Erin Primer moved to San Luis Obispo County in 2016 to take a job at San Luis Coastal Unified School DIstrict (SLCUSD) where she is the Director of Food & Nutrition Services. With a background in the culinary and high quality ingredient world of catering, Erin was adamant that students should be getting the highest quality food she could find. She was determined to improve the nutrition in her department, so she began researching how she could get local farm-fresh food into her kitchens.
Meanwhile, a work group of the Food System Coalition (FSC) was conducting farmer outreach and data gathering in order to explore the idea of setting up a Food Hub in San Luis Obispo County. In doing that research, the group found that small local farmers often needed more sales outlets for their crops and so, they started to work to connect farmers to institutional buyers.
Jeff Wade, Found and Executive Director of Slow Money San Luis Obispo, was a leader in that work group and, given this nonprofit’s focus on supporting local farmers, he began networking to organize farmer-to-buyer-mixers in collaboration with other work group members, including Central Coast Grown (now City Farm SLO), and The Farmers’ Guild. The first mixer was held at The Guild Hall in August 2016 to connect farmers to restaurants, grocers, distributors, and co-ops.
Later that year, Erin was invited to a meeting of the Food System Coalition (FSC) that was focused on Farm to School initiatives. She and two other food service directors met with the group and presented how their food service departments operated, and what they were looking for from local farmers. Erin was thrilled to be at a meeting where so many sectors of the food system were represented! She had never been a part of such a group and knew right away that she was in good company with like-minded, nutrition-focused folks.
I couldn’t believe such a group existed! To have a group of people who were assessing the food system as a whole blew my mind. I knew I was in the right place!” - Erin Primer, San Luis Coastal Unified School District
Erin has kept up with the FSC over the years, and is ever supportive of its efforts to make our food system more sustainable. Additionally, thanks to the activity of those past work groups, and the persistence of members, Jeff and Erin have been collaborating closely ever since that 2017 mixer and have grown the Farm to School effort in the county exponentially, reaching not only SLCUSD, but other school districts in the county as well. Erin is grateful for the convening space that Slow Money SLO and the FSC offered, and for the continued work both groups do in education and outreach.
The FSC is happy to play the connector role in stories like these! It is our pleasure to bring diverse sectors of the food system together because we know, as shown here, that the amazing agencies, individuals, nonprofits, and businesses in our county will always carry out great projects that move us all toward a more sustainable food system!
Joel Diringer was one of the conveners of the SLO County Food System Coalition (FSC). His consulting business Diringer & Associates focuses on health policy and program development, research and evaluation, and so he was called upon to work on the Hunger-Free Community Project. This project was born out of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Hunger-Free Communities planning grant that was awarded in Spring 2011 to the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo County.
It was important to me to help form the food system coalition in order to coalesce community efforts that were combating hunger on many different fronts, and also to provide a community forum for discussion and action.” - Joel Diringer, Diringer & Associates
After the conclusion of the Hunger-Free Communities grant, the Food Bank, with Diringer & Associate’s assistance, was awarded the USDA Community Food Project grant twice, consecutively. These were used for various projects carried out by food system stakeholders, including the FSC, which focused on expanding nutrition and food opportunities to marginalized immigrant, and Latinx communities in San Luis Obispo County.
Joel sees value in the FSC because it coalesces a wide range of SLO County residents who are interested in an equitable and sustainable food system. Bringing together agriculture interests, social services providers, health professionals, educational organizations and grassroots advocates means a large portion of the food system is represented, which will help bring positive change.
However, Joel notes that ten years after its initiative to drive out hunger in the county, there is still work to do. With the help of a committed base of organizations and persons who continue toward FSC’s goals, Joel knows the food system will continue to improve.
Over the years, I have enjoyed working with a robust group of “old-timers” and new participants to keep the Coalition sustained.” - Joel Diringer, Diringer & Associate
We are so thankful for Joel's help to create our Coalition! If you or someone you know has skills in grant writing, project organizing, or other nonprofit support areas that you would like to volunteer, please contact us today!
Among those managers are Robyn Gable of North County Farmers Market Association, and Jeff Nielsen of Cambria, Morro Bay, Farm Supply and Downtown SLO Farmers Markets, and Linda Larsen of Paso Farm and Craft Market. These managers, with the support of their boards and managers who came before them, have worked to get EBT accepted at their markets, despite the extra administrative requirements.
