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Grassroots Action and Accountability Take Center Stage in the CA Regional Food Ecosystem Roadmap

By Mia Cohen, intern with the National Right to Food Community of Practice and sophomore at Hamilton College studying Environmental Studies and Biology

To introduce the next spotlight within the 2023 National Right to Food Mini Grant Recipients blog post series, I interviewed Beth Smoker, the Policy Director at the California Food and Farming Network (CFFN). Beth spoke with me about the inner-workings of CFFN, the complexities of food system landscapes across California, as well as the California government’s lack of coordination across different agencies administering programs meant to improve the state food system

CFFN members at their annual meeting last November

The California Food and Farming Network (CFFN) was founded in 2016, and now comprises around 50 members that are all representatives of various organizations across the state of California, including anti-hunger, labor, and sustainable agriculture organizations. All of CFFN’s advocacy efforts are aligned with the network’s values-based outcomes. The five outcomes are 1) Food Sovereignty- people having access to nutritious and culturally appropriate food that was not grown through environmentally destructive methods 2) Ecological Health- creating agroecological systems that are centered around historically marginalized communities and indigenous practices 3) Food is a Basic Human Right- people can consistently receive food that is healthy, culturally appropriate and accessible, which leads to a successful community-centered food system 4) Empowered Workers- workers have the liberty to dictate their working conditions and take ownership over their agricultural businesses, as well receive fair wages for their labor, and lastly, 5) Shared Economic Prosperity- community members are included within agroecological systems and are welcome to contribute their food knowledge and cultural practices. 

California became the first state in the United States to enact School Meals for All in 2021 for k-12 public school children, as well as Food4All. Food4All extends the California Food Assistance Program to provide food assistance benefits (similar to federal SNAP) to households who are currently ineligible solely due to their immigration status (implementation for adults 55 and older will begin in 2026). Yet, 1 in 5 Californians still experience hunger. While the state produces two thirds of the country’s fruit and vegetables, California food systems are more successful at exporting their agricultural products and feeding people outside of the state, rather than the communities within California. According to Beth, the wealthiest farms in California are controlled by corporations that rely on exploiting labor from undocumented immigrants while small and localized farms are floundering due to a lack of governmental support, and indigenous groups are excluded from land stewardship conversations. During the interview, Beth underscores the noticeably high rates of hunger within California, but more specifically “very high rates of hunger in those communities where agriculture is the main economy.” In reaction to these systemic contradictions, CFFN instituted a Regional Food Ecosystem Working Group that is responsible for creating a California Regional Food Ecosystem Roadmap. 

Beth argues that the origins of the California Regional Food Ecosystem Roadmap also stems from CFFN’s grassroots members expressing that they were “tired of lip service” and “tired of value statements” when it comes to proclaiming the human right to food, and instead are searching for “action and accountability structures.” Furthermore, Beth articulates the importance of recognizing the human right to food and food sovereignty through a regional lens. Beth states “California is a massive state and our way far north versus our deserts versus our coasts versus our valley have very, very different food system needs.” Through including indigenous voices, BIPOC farmers and state advocates that are considered “regional food system experts” in the Regional Food Ecosystem Working Group, a plan of action is being created that addresses the unique food access concerns regarding various regions of California. Different California government departments have plans for food programs, but the departments do not consistently communicate with each other, and have been unable to sufficiently solve regional Right to Food concerns. The roadmap being created by this working group is one of a kind and has the potential to be an essential guide for legislators and California residents due to the fact that it may help enable a unified approach within California for investments in regional food ecosystems.  

There are four phases of the California Regional Food Ecosystem Roadmap. The first phase, which has been accomplished, entails establishing a working group, building relationships and developing a draft of the roadmap design process. CFFN is currently in the midst of phase 2, which means that the working group is finalizing what will be the structure and outcomes of the roadmap. Phase three and four cover the development and implementation of the roadmap. Even though CFFN has not reached phase three of the roadmap creation, Beth lays out the pieces of the roadmap project that the working group is currently prioritizing. For instance, CFFN members are researching California state grants that already exist that have some relation to regional food systems. The research is concentrated on grant-related questions such as: “Who are they benefiting? Who are they not?” Beth expects that many of these grants will only reach certain groups due to reasons such as the way a group identifies, or where in the state a group resides. Some examples that Beth provides of the limited reach that these grants have include many “community based organizations can’t access state grants”, and “the Central Valley is often a really under-resourced area.” Beth stresses the importance of identifying which geographic areas are not getting access to grant funding, as well as analyzing if certain groups of people are being excluded as grant beneficiaries. The Regional Food Ecosystem Working Group can then employ their research by filling in these funding gaps with other programming or policies they include in the roadmap. 

One bill that may help eliminate the gaps that Beth is organizing around, and that CFFN is co-sponsoring, is CA AB 1961, or the End Hunger in California Act of 2024. This bill requires the state to develop a strategic masterplan to end hunger in California by establishing a task force of food system stakeholders. The stakeholders would be expected to collaborate at the local, regional, and state levels and in partnership with tribal governments. Collaboration efforts would be focused on ways to remove barriers of access to adequate, nutritious, and culturally appropriate food for all communities in California.

I am grateful that I had the opportunity to interview Beth, and I look forward to seeing the next steps of the California Regional Food Ecosystem Roadmap come to fruition. To explore California Food and Farming Network’s policy advocacy agendas, please take a look at CFFN’s website


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