Equity in the Capital: Trish Kelly and Sam Greenlee on the gap between ‘agricultural abundance’ and hunger in Sacramento 

Sam Greenlee and Trish Kelly

By Nick Brunner

Does it ever cross your mind how the food you eat gets to your plate? Getting produce and more from farms to stores is one part of the journey. How fresh food gets to people who need it is another — and both are part of a larger conversation about food system equity.

We brought together Sam Greenlee, executive director of Alchemist Community Development Corporation, and Trish Kelly, managing director at Valley Vision, to talk about dispelling stereotypes around people who receive food benefits and efforts underway to improve food security for residents of the greater Sacramento region.

This conversation is from the Solving Sacramento podcast series ‘Equity in the Capital.’

Kelly: The biggest challenge that we have in the community with food and nutrition security is that we have hunger, and we have great agricultural abundance, we have a lot of tremendous community assets — and hunger should not be something that we have in our community. Our children or seniors or family should not be going to bed hungry at night. 

Our rates of food insecurity were higher in the pandemic and before the pandemic than the national average. It’s a moral issue and it’s a call to action. We have so many good partners working on creative solutions, and we have strategies that we can use to really solve this challenge. I think it dovetails very well with national and state priorities to address the hunger challenge. It’s not just hunger, though. It’s not just food. It’s about nutrition, security and health, improving health outcomes.

Greenlee: Talking about food systems and addressing hunger, we know the solution. It’s frustrating that we don’t apply it. We simply ensure that people have the funding: They need to buy sufficient groceries for their family, for their household. The SNAP program federally, also known as EBT, or here in California it’s CalFresh, is the most effective anti-hunger program in the country’s history. But it was recently cut back from pandemic increases. It recently had policies rolled back so that college students have a more difficult time getting enrolled and getting a hold of that benefit. We can address a lot of hunger just by increasing those benefits and increasing eligibility. 

But then there’s another layer to that where hunger and the food system intersects with all these other issues … housing affordability impacts grocery budgets, transit access affects whether or not somebody can get to the grocery store to a farmers market. And then you have issues around local production. Is the food being produced in a way that people can live off of those wages? Or are small farms being protected? Are food workers making the living they need to make to be able to support themselves? 

Kelly: We have many people who are eligible for programs, but we’re not getting everybody signed up. So we’re leaving millions of dollars on the table that could really address the hunger challenge. And that is part of the strategy work that we could do. But I think the other challenge is the emergency food system — the food banks, the food closets, the pantries are there to fill this gap, when in fact it’s a chronic persistent problem. So we need to have a more holistic, thoughtful strategy and investment by many different partners, including local government and philanthropy and just all the people that are involved in the food system so that we lift the community together. 

The other thing … is the underlying conditions; we see hunger as a proxy for poverty. We do know in the pandemic, the direct income supports, and the waivers that made these programs more accessible for people really worked. They reduce poverty, especially childhood poverty. So we know that there are strategies that can work. This is part of our work here at Valley Vision, working with our programs, like the Cap-to-Cap program with the [Sacramento] Metro Chamber, and our partners, the policy issues, working with the state and federal governments to reinstate the waivers that worked, there’s a lot of challenges that have been addressed effectively. So let’s build on those innovations and bring those to the communities not just here, but across the country.

For me, the way I grew up, I grew up in a big Italian family — food was something that connected us. It was very central to our identity of caring for one another. My family came out of the Great Depression, and they were poor, but they struggled to put food on the table. But there was always food for someone. I had that awareness from an early age how important food was for so many dimensions of our life. In my professional work, I started as a planner, and then started looking at food systems and disparities in economic development and saw how that played out. I’ve done a lot of work over the years in the economic development opportunities that do also come from the food system, because I believe, if you give people living wages and pathways to work with dignity, that’s a way that you address that poverty challenge. …

I moved to California from the East Coast to work with the Spanish-speaking community, to buy land to do a strawberry co-op. So it was also that idea of owning assets. And that’s really what got me into this work. So here at Valley Vision, we take a multipronged approach to addressing the food system. So there’s the inclusive economic development side, there’s addressing food, security, hunger, health, nutrition, but it’s all interconnected. And that’s, I think, the ecosystem that we’re trying to create here to solve problems and move the needle on this challenge.

Greenlee: There’s a disparity between the relative abundance of food that we’re capable of producing so much … the food is there. On the other side, it doesn’t always reach the people it needs to reach. The opportunities to start small food businesses or to operate a small farm — these are not always accessible. And these are all just so highly solvable, because it’s not a lack of resources. … It’s the way that they are accumulated in fewer and fewer hands.

Kelly: One of the big challenges … [of] food system projects we’ve had, it takes so long to bring something from an idea to fruition. In the meantime, the community is waiting. Organizations need a lot of capacity to try to stamp these projects up, funding is fragmented.

A lot of the programs require matches. So if you think of a match of $400,000, that could generate $4 million. That seems to be like a good economic case for return on investment. But it’s really hard to just run your day-to-day programs and be developers, too. Overall, the whole food system is underinvested in [that] we don’t have a lot of philanthropy in the region, like other regions that are food-centric. We have incredible assets with UC Davis or nonprofits, our farmers, the whole ecosystem we’ve got here under the brand of we are Farm to Fork. It’s very multisectoral and diverse. Yet, the investment is not strategic. And so it just means people are spending a lot of time trying to take care of optimizing these project opportunities. 

