Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: Grant will reveal hunger realities in SLO County

You may have seen on the front page of The Tribune (Nov. 2) a story about the Hunger Free Communities Planning Grant the Food Bank Coalition received from the USDA. The grant was $99,561. That’s a lot of money for a study of our county.

I knew when I read the article that people would have the same reaction I had when we applied for it: “That would feed a lot of people. I’d rather have the money for a program than a survey.” However, this grant is far more precious to our county than $100,000 spent on a one-time food giveaway could ever be.

There is a story behind our little county getting the attention of the USDA. Originally, we applied for money to feed hungry people. We wanted to also help sustain our local farmers, and with less freight be friendlier to our environment.

It sounded like a good idea, and in effect the USDA said, “We like the idea so much that we’ll give you a planning grant so that we will know these things: 1). You’ve thought it out fully and have a viable plan; 2). that it is truly a countywide endeavor with all the important stakeholders represented; and 3). that it has the capacity to endure once the money from the grant you asked for has been spent.”

We can’t argue with that, and we feel honored that the USDA gave the Food Bank and SLO County one of only nine planning grants awarded nationwide to put together our strategic plan.

The grant will reveal hunger realities in our county that we could not otherwise accumulate, based on a scientific study written and implemented through STRIDE of Cal Poly. Data taken from in-the-field studies is powerful because it brings together the best knowledge we can obtain from the experience of those who live in poverty every day. It also surveys the resources that we have not yet utilized fully in this county to meet the unmet need. The study will culminate in a strategic plan for the future — a vision of what could be and the pathway to get there.

The most powerful aspect of this grant, however, is that it will create a unique version of a Food Policy Council for SLO County. You can search for that term online and see it in variations in all parts of the country. Ours consists of nonprofits, education, health, agriculture, business and faith communities that are interested in improving access to healthy food by our food-insecure neighbors, and recommending to county leadership ways to empower our county’s food system for all of our citizens.

Imagine: Diverse leaders in our county working together, learning from one another, studying our uniqueness and helping to create a county that makes the most of its abundant resources in a responsible way to provide access to healthy food locally, especially for those who may not have access now. We have decided to call our version of a Food Policy Council the Food System Coalition of San Luis Obispo County.

What we hope will follow is an implementation grant — the next stage in a two-stage process. That would be much less likely if emergency food programs are diminished from the Farm Bill next year. We hope that doesn’t happen to our country, but fortunately, we have already benefited — and will benefit for years to come — from the investment the USDA has made in our county.

Carl Hansen is executive director of the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo County.