Stockton’s new Food and Agriculture Action Plan has earned an award of merit from the California Association for Local Economic Development (CALED). The plan, which was presented to and accepted by the city council last July, was the brainchild of the Stockton Economic Development Department.
“A lot of (the plan) came from developing our strategic plan,” said Micah Runner, Economic development director for the City of Stockton.
The plan included six main objectives that dealt with issues such as eliminating food deserts, food insecurity, improving the branding of local products, expanding jobs, improving manufacturing and increasing food education.
The first area of focus has been to address access issues that many area residents have in their own neighborhoods.
“One of the first areas for us to get on was dealing with food deserts and dealing with the whole food chain,” Runner said. “We recognized that food and agriculture assets are here and that there was a gap that hasn’t been worked on for the community.”
The gap was the difference between the wealth of food products that are produced in the Central Valley surrounding Stockton and the lack of access many residents have to those products.
Food deserts are areas where residents lack access to fresh fruits and vegetables even though many of these areas have a variety of food vendors. The city turned to the Refresh San Joaquin initiative, run by the San Joaquin Public Health Services office, for help in addressing the issue.
“Our program initially assessed food access community wide in 2012,” said Daniel H. Kim, Supervising Public Health Educator for San Joaquin County Public Health Services. “We found a variety of issues in some South Stockton areas.”
Kim and workers with San Joaquin County Public Health Services approached area stores about a variety of changes to increase the quantity and quality of the food products that were sold in neighborhood stores.
“We talked to them about issues like expanding aisles and moving healthy food closer to the registers,” Kim said.
Other issues were more difficult to address. Many of the stores in the areas considered food deserts were smaller operations. They lacked the facilities to store and sell fresh foods.
“For the smaller stores, they may not have the capacity to store the foods,” Kim said. “They might not have a walk-in case.”
Another issue for the smaller stores is getting fresh products. Many have contracts with wholesale suppliers that spell out the volume a store has to be able to sell before they can get certain types of products.
“They have to be able to keep the product refrigerated,” Kim said. “Distributors work with large volume. Some stores can’t keep that volume.”
To get around that issue, county workers promoted working with farmers’ markets to get smaller quantities of produce for their customers.
Preliminary efforts have shown some success, but it has been a slow process.
“Some stores take a little bit of convincing,” Kim said. “We aren’t providing funds. These are voluntary efforts on the parts of the stores. We provide material resources like posters and help rearranging the shelves. Those that have taken part have seen some improvement in business.”
Runner said that the city also hopes to make urban agriculture efforts easier by possibly relaxing some of the rules against growing food in residential gardens.
“The other thing we are starting to embark on is looking at local ordinances for urban gardening,” Runner said. “Areas that we may need to change are those that might allow for urban gardens especially front yard gardens.”
He said that some of the ordinances currently in effect are relics of a time when cities focused on building concrete structures like roads, gutters and sidewalks.
“It is kind of like the transition from old existing ordinances that focused on the urban context that we are trying to eliminate,” Runner said.
He said those efforts would likely take approximately six months before ordinance changes were brought to the city council.
Other efforts from the action plan will include education efforts in local schools that will emphasize the need to look for healthier food options. The economic development department is also partnering with Visit Stockton to increase branding efforts and help boost tourism and agricultural related businesses. One such effort will include a farm-to-table banquet similar to one held on a bridge in Sacramento every year.
All of Stockton’s efforts will be honored when CALED officially recognizes the city during its conference this month in Monterey.
“The Awards of Excellence Program is a high achievement issued from us,” said Kristy Nong, office manager for CALED. “The recognition is important to those who receive the award. It is often shared with the city council. It shows success as well as best practices. It is a way our applicants can brag about their achievements for 2017.”