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The Leading Voices in Food

E160: Deep Community Connection at the San Diego Food System Alliance

Hosted by: Kelly Brownell (Duke)
March 24, 2022

Today, we’re speaking with leaders of the San Diego Food System Alliance about their far reaching 10 year vision for a healthier, more sustainable and more just food system in San Diego County. Our guests today are Elly Brown and Sona Desai, co-executive directors of the Alliance, who can speak about how this work is grounded in both community needs and evidence based research. It’s an inspiring story of relationships, the transformational potential of food sovereignty and the belief that people can create a better food system when they work together. Welcome to the leading voices and food podcast.

Elly Brown, Co-Executive Director – As the Co-Executive Director of the San Diego Food System Alliance, Elly Brown oversees the nonprofit administration and resource development domains, ensuring that the Alliance is achieving impact towards its mission. Elly began her journey at the Alliance as a part-time consultant in 2015. Since then, the Alliance has blossomed into an expansive network of over 150 multi-sector organizations and advocates with a $1m in operating budget. Elly is a first generation American, having spent the majority of her life in San Diego and Japan. Elly enjoys the ability to contribute her business and consulting skill set to a cause she loves—food and community. Elly’s fondest memories of her childhood involve visiting the countryside of Japan, eating cucumbers and momotaro tomatoes off the vines from her grandfather’s farm.

Sona Desai, Co-Executive Director – Sona Desai has been working to advance sustainable and equitable food systems for more than 20 years. She has a background in organic farming, food marketing & distribution, farm business development, and is recognized nationally as a leader in food hub and community food systems development. Before joining the San Diego Food System Alliance, Sona was the Director of Food Systems Development at the Leichtag Foundation where she provided thought leadership, research, and food and farm based consulting services to advance the Foundation’s food system strategy. She also served as the Associate Director of Coastal Roots Farm in Encinitas. As the Co-Executive Director of the San Diego Food System Alliance, Sona provides strategic and management support for the organization, strengthens support services for small-scale sustainable food producers and fishermen in the region, provides consulting services to advance economic development in the food system and leads diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

Interview Summary

So Elly let’s begin with you. Could you describe to our listeners what the San Diego Food System Alliance is and how did this organization come to be?

Thanks for having us today Kelly. We’re excited to talk about regional food systems work with you today and about San Diego’s work. And as you know, Duke holds a really special place in my heart having attended graduate school there over 10 years ago. And it kind of feels like serendipity to talk about our work here in San Diego region around our food system. But on many levels the work has influenced my post MBA journey. Really the unlearning and the relearning, new ways of being, new ways of working together, and new economic systems that we can really nurture together in this region. And Sona, who’s here with me – she’s an incredible, humble thought leader and partner and has really inspired me in this work. So I’m glad that she can join us today together. And so to share a little bit about San Diego Food System Alliance. The Alliance was started a decade ago in 2012, and we are diverse and inclusive network guided by our newly-developed common agenda San Diego County Food Vision 2030. And really our mission is to cultivate a healthy, sustainable, just food system in our region of San Diego County. And we work to promote collaboration, influence policy and catalyze transformation in the food system here in our region of San Diego. And which really is the unseated land of the Kumeyaay, Luiseno, Cahuilla, and Cupeno people. And I think it’s really important to recognize that as we’re doing this work. Because we are all guests here and we need to recognize and honor the hosts or the original land stewards of this region. So that’s who we are and what we’re doing, and happy to share a little bit more as we go along.

Thanks very much. So Sona, let’s turn to you now. The alliance has recently done some pretty extensive strategic planning that we discussed and I know you’ve had input from a large number of stakeholders in this process. Could you describe how this has all worked and how you gained input and what the plan consists of?

Yes, absolutely. Thanks again Kelly. And thank you Elly for your co-leadership in this work. So yes, we recently launched San Diego County Food Vision 2030, which we call a plan and a movement for transforming our region’s food system over the next last 10 years. Developing food vision 2030 was a two year process. And we began this in the summer of 2019, and it culminated last summer in 2021. So the process itself included a pretty comprehensive literature review. We also did over a hundred interviews with key stakeholders within the community. We held several focus groups and then had, which you alluded to a sweeping community engagement process.

