Report: 8,000 Sonoma Valley residents face food insecurity

A new report shows that 8,000 Sonoma Valley residents face food insecurity, and an estimated one-third of them either do not have or may not have information about assistance that could help them.|

A newly released report shows that approximately 8,000 Sonoma Valley residents face food insecurity, and an estimated one-third of them are unsure about local assistance options available to them.

This was among the main discoveries in a detailed, 77-page report, “Sonoma Valley Food Security Assessment,” which was released on Jan. 31 by the Community Planning Collaborative consulting firm. Food security generally means a person knows where their next meals will come from, while those who are food insecure do not.

The collaborative’s Cathy Capriola and Laurie Decker, both residents of Sonoma Valley, began work on the report in April 2022, providing an in-depth analysis of food-related trends, needs and resources.

“The nonprofits providing food assistance are doing an incredible job, but getting out this amount of food into the community on a daily basis is a massive undertaking and takes all of their focus,” Decker said. “Catalyst provided an opportunity to look at food security in the Valley through a wider and deeper lens, to be able to hone in on common issues and ways to help make services more effective, and potentially reach more people who need help.”

Capriola and Decker partnered with local food assistance providers to survey Sonoma Valley households with a questionnaire. They also held five meetings with the task force, did more than 24 interviews with food providers and made seven site visits.

“Food assistance providers were very open to sharing information and insights, and the clients themselves provided really helpful feedback through the survey,” Decker said. “Visiting the various food distributions in action was probably where we learned the most.”

The report was done in partnership with a task force comprised of all major food providers in the Valley, and kicked off the second major initiative of the Sonoma Valley Catalyst Fund, which hired the firm to produce the study.

Dub Hay, co-chair of the Sonoma Valley Catalyst Fund, said that the interactions among food distributors in the task force were also especially significant.

“One of the great outcomes of this eight months of work was bringing the food providers together, where we heard conversations among them,” he said. “The providers were brainstorming and seeing how they could help each other and collaborate in feeding those who need a hand.”

He noted one immediate impact of the report: After finding that residents of Temelec retirement community in Sonoma were not receiving food assistance, Redwood Empire Food Bank announced on Thursday, Feb. 2, that it is now delivering food to that neighborhood.

Key Finding

Based on household income, Capriola and Decker found that almost 20% (some 8,000) Sonoma Valley residents live below 200% of the federal poverty level, given that the cost of living in the Valley is estimated to be 50% above the national level and government safety nets do not always adjust for the cost of living. he 200% threshold is commonly used to indicate what portion of people in a community may struggle to feed themselves and their families.

“Given the economic headwinds of surging food prices, gasoline, rent and energy costs, this unfortunately has affected many in the Valley,” said Dub Hay, co-chair of the Sonoma Valley Catalyst Fund. “Younger families with kids and seniors are the most affected.”

The questionnaire was completed by 314 households (200 in English and 114 in Spanish), comprised of 859 individuals, which are likely to be facing food insecurity. The survey found that with the food assistance they receive, 52% of households are getting enough food to stay healthy, 30% usually get enough, 8%, usually don’t get enough, 5% don’t get enough and 5% don’t know.

When asked if they fell they have the information needed about food assistance that is available to them, 68% of respondents (69% surveyed in English survey and 67% in Spanish) said they feel they have the necessary information about food assistance that is available to them, 19% (26% surveyed in English and 22% in Spanish) are not sure and 10% (12% surveyed in English and 7% in Spanish) either are not receiving the necessary information or are not sure.

Major Providers

The report identified 15 major food providers for Sonoma Valley residents: CalFresh; Women, Infants and Children (WIC); Redwood Empire Food Bank (REFB); Sonoma Valley Unified School District School Meals; Council on Aging; Farm to Pantry; Food for Thought; Ceres Community Project; Friends in Sonoma Helping (FISH); pantries at St. Leo’s Catholic Church, St. Francis Solano Church and Sonoma Seven-day Adventist Church; Sonoma Valley Community Health Center; Food for All/Comida Para Todos; Sonoma Home Meals; Sonoma Overnight Support (SOS) and Vintage House.

