BY SAM WATERSTONE | February 3, 2021
“Whether people work in Big Ag, are faith leaders, farmers or fisherfolk, nonprofit or government representatives, food distributors, or are individual consumers, the Food Action Network is the place where we come together around the same table,” explained Shakira Miracle, Executive Director of the Santa Barbara County Food Action Network (SBCFAN). “Aligned values move us toward a collective goal: a resilient food system in Santa Barbara County.”
The impetus to create the Food Action Network came out of the Santa Barbara County Food Action Plan, a community-led initiative to assess our food system and provide recommendations for how to locally produce, distribute, consume, and dispose of our food. Spearheaded by the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County and the Community Environmental Council (CEC), along with key support from the Santa Barbara Foundation (SBF) and other partners, the Food Action Plan involved over 1,200 hours of volunteer work from over 200 community members throughout 2015 and 2016.
According to the Food Action Plan, agriculture is Santa Barbara County’s largest economic driver, encompassing 700,000 acres of row crops, orchards, vineyards, and rangeland that produce diverse goods from strawberries to broccoli, beef to wine grapes, and so much more – all of which sustains a $2 billion agricultural sector. And yet, many residents primarily consume food that is shipped here on trucks from far away agricultural land, and others lack regular access to nutritious food altogether.
“Our food system is essential to the public health, economic vitality, and environmental resilience of Santa Barbara County,” states the Food Action Plan 2016 Final Report. “However, many challenges need to be addressed, including the assurance that everyone has access to sufficient nutritious food that will keep local families healthy and food secure.”
A strong food system means healthier communities, increased food sovereignty, less dependence on global markets, and more resilience when disasters like fire, drought, or flood (or even a pandemic) cause food shortages. To effectively strengthen our food system, the Food Action Plan recommended creating a network of empowered community actors focused on ensuring that all Santa Barbara County residents are healthy and well fed.
In 2019, the Food Action Network was officially launched, and an Executive Committee was appointed to formalize and strengthen the many grassroots food action efforts that were already underway. The next step was to bring in an expert to lead the team forward – and then COVID-19 hit.
Shakira Miracle was selected as the first Executive Director of the Food Action Network at a time when the county’s food system was overwhelmed by the COVID-19 crisis. The pandemic not only caused a shortage of essential items like toilet paper, but also staple foods such as pasta, eggs, beans, and dried goods due to increased demand and issues with supply chains. Shelves remained empty for long periods of time, and many low-income residents struggled to obtain the affordable basic supplies they often rely upon. Miracle and her partners on the Network’s Executive Committee took immediate action to fortify Santa Barbara County’s local food system.
“The first phase was just getting as much information out to the community as possible,” said Miracle. “From there, our job was to develop the higher-level internal structures, such as membership, development, communications, and grantmaking.”
A food system encompasses every aspect of how food moves from farms or seas to the tables where it is consumed, and we all have a role in building resilience within it. The Food Action Network is made up of individuals in communities throughout the county who operate and utilize this food system.
“If you eat food, you’re a food system actor,” Miracle said. “And through our membership structure, we are holding space so that anyone and everyone who wants to be engaged in food work, can and will. Everyone is welcome at the table.”
The Network’s accessible membership structure is launching in Spring 2021 and will empower community members to engage with each other to solve local food system issues, while being supported through the larger Food Action Network framework.
According to Miracle, SBCFAN has already begun cultivating members around the county. For example, SBCFAN coordinated a collaboration between the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department, Santa Barbara County farmers markets, and Edible Santa Barbara to develop a safe, affordable, and healthy option for celebrating the holidays during the pandemic – while supporting the county’s food system. Together, these Network partners launched the “Stay Home (and Eat Local) for the Holidays” campaign to encourage county residents to avoid large gatherings and enjoy locally sourced holiday meals with their households.
“Looking back, it is frankly shocking this Network carried on with its development and implementation in light of the impacts of a pandemic,” Miracle shared. “And yet, because of the pandemic, the relationships built are that much deeper and trusting because of our shared experience.”
Through the Foundation’s Food Action Network initiative, SBF provided $150,000 to the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County for SBCFAN’s new Food System Resilience Grant Program; the Foundation also awarded $150,000 to the CEC for SBCFAN’s operations. In December 2020, Food System Resilience Grants were awarded to eight local nonprofits working to improve our food system. Read more about the grant recipients here.
In addition to providing financial support, SBF played a critical role in the Network’s grantmaking process and will remain a key partner going forward. The Foundation’s Community Grants Program Manager, Jenny Bruell, serves as SBF’s representative on the SBCFAN Executive Committee and is looking forward to the Network’s continued growth.
“Between our grantmaking knowledge and understanding of how best to support organizational development, our role as a foundation is really as a resource to the Food Action Network,” said Bruell. “We have invested greatly in the Network, and we are excited to work with other community leaders to take this work to the next level.”
To learn more about the Santa Barbara County Food Action Network, visit www.sbcfoodaction.org.