Our goal when we started food vision 2030 was to center the needs and aspirations of our community, especially those that are historically left out of these planning processes. So to meet this goal, we were very intentional about cultivating very deep and trusting relationships with community based organizations, and businesses across San Diego County, particularly those that were rooted in communities that had historically been disinvested in and those elevating the needs of essential food system workers. To guide the process of developing food vision 2030 and to ensure community participation, we first started with creating a steering committee that represented these voices and included leaders of these communities that could help us mobilize participation and engagement across the communities during the two year planning process. In collaboration with these partners, we designed the community engagement strategy. It included several forums, neighborhood convenings across the county, and of course unfortunately, the launch of this community engagement process was slated for March 2020, and it coincided directly with the statewide COVID 19 lockdown.

Despite those circumstances we remain committed to ensuring that community voices were centered in this process. We re-strategized with our community partners. We did a lot of research on the digital divide and collectively developed an accessible, interactive, customized digital experience that was tailored to 12 priority historically disinvested communities as well as farmers, fishermen, farm workers, food workers and independent restaurateurs and retailers. Through that process we engaged nearly 3000 San Diegons, and 60% of the voices came from those 12 priority communities and essential food system workers. It resulted in a common vision that includes three goals, 10 objectives, and several strategies for transforming our food system in San Diego County. The three goals are to cultivate justice, fight climate change, and build resilience. And the 10 objectives reflect priorities across the food system, including things like preserving agricultural lands, supporting the viability of local farms, fisheries and food businesses, strengthening food value chains, elevating wages and working conditions, expanding nutrition and food security, improving community food environments, scaling up food recovery efforts, and increasing BIPOC leadership throughout the food system.

San Diego County food vision 2030 is a shared vision. It’s our community’s vision. And really our intention moving forward is to help guide collective action and have the vision, mobilize and inform planning policy program and investment opportunities throughout our region.

Sona I’m really happy to hear about this because not only do you have a very ambitious set of goals, and the only way that one could possibly even imagine reaching those goals is to have a broad base of constituents who are working together on them, and you’ve managed to do that. But I also really appreciate you discussing the process of establishing these trusting relationships which isn’t easy, it takes a long time but is critically important. Thank you for that. So Elly, I know from an earlier discussion that we had that your organization is working on five primary pillars.

I want to share that before we began the creation of this new common agenda food vision 2030, we conducted two internal strategic planning processes. First, we created the Justice Equity Diversity and Inclusion Roadmap, the JEDI roadmap. And second, we also created an operating strategy, and these two planning processes were really essential for us to hone in on who we are, what we do, and how we steward food vision 2030 forward as an alliance. And the JEDI roadmap really spells out our vision for racial equity and a lot around the how, but the operating strategy resulted in five pillars that helped to crystallize what we do to steward food vision 2030 forward. So these five pillars are: 1) build networks. Really our role in cultivating nurturing a diverse and inclusive network that’s actively participating in the movement around this new vision, collaborating, learning, sharing together; 2) influence policy. Our primary focus is on the local level where we have the most influence. And we really are leaning towards moving towards community led organizing efforts around policy advocacy. And 3) is shift culture. So supporting our network and San Diegons in their education and awareness, to become better active participants towards cultivating a sustainable just food system. And 4) is increased capacity. So here we do a little bit more on the groundwork to actively support groups in their contribution towards a sustainable just food system. And one of the examples is the local food economy lab, which Sona I think will share a little bit more of. And lastly our 5) is operating strategy pillar is the nurture organizational health and viability.

So this is our work around culture, democratic governing management models, as well as viability matters for the organization. And lastly, I think one of the most important elements of our operating strategy also is our accountability and governance system. In addition to the board of directors for 501 we have a 21 member food vision 2030 stewardship committee consisting of majority organizers from communities that are most marginalized by our industrialized food system. These are what Sona has spelled out, the BIPOC neighborhoods across San Diego County, tribal communities, food farm workers, small farmers and fishermen, and BIPOC owned food businesses in our region.

