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A Portrait of Sonoma County

I moved to Sonoma County three months ago now, for my GrizzlyCorps service year with Farm to Pantry. Farm to Pantry is a nonprofit striving for food justice by harvesting produce throughout the county at farms and backyards that would otherwise have gone to waste. We call this gleaning: to gather bit by bit. We then distribute the food to a variety of low-income apartment complexes, church kitchens, food pantries, and other community organizations.

Having grown up in Piedmont (a less than two square mile city inside of Oakland), Sonoma County was a place of weekend trips for Memorial Day at the beginning of the summer, and Labor Day at the end. On these trips, my family and I swam in the Russian River, hiked in Armstrong Redwoods, and sampled the artisanal cheese and biodynamic wine. Through the lens of these weekend trips, Sonoma County was a farm to table paradise an hour and a half drive from home. Through working with Farm to Pantry, I’ve been able to talk to staff members, community members who receive Farm to Pantry food, and volunteers, as well as work with the land, which has given me a more in depth understanding of Sonoma County, and the inequities that persist.

A Portrait of Sonoma County, an in depth study on wellbeing, education, and economic security in Sonoma County highlights these inequities. Portrait of Sonoma is part of a regional report series first carried out in 2014, and updated in 2021, shedding light on policy improvements and shortcomings in the last six years. Overall, in comparison to 2014, the affordable housing crisis worsened, as did the prevalence of economic insecurity, and the disproportionate impact on communities of color deepened. More youth are disconnected (not working or in school), 2% less 3-4 year old children are in preschool, and the Human Development Index (HDI) score of Black and Latinx populations are still around two points lower on average than Asian and white residents. Some trends from the 2014 report remained the same. The average lifespan of Black residents is around ten years lower than any other group, and Black youth still have the lowest percentage enrollment in school, 69%, in comparison to 77% of Latinx youth, and 88% of Asian youth. There is much policy and advocacy work needed to fill these gaps, from mental health resources, mentorship and support programs in schools, and cultural shifts needed to allow all people to pursue a healthy, just life.

Still, this Portrait of Sonoma is not all discouraging, and the inequities are not the only thing I’ve learned about since I moved here. The Portrait of Sonoma update shows that since 2014, the percentage of adults without insurance dropped from 15% to 6%, the percentage of high school students graduating in four years increased by 2%, and the median household income increased by $10,000. Though these are data points that cannot tell a full story and don’t singlehandedly represent a stereotypical Sonoma County, it is a glimpse of progress. Further, in my work with Farm to Pantry, I’m able to not only support hunger relief efforts, but also to connect with our partner organizations and learn about their powerful work beyond helping us distribute food, from La Familia Sana, working to bring healthcare, food, jobs, and education to underserved communities, to the Sebastopol Senior Center, who is hosting a series on “Aging Gayfully” for older trans and queer community members.

Beyond statistics, gleaning every workday morning has allowed me to work with the land and the people of Sonoma County. Already an admirer of the lazy Russian River and the signature smell of California Bay, Pine, and Redwood when you hike through the forests, I’ve fallen more in love with the landscape. When I worked for the Institute for Climate and Peace this summer, a research and peace-building nonprofit based in Honolulu, I heard a lot of discussion around who could truly identify as kānaka maoli, the term for Native Hawaiian people. Many people believe it’s just genetics, but Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua goes further, describing her experience of moving back to her ancestral homeland of Hawai`i after growing up in a reservation in Utah, and not being fully embraced by the community as she expected. She concludes that although you cannot “be” from a place you didn’t grow up in and have lineage in, the next best thing is to “be” from a place by working with the land, and knowing it inside and out. In her experience, when she cultivated a relationship with the land, it showed her commitment to both the land and community, as well as expanded her daily knowledge of things like native plants and weather patterns, or the feel of the air that you can’t read in a textbook. I’m very grateful to work outside every morning, notice what fruits and veggies are in and out of season, sit in the soil, and gain that deeper knowledge that comes from staying for longer than the weekend trip.

Read the full Portrait of Sonoma County 2021 report here.

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