And then as I mentioned with the emergency food system or the charitable food system, that’s not seen as something that’s a community investment. It’s kind of left to volunteers and individual philanthropy. There’s some investment by the public sector, but it’s not systemic. So I think the other part is just policymakers seeing the wholeness of this issue and how it affects the community. If you want a healthy, vibrant community with a healthy workforce and children that are learning, we need to solve these problems, because it’s our current, but it’s our future too.

The other part is just being able to have a strategic approach, and having it be visible, having the opportunities be visible. And working together to solve these challenges in a really creative way. There’s a lot of support in the community, there’s a lot of caring, I think there’s an incredible network of partners working really hard, but the investment in in the work that people are doing, and strategies to make sure, for instance, people get what they’re eligible for, you know, how can we be better about those kinds of challenges?

Greenlee: Absolutely. I think that the policy process is one of the biggest consistent hurdles. It does seem that food, and including that food systems, small ag, small food businesses, but hunger as well, that this sector is often a bit of an afterthought in policy. And that’s true at various levels. 

Those benefits are abused [is a common myth]. I think everybody’s probably heard at some point that, Oh, I saw a person using EBT to buy a lobster one time … The worst possible, I don’t know, anti-PR campaign since I was a kid, right? [With] food stamps, or now EBT, I still hear people say, I saw somebody buying a birthday cake, you know, or something like that. And, you know, my thought is: “That’s none of your business.” … But people deserve … to make these decisions about how they spend it. I can’t imagine my own life in a way where I couldn’t give my kid a birthday cake, like that’s meaningful on so many levels. There’s sometimes just an inclination that if people are going to get this, I want them to suffer for having received this public benefit. And it’s very hard to wrap your head around. And I don’t think most of the people who feel that way, feel that way about individuals they know and care about who are on the program. I think they just assume there are people they don’t know who are abusing it somewhere out there. 

Kelly: There’s a lot of judgment about, why are you in this situation? You should be self-sufficient. Yet, there’s a common good to all of us being healthy. And if you look at that ROI, people that are well-nourished, perform better in school, they perform better in work. It reduces cost to the health care system, so many of our diseases and our health care costs are diet-related. So there’s that part of it. 

I think the other part, there’s shame for some people to take the benefits. They feel that something is wrong with them that they have to rely on this benefit … and so it doesn’t make them feel good. So I know a lot of the food emergency food system partners are trying to inculcate dignity. You know that you come here? No questions asked. You’re treated with dignity and respect. What all these partners saw in the pandemic was just a huge acceleration of people dealing with the hunger cliff and [there] were people they’d never seen before. So we have to destigmatize that also, and make it easier for people to get what the benefits are for, and if it helps people get to that next level of self-sufficiency, great. 

But, you know, there are people in the community that are going to always need help — people with disabilities or seniors or people with income challenges. So, there’s a lot to unpack in that issue. But from a public policy standpoint, if it was acknowledged and recognized, then you can create these strategies to do better, to make progress on the challenges. And I think the other thing people forget, is the money that is spent on CalFresh, for instance, goes into communities. People are spending money that local farmers and local food producers are supplying. So it’s hundreds of millions of dollars into our economy. So it benefits the producer side as well as the family side. …

A lot of the nutrition-services people in the schools have to create nutritious meals on very small per capita budgets, and try to support my local growers and create food that kids want to eat. … In the hospitals, too. They’re another frontline of trying to help people understand the connection to health and food and eat[ing] healthier. There’s just a lot of unsung heroes out there that you could take this for what this is worth. 

Another partner in this endeavor is our [Sacramento Area] Council of Governments that actually supported the work to the feasibility study for the food hub last 10 years ago, and then the supervisors in Yolo County took that up in the pandemic and invested in that. So I think, electeds, and others [in] philanthropy, corporations that invest in the food system — we need all of that, and we can see the fruits to bear of that. 

Kelly: You do despair sometimes when you see people hungry going to bed. … But I think what gives me hope is that I do see huge public policy shifts at the local, state, regional level, the White House challenge to address hunger, health and nutrition. So many people around the country are engaged. When you hear the things that people are doing, the leadership we have in our own community, the incredible network of partners that we have, we support each other, we’re trying to lift this. That’s what really gives me hope. 

Greenlee: … What gives me hope is knowing how many people are working to solve these issues, how many people are collaborating to push back on this. …

Here in Sacramento County, in the City of Sacramento, there are partners who are working so well together, advocating more and more. You’ve seen people stepping outside of their usual interest. People often think of food banks as, I don’t mean to say only doing food bank work, because that’s essential emergency work, but they are actively pushing for increased EBT CalFresh, SNAP benefits as well, because they recognize the root cause of hunger. Everyone’s moving outside of their own usual silo. You see that on a statewide level, that the food organizations across the state with really limited funding and resources are doing an amazing job of bringing people together on these issues. 

Kelly: The other thing, too, is the creativity and the problem-solving the solution sets. In the pandemic, a lot of our restaurants came together, the chefs started with the Great Plates program, and then became the Family Meal Program. So they created millions of meals for people, they’ve trained chefs around the country to do that, they kept workers employed, they kept the ability to purchase food from our farmers, because they have those relationships, and they care about them. And then they were able to get food to people in need. 

Then you have a group like Paratransit that is working with USDA funding and working with the meals programs to get food to people. So I just feel like we have this creative, supportive ecosystem of partners. It’s really working together. It’s from unexpected quarters sometimes and when we all speak as a voice together, it’s really powerful. And it is work that’s really sad and depressing sometimes. So when you’re working together, you can kind of lift each other up and keep going.

This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and the James B. McClatchy Foundation. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19.

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