by Julia Van Soelen Kim, UCCE North Bay Food Systems Advisor

Learning from past disasters

While some organizations are highly visible responding to disasters by feeding, clothing, and sheltering those impacted, UC Cooperative Extension coordinates efforts behind the scenes. Acting as the connective tissue, UC Cooperative Extension helps link local response efforts with service providers and local governments to strengthen local food systems resilience and ensure communities get food assistance during disasters. 

In January, with storms in the forecast, UCCE Sonoma Community Food Systems Program Manager Mimi Enright activated a group within the Community Organizations Active in Disaster or “COAD” along with Julia Van Soelen Kim, North Bay Food Systems Advisor and local emergency food providers to coordinate how to meet food needs that might arise because of pending floodwaters. Enright explained, “Before the storm, we met and asked, ‘What populations might be most impacted? What organizations might be offline because of the storm? Who will be able to deliver groceries and meals to sites in the community?’”

Just a month earlier, following earthquakes in Humboldt County, their colleague, UCCE Advisor Dorina Espinoza took part in the Humboldt County COAD, collaborating with local government, agencies, and organizations to support a Local Assistance Center in Rio Dell, the town hit hardest by the quakes. Espinoza and partners worked to connect impacted neighbors with local, state, and national services, including ensuring community members could access local food right in their community.

Over the past five years, Sonoma County and the North Coast has experienced catastrophic wildfires, floods, landslides, drought, earthquakes, and the pandemic, all of which have put increasing pressure on local producers, the local/regional food system, and emergency food aid. Patti D’Angelo Juachon with the Marin Community Foundation explains that “food is implicated in every disaster.” This reflection has certainly borne out with Enright, Van Soelen Kim, and Espinoza who have been providing their growing expertise related to emergency food systems throughout these varied challenges. Combined, the team has gained first hand knowledge about what works well and what doesn’t in getting locally produced food to food insecure community members. They hope to share this knowledge with partners regionally, and they have identified many opportunities that require further collaboration at a larger scale. 

Bringing federal funds to meet regional needs

To improve food assistance in future disasters, Van Soelen Kim and Espinoza received a nearly $1.5 million grant from the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service Regional Food Systems Partnership Program, which includes crucial matching contributions from local government, nonprofits, and foundations. Over a three-year period, the grant will support creation of a California North Coast Emergency Food System Partnership across six counties–Del Norte, Humboldt, Mendocino, Sonoma, Napa, and Marin–to strengthen local and regional food systems and build community resilience. 

Project partner Suzi Grady with Petaluma Bounty, an urban farm and food security project explained, “We wouldn’t have been able to access these funds without UC providing the backbone.” She added, “The trusted relationship with UC allows us to broaden our reach and scope; the neutrality piece is also really important. It’s a natural fit for UC to step in. I’m excited by this opportunity because UC can provide evaluation, reflect back to us what happens in disasters, and help build our collective capacity when those of us who are busy doing are too busy to step back and reflect. Having academic partners helps us retain institutional knowledge, learn from the past, and strategize for the future.”

Collaborating across the North Coast

The project brings together a diverse set of partners including food producers, food policy councils, community-based organizations, local and tribal governments, cooperative extension, and emergency planners to build upon shared experiences from responding to natural disasters and emergencies. The project will assess needs and resources–such as locations of farms and gardens, emergency food providers, and evacuation centers to understand community assets and resources that can be leveraged in disasters. 

One way the team hopes to strengthen local and regional food systems is by reducing the risk of lost income and creating additional market channels for local food producers in emergency food supply chains. Working closely with UCCE Farm Advisors, the Farm Bureau, the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), and food producers, the team hopes to identify innovative practices to get more local food into emergency food channels while getting farmers paid for their fresh, local products. Jennifer Beretta, Sonoma County Farm Bureau President is supportive of the project “at the most basic level because it provides not only opportunities to support local agriculture, but it highlights the fact that farmers and ranchers are an integral piece of our local natural disaster response team.” Beretta explained, “Sonoma County Farm Bureau and its members recognize the vital role local agriculture will play in our resiliency infrastructure with its public agency partners.”

“The USDA AMS Regional Food Systems Partnership Program Grant will help to build a more resilient and stable food system in times of disaster and in times of stability,” said Heather Irwin, founder of Sonoma Family Meal. “This is very important work for the future of Northern California disaster relief efforts, and we are excited to be part of it. During disasters, Sonoma Family Meal proactively coordinates resources between the restaurant industry and emergency meal providers in order to provide quality emergency meals for those who have been impacted.”

“Local food production is critical to the resilience of the North Coast,” said Lynda Hopkins, Sonoma County District 5 Supervisor. “I’m thrilled that UCCE will be working with our farmers to ensure that we can feed our residents healthy, local food no matter what disaster we’re facing–be it future flood, fire or pandemic. This is a huge step towards food security for Northern California!”


Fresh produce grown by Farm to Fight Hunger, harvested & packaged for distribution to community members by Farm to Pantry, Healdsburg, California, July 2022, photo by Mimi Enright

During winter storms, Sonoma Family Meal delivered soup and meals to the Russian River community so that residents could have food on-hand as floodwaters rose.