Farmers, restaurateurs and other food producers brainstormed ideas to increase sustainability and equity in the region’s food sector during the annual meeting of the San Diego Food System Alliance, held at Coastal Roots Farm in Encinitas Friday, Oct. 22.
“We’re here today to talk about Food Vision 2030,” speaker Rio Holaday said, referring to the organization’s 10-year plan to improve the quality and accessibility of healthy food. “A vision that includes cultivating justice, fighting climate change and building resilience.”
The all-day event at the nonprofit, Jewish community farm and education center included a forum on people of color in food industries, along with farm tours, displays and samples of healthy treats such as chia seed pudding and hibiscus berry tea.
The organization hopes the gathering will help like-minded food producers network and share resources. That’s key to success for many of the small businesses in local farming and food production, speakers said.
“It’s really hard to make the numbers pencil out at any small farm,” said Sona Desai, co-executive director of the alliance and a first-generation Indian American who worked at a university farm in Colorado and then ran her own small vegetable farm in Vermont for a decade. “The costs just outweigh whatever profit you can make.”
The alliance’s report “San Diego County Food Vision 2030″ lays out goals for the region and identifies strategies to strengthen the county’s food supply and its workforce. The report, released in July, also details how food production in San Diego has changed in recent decades, with many local sectors declining.
The county has lost three-quarters of its agricultural acreage since the mid-1950s, and the production of nuts, fruits, vegetables, meat and poultry has declined since the turn of the century, the report stated.
To help sustain food businesses in San Diego, Desai said, there needs to be access to affordable land — a tall order for a region with skyrocketing property prices.
Solutions could include repurposing vacant city- or county-owned land for farming and community gardens and enlisting land trust organizations in preserving land for agricultural production and conservation.
Small businesses, particularly those owned by women and minorities, often lack access to financing, Desai said, so providing start-up loans with favorable terms would help with them with the capital crunch, Desai said.
Food entrepreneurs also need infrastructure, she said, such as seafood processing facilities for local fishermen and commercial kitchens and food processing facilities for businesses making retail products such as sauces, condiments or baked goods.
The county has diverse resources that it can tap to provide rich food choices, she said.
“Right now San Diego County is so special in that we have so many distinct neighborhoods and cultures, and they all have their own unique food culture,” Desai said.
That’s what Janice Luna Reynolds, founder of Mundo Gardens in National City, hopes to highlight.
Luna Reynolds began organizing the community gardens more than a decade ago, when a neighbor who had run a local garden fell ill. She took over the project and nurtured it as a haven of green space in a community with poor environmental health conditions.
“We have the highest asthma rates in the county, exposure to freeway pollution, and little access to healthy food,” she said.
Recently, the garden had a harvest of corn, peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes and now is moving into winter crops, she said. Luna also is active in Olivewood Gardens & Learning Center in National City, which teaches residents to grow and prepare healthy variations on traditional Mexican foods.
In addition to food hubs, the gardens also serve as gathering spaces for art and music, she said.
“We put the culture in agriculture,” Luna Reynolds said.
Cynthia Ajani, vice president of Cafe X in San Diego, said the company is striving to overcome the setbacks of the pandemic. Ajani founded the coffee shop with her daughter, who developed the project through a fellowship with the nonprofit Rise Up San Diego.
The company’s motto, “through any beans necessary,” is a nod to Malcolm X, whose revelations about community during his visit to Mecca inspired the coffee shop’s name and philosophy.
“When we talk about Cafe X, what we wanted to focus on was self-actualization and upward mobility,” she said. “Generational wealth building is a big part of that.”
Ajani and her daughter designed it as a collective business, to be run by owner-operators. The pandemic slowed their momentum, however.
Ajani said she was dismayed to see larger businesses get grants for personal protective equipment, while their small company didn’t qualify.
They lost their retail space during the pandemic, and had to find a new one. They plan to host a reopening celebration at the new site in November, she said.
As a startup business they had limited access to loans, but Ajani said that was a “blessing in disguise,” because when they closed their first shop they had no debt to deal with. In addition to the logistical challenges of space and financing, Ajani said, there was the deceptively simple matter of confidence.
“One of the hurdles people don’t talk about is having the confidence as a Black woman to say ‘I’m enough to do this,’” Ajani said.