of making these changes might be a shock to many peoples’ lives, but you cannot argue with the fact that it is both economical AND healthier to shop and eat in this manner.
The real problems in our food system
I need to emphasize that this is about a lot more than personal responsibility. We need to address the broader injustice of the industrial food system, government subsidies for commodity crops, GMOs and the rising price of petroleum. ALL of these factors contribute to a more comprehensive picture of the real challenges to the food system and affect every single family in this country (rather than single out one County as a hotbed of problems). The statistics about health issues are not the problems themselves, but the symptoms of the deeper imbalances in the food system.
Furthermore, we cannot have a real conversation about the economics of Mendocino County without discussing marijuana, and the impact of the pot industry on real estate, housing and the cost of doing business.
There are many problems facing our community; some are unique, and others mirror the issues we see across America. The best way to deal with many of these challenges is to pursue viable local solutions, such as the seven listed above. I love this place, for all its beauty, and all its troubles. I am proud to live in Mendocino County and to work alongside so many people who are dedicated to building a vibrant and just food system. And, I would like this reality not to be our best kept secret.
Stephanie, if you want to see what’s really happening in the food system here, you’ll have to look deeper, and beyond federally-funded grant programs. I’m pretty sure it was Einstein who said problems are never solved by the same thinking that created them. Certainly, these programs are a critical link in identifying and addressing the problem, but they cannot be observed by looking at a map and a few statistics. Change is happening through a broad network of initiatives which include both the public and private sector in establishing a new food future in our community. Let us know if you want to tell the true story of Mendocino County, we’d be happy to give you a tour of some of the most exciting and transformational food system projects underway here. You’ll need to wear closed-toed shoes, you might get a little dirty.