They (market managers) do this work because they care about it. They are champions of local food access for everyone in the community and they know that, even if offering CalFresh acceptance is not profitable in the first year, it does bring in more customers and more money to the market over time. - Shannon Klisch, UCCE
Ideally, every certified farmers market in the county would allow customers to use their CalFresh card to buy produce. If there was more consistency and access, it would take away some of the confusion and uncertainty that people face when they go to use their CalFresh card. - Shannon Klisch, EBT @ Farmers Markets Work Group Chair
The EBT at Farmers Markets work group also understands that to increase access to fresh food, they would need to assist Farmers Market managers in the EBT program administration. The work group connects managers to state-level support that can assist with applications, getting a point of service machine (in some cases), and technical assistance.
In order to convince more markets to offer EBT, the work group demonstrates the financial benefit to the markets, the farmers, and the community, which is significant. Since 2017, $265k has been infused into our local economy!
With representatives from various agencies in the county, this work group has made serious headway over the past 4 years. Statistics like a 90% increase in Calfresh and Market Match redemption, and 42 client-serving organizations receiving outreach materials, demonstrate just how much impact the group has had on the community, not to mention individual users!
There was this customer who came to the market. They were so down, ‘I haven’t had food for a week, I have been out of money and out of work.’ They came to swipe their card, and had like 350$ in there because of the extra money for EBT (during the pandemic). And they just started crying they were so happy to have that money in there so they could eat. And, it just makes you feel good that you can do what you do. - SLO County Farmers Market manager on being able to accept CalFresh at Farmers Markets during the COVID-19 pandemic
Hi Everyone, Claire here. I thought it would be a good idea to tell y'all my Food System Coalition story, so here it is...enjoy!
I first found the SLO Food System Coalition (FSC) from an internet search in Summer 2018 by typing ‘sustainable food system slo county’. Wanting to return to SLO County and get involved in the food system, I was thrilled to find the group, and planned a special trip from where I was living in Santa Barbara to attend a meeting in Fall 2018. I got the sense that the group would be a good place to start networking.
I was right! At that first meeting I met the then committee chair, Andrea Keisler, got on the newsletter list and got connected to the network.
Fast forward to July 2019, having another meeting under my belt, I approached Andrea with an inquiry of any part time work in the food system. It just so happened that the then coordinator of the group was looking to step back. Thus, I became the coordinator for the FSC in August 2019, which was a great pairing to the Sustainable Food Systems masters degree I was working on (see me studying away al fresco below)!
The FSC is one of a kind in SLO County. It is the only group that addresses the food system from a wholistic perspective. - Claire Tuohey-Mote, dba Food System Consulting
After finishing my graduate work in August 202, the FSC also launched me into my second career. It connected me to Slow Money SLO, and I am now the Communications Director and Farm to School Coordinator for the nonprofit.
I remain the volunteer coordinator for the FSC because this work is meaningful to me, and I understand the value of it for our county.
I see the FSC as the nexus for our local food system. It brings agencies, organizations, and individuals together, providing space for connections to be made. Then, the phenomenal folks in our food system go together to do great work, addressing the challenges they see in equity, sustainability, health, economic vitality, etc.! I am excited to see where this work will lead!
Together, we can make more impact than as individual agencies. - Jennifer Miller, San Luis Obispo County Public Health Department
It was this system focus that led some members of the FSC to explore reasons behind the very low CalFresh (formerly known as food stamps) participation in SLO County, ranking one of the lowest in the state. In 2015, a work group (CalFresh Alliance) was formed to tackle this food access issue and it is still working today to continue to increase Calfresh enrollment.
(Above photo: Jen and other FSC members listen to a presentation from the Chief CalFresh Lead from CA DSS.)
Members of the FSC leverage this collaborative group to raise food system issues to county officials and decision makers, partner organizations and institutions to understand challenges, explore solutions, and drive change. For example, participants in CalFresh Alliance were able to meet with representatives of the SLO County Board of Supervisors and the Department of Social Services to understand how they could work together to enroll more eligible families in CalFresh.
A parallel effort to CalFresh Alliance is the Market Match program which helps individuals double their CalFresh (EBT) benefits if they shop at local farmers’ markets. The FSC supported the efforts of another work group that formed (EBT at Farmers Markets) to get SLO County Farmers Markets set up with EBT capabilities and Market Match programs. The success of this group has been tremendous, with huge growth in EBT spent at local markets.
Market Match is a win-win. It helps families stretch their food dollars while directly supporting local farmers. The success of the group (EBT at Farmers Markets) has been incredible! - Jennifer Miller, San Luis Obispo County Public Health Department
It’s this type of work that makes the FSC so special. An aggregation of agencies and organizations represents many voices and distributes information and resources more broadly throughout the food system. This representation empowers members to draw the attention of county officials and policy makers, further impacting the change that we want to see toward a more equitable, resilient, economically viable, and health-promoting food system.
If you agree with Jen, and find the work described above valuable, please consider making a donation to our organization so that our work can continue sustainably!