Yolo County Pledges $2 Million for Food Hub in Esparto
Regional model links institutional buyers and small growers to bridge gaps in the farm-to-fork economy

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November 29, 2021: Food grown in the greater Sacramento region feeds the world. 3.4 million tons of food are shipped around the globe every year, allowing people to savor the region’s rich agricultural bounties. However, only 2 percent of the 1.9 million tons of food consumed annually by residents comes from local sources. This economic food driver is vital to the financial well-being of the region, and Yolo County wants to harness the power of the valley’s agriculture by investing in a food hub. The hub will help to restore market chains that were lost during the pandemic and to create a sustainable market for small local food producers. At their meeting on September 7, 2021, the Yolo County Board of Supervisors approved an investment of $2 million in American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds to jump-start an expanded food hub in the town of Esparto.

Food is a large and complicated business involving farmers, distributors, and consumers. Farmers must deal with the health of their crops and ensure there will be enough demand for their products. Distributors consider storage and processing to get food ready for consumption. Meeting the needs of restaurants, schools, and hospital cafeterias requires stockpiling a lot of food. Small farms don’t have the capacity to meet those demands, and it is expensive and time consuming for distributors to collect products from multiple sources. Large food producers are easier to work with, but it leaves small farms out of the local economy food chain. Distributors end up bringing in food from other states or countries while locally produced food is shipped away.

Food hubs are a collective that provides infrastructure and processing to bridge the gap between small farms and large markets. Hubs bring incentives for farmers to dedicate a portion of their crops to stay in the region and help small farms meet the demands of large channels, keeping the region’s food local.

The hub will be operated by Capay Valley Farm Shop, Fiery Ginger Farm/Spork Food Hub and Yolo Food Bank. “The way to think about it is there are existing players involved as food hubs with a vision to expand the capacity—specifically bringing on increased storage and serving capacity to meet the needs of institutional buyers and farmers in the region,” shared Thomas Nelson, director, Kitchen Table Advisors.

Located in the fertile Capay Valley, the town of Esparto is expected to see tremendous impact from the new hub. “The need for a food hub in the region has been recognized for a long time, but COVID-19 has made addressing this need extremely urgent,” explained Yolo County Supervisor Angel Barajas whose district includes Esparto. “This project will provide pandemic relief for local farmers, promote healthy childhood environments, improve regional food security, and increase employment and job training opportunities, among other pandemic relief benefits,” he said.

Yolo County Supervisor and SACOG Board Member Don Saylor, a longtime advocate for the idea, worked on the proposal with Barajas and New Season Community Development Corporation in partnership with the operating partners. “Our hope is to not only provide food to the world but be mindful of our obligation to ensure that there is food security for the people here,” shared Saylor.

The concept stemmed from a study performed by the Rural-Urban Connections Strategy (RUCS), SACOG’s approach to connecting rural and urban economies. As part of the program, RUCS performed Yolo County’s Case Study in 2015. It was recommended the county explore the RUCS Sacramento Region Food Hub Feasibility Analysis to bolster strategies around new market opportunities. “We had the info,” recalls Saylor, “but we didn’t know what to do with it yet.”

Trish Kelly, managing director of Valley Vision, served as a consultant on the feasibility analysis. She explained that the food hub study “was trying to show how we can create more markets for growers that want to work in the local marketplace. If you can get contracts from local institutions, it tells the farmer there is a customer.”

With regular distribution and demand interrupted because of COVID, Saylor believes it is prime time for Yolo County to explore expanding and creating new ways to access markets. Nelson agrees: “The pandemic created a whole bunch of distribution and supply changes. Building stronger links will provide stronger connections that can withstand shocks to the systems.”

When asked when he would like to see the food hub up and running, Saylor laughed. “I’d like to see it in the next two weeks.” The $2 million allocation from Yolo County is a start and will leverage state and federal funding for the final construction. “We’re probably looking to the end of 2023 to early 2024, but there are some things that can happen much sooner,” said Saylor, adding that the community will most likely see iterations roll out as the project progresses.

Supervisor Barajas’ vision for the food hub is an ecosystem of local food, local organizations, and local employees working together to feed the community. “We will become an example in how a community can feed its own residents in an organic and sustainable way,” he said. “By doing so, we believe that Yolo County can become the example for other counties to follow.”

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