Clients use an average of two or three of these programs, according to the report.

Redwood Empire Food Bank, the largest free food source for Sonoma Valley, provides produce, bread, dairy products, eggs, shelf-stable items and other foods to local partners. The food bank has 13 direct distribution sites in Sonoma Valley, where 1,455 households receive distributions each month. The report indicates that 2,320 Sonoma Valley households, consisting of 5,588 residents, are food bank cardholders.

The second leading food source is donated and recovered food, which is supported by a state law (SB 1383) that requires supermarkets to work with food recovery organizations to collect edible food that would be disposed of otherwise. Sonoma Home Meals, SOS, Food for All and most pantries rely on the source for food.

At FISH, Sonoma Valley’s largest food pantry, donations arrive daily from surplus grocery and bakery pickups, churches, service clubs and individuals. Additional food is purchased in bulk from several sources, including Redwood Empire Food Blank and Sonoma Market. FISH delivers groceries weekly to homebound individuals and seniors, as well as its annual holiday food baskets for more than 500.

“FISH has maintained a comprehensive resource directory of food availability in Sonoma Valley,” said Sandy Pioteer, executive director of FISH. “Making the information accessible is a challenge.”

Farm to Pantry provides produce to low-income apartments and food providers. Executive Director Duskie Estes says that the organization is committed to rescuing food, often straight from backyard gardens or orchards, that would otherwise go to waste.

All local food assistance providers also purchase some of their food, typically at a discount. These include supermarkets and other retailers, as well as local restaurants and Farmers Exchange of Earthly Delights Sonoma (FEED Sonoma), a North Bay farmer cooperative.

The report indicates that more than 500 volunteers are working effectively and extensively to address Sonoma Valley residents’ food insecurity issues, but that the issue is complicated and multifaceted. For one thing, the report states, the large number of providers and high degree of decentralization among services is causing some underutilized capacity and missed opportunities.

“With more than 15 organizations providing some type of food assistance in the Valley, the current system is driven by and supported through relationships,” Decker said. “There are a lot of resource-sharing partnerships and problem solving among local providers, and strong relationships with their clients.

“These connections are the biggest strength of the system, but it can potentially be a weakness when people and roles change. The challenge is to keep the grassroots, community-based, highly personalize nature of food assistance in the Valley but add enough structure and resources to this network to enable them to work on common issues and opportunities.”

Recommended Actions

Twenty-four suggestions to better address food insecurity issues in Sonoma Valley are presented in the report (see sidebar). Several of them point to the need for greater collaboration among providers.

Decker says that the most important recommendation have to do with access, information and coordination.

“If people who need help are able to find and access the food resources that are available, and if the food providers at the local and county level are all coordinating on a regular basis to solve problems and share ideas and innovations, then the system is going to be effective,” she said.

Capriola added, “By building more system support, the food providers can share information, learn from each other and find solutions together.”

She singled out the importance of the recommendation to create a Sonoma Valley food resource guide.

“We can build on Redwood Empire Food Bank’s online ‘food finder’ tool,” she said. “We just need to make sure it is comprehensive, and that the information is shared everywhere. The creation of a local, printed guide to food assistance in English and Spanish will also help people find what they need — plus make it easier for providers of food assistance and other social service providers to do referrals to programs that best meet a client’s needs.”

Katherine King, executive director of Sonoma Overnight Support, says providers should coordinate efforts in a variety of ways, not just on social media.

“Some people don’t have access to the Internet,” she said. “It would be more effective to distribute flyers in English and Spanish in the community at bodegas, ice cream shops and other places where people gather. That’s been effective for SOS’ outreach into local churches. More bilingual messaging and more coordination of information on the radio about where and how food can be accessed are needed, too.”

Hay feels that the most important recommendation is to fund a food coordinator who navigates among the nonprofits to match food distribution and needs.

“We also hope a food round table will be reinstituted so that the struggles with food can be shared among providers and joint solutions can be formulated,” he added. “Nobody knows the details better than the providers who are on the front line of need.”

Next Steps

Allison Goodwin, director of programs at Redwood Empire Food Banks, says that it should be possible to establish a robust food information and referral system in Sonoma Valley.