What an accomplishment to bring together all those parties, and each of the pillars is really interesting. Sona, I’d like to ask you about one of them in particular that has to do with the internal structure and environment of your own organization. Can you say more?

Yes, absolutely. Thank you for asking about that Kelly because it’s the heartbeat of our organization and really what will allow us to have impact in the region. So as Elly mentioned, we see nurturing the health of our organization as absolutely foundational to our work and essential for transformational impact. While fundraising and resource development are clearly critical for sustaining the health of our organization, the structures of how we are organized, how we make decisions, and how we care for one another are equally essential. Over the past few years we have started allocating more time, capacity and intention toward creating internal policies that move us towards structures that reflect our core values of respect, inclusivity, health, collaboration and justice. This work has included working with a justice equity diversity inclusion consultancy organization, and developing an internal JEDI committee of staff board and alliance members. And together we developed a statement on justice as well as a detailed roadmap to ensure that we’re actively working toward our vision of becoming an anti-racist organization and to help hold ourselves accountable.

We’ve also worked on our human resource HR handbook and policies. We have re-established our job descriptions and recruitment strategies, and also looking at our compensation structure. In addition to this, we also recognize that we need to be able to have a staff that is able to bring their whole selves to this work. And so we’ve really been working to cultivate a space for that and creating time and space for rest and reflection for our staff. And this is an ongoing work and we are beginning this and we have a lot that we can do as we move forward. But we have come to recognize that this is the work. This is the work. This is essential for our individual collective health and wellbeing. Another thing that we’re starting to look at is outlining a vision toward moving toward becoming a less hierarchal and more democratic organization. So as part of this journey we transitioned to a co-executive directorship at the alliance late last year. We’re also working now as a team to create a stronger culture of self-management. And as part of this effort, we’re exploring various ways to create greater clarity and streamlined decision making across the organization. We’re creating, experimenting and piloting with team structures to help hold one another accountable rather than a traditional supervisor employee type of relationship. And I think overall we believe that building equitable policies and procedures to govern our organization will ultimately foster an inclusive culture, and support our ability to retain greater diversity within our team and broader organizational network.

You’re doing a lot of imaginative things and one of them that Elly mentioned earlier was the local food economy lab. Sona, could you say a little bit about what needs you identified that led to the development of this?

So we actually just had our kickoff call with about 50 partners yesterday for the local food economy lab. And this emerged through the food vision 2030 process. We heard consistent themes from small and mid-size farmers, fishermen and food business owners around limited technical assistant and business support services, to ensure their success in an increasingly competitive and consolidated marketplace, and this need that we heard was amplified across communities of color. So in particular, we heard the need for more equitable, customized and wraparound one-on-one and peer to peer services, especially lack indigenous and leaders of color. By wraparound services what we heard was that there’s more than just a business plan that’s required for a food business to be viable. Sometimes they also need to be able to combine that with bookkeeping support or marketing support or access to capital or infrastructure. And so by wraparound, we’re really seeing that the lab could be a place where we could provide some of these needs. And of course, another theme that we saw a lot of last year was fractures across the food supply chain. And there was a huge need to try to meet demand locally from local producers and local food business owners. And so that’s another area where San Diego County has a lot of opportunity to build infrastructure for the local movement and distribution and marketing of food. And then I guess one other theme that has really shaped the idea of the local food economy lab, is we’ve been hearing a lot more interest in community wealth building models and the idea of inclusive economic development. So we actually researched economic models like cooperatives and community land trust, employee ownership, and did develop a report building community wealth in San Diego County’s food system. So this idea of the lab was really to create a space that merged all of these needs and opportunities and to provide, you know, one-on-one technical assistance, business support to farmers, fishermen, food businesses, primarily people of color, and to increase connections between local producers and local markets in the region. And then finally to elevate community wealth building models.



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