“In fact, one already exists for the Redwood Empire Food Bank and our programs,” she said. “The more complex the information system, the more fragile the system becomes. The ultimate measures of a good information and referral system are speed, thoroughness and accuracy. Successfully reaching those goals requires commitment, cooperation, accuracy and monetary investment.”

Hay hopes the report will spark new strategies to address food insecurity issues.

“There are many sobering and eye-opening findings,” he said. “Now that we have great data, we can build innovative strategies with the 15 nonprofit food providers to get more food availability and types of food that are needed in the hands of those who need food.”

Capriola added, “Catalyst’s goal in commissioning this analysis was to make it as available as possible to the food providers, their boards and our community at large. We will work closely with Catalyst to make sure the key groups have the information they need going forward.”

King remains concerned about Valley providers’ ability to fully address food insecurity issues.

“The real question is, ‘Can we continue to meet the expanding needs of the most vulnerable in our community without the resources to pay for adequate kitchens and facilities to operate out of?’” King asked.

Estes feels is hopeful that the report will motivate more donors to contribute.

“I hopes it inspires donors to step in to be part of the solution to support all these nonprofits and to grow more local food to feed each other,” she said. “No one should be hungry in Sonoma County. We have the food here to feed us all.”

The full report, along with an executive summary, is available for use by community organizations.

Sonoma County Catalyst Fund was created in 2020 by a small group of volunteers who were struggling to respond to COVID-19 issues. It raised more than $1.6 million to support the nonprofit community, which enabled it to provide food, housing, health care and other essentials for residents in need.

Residents’ food shortages have not decreased as the pandemic has eased, however, so Sonoma County Catalyst Fund is now devoting its full attention to food insecurity issues in Sonoma Valley.

“It won’t happen overnight, but we believe that by getting the right information, involving the right players and focusing funding in the right places, we can impact this urgent challenge, reducing the chronic stress that some 8,000 of our neighbors routinely face,” said Katherine Fulton, co-chair of the Sonoma Valley Catalyst Fund.

Reach the reporter, Dan Johnson, at

Suggestions to improve food security

The “Sonoma Valley Food Security Assessment” report offers 24 specific suggestions to help address food insecurity issues, divided into four categories: access to available food resources; client experience; coordination, connectivity and strategic initiatives; and food system resources, cost-effectiveness and sustainability.

Access to available food resources

• Facilitate increased enrollment in primary safety net programs.

• Improve access to information by developing a Sonoma Valley-specific food resource guide and keep the Redwood Empire Food Bank regional online “food finder” resources updated.

• Increase visibility of programs through coordinated community outreach.

• Enhance bilingual and bicultural training.

• Work with the medical community to inform practitioners about medically tailored food programs.

• Pilot expansion programs that improve access.

Client experience

• Expand the choices in food pantry programs.

• Implement alternative communication tools.

• Enable user to adjust the quantity.

• Continue to increase availability of fresh produce.

• Provide pantry clients with information about food usage, safety and nutrition.

Coordination, connectivity and strategic initiatives

• Reestablish the Sonoma Valley Food Roundtable to work on key issues

• Provide a bilingual food coordinator to support the roundtable and help implement key systemwide priorities.

• Invite regional food providers to the roundtable to provide Sonoma Valley updates and connections to promote increased collaboration.

• Support providers to move toward a common client data management system to improve analysis of needs and services.

• Expand the volunteer pipeline to include more bilingual volunteers as well as the provide more opportunities for students and working residents.

• Form task forces with roundtable member and other key stakeholders to focus on food recovery, food recovery and pantry food choices.

Food system resources, cost-effectiveness and sustainability

• Maximize food sourcing from the Redwood Empire Food Bank.

• Maximize local food recovery and usage of recovered foods.

• Explore the possibility of creating a valley food hub from storage and distribution of purchased and donated food.

• Secure a permanent, shared commercial kitchen space for meal preparation and potentially for meal service.

• Invest in sustainable sources of local produce.

• Support initiatives to increase program reach and sustainability.

Reach the reporter, Dan Johnson, at

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