Encinitas resident helps spearhead SDFSA effort to improve San Diego County’s food system

Sona Desai, San Diego Food System Alliance associate director
Sona Desai, San Diego Food System Alliance associate director
(San Diego Food System Alliance)

A new report by an alliance of groups dedicated to improving San Diego County’s food systems states that one in three county residents – or roughly 1.1 million people – is food insecure, meaning they may not know where their next meal is coming from.

“San Diego County Food Vision 2030” was released in mid-July, and was spearheaded by the San Diego Food System Alliance, an organization that includes a wide array of partners, from government agencies and nonprofits to farmers and philanthropists, said Sona Desai, the group’s associate director and an Encinitas resident.

“Right now, our food system fails to provide for everyone,” said Desai. “It’s a pretty huge number of San Diegans that are food or nutrition insecure.”

The problem was exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and its attendant economic woes, said Desai. Before the pandemic, one in seven county residents was food insecure, compared with the current statistic of one in three residents.

The term food insecurity encompasses households that don’t have enough food, don’t have access to a safe and healthy food supply, or simply can’t afford to buy enough food to meet their needs.

“So much of food insecurity is tied to poverty,” Desai said.

The report and website – – were the product of two years of research and outreach by the study’s organizers. Nearly 3,000 San Diego County residents offered input through a variety of vehicles, including surveys, interviews and focus groups.

Those participants included people in a variety of cities and neighborhoods, as well as farmers, fishermen, owners of food-related businesses and members of tribal communities.

The result, said Desai, is a vision for improving San Diego County’s food systems over the next decade. The report includes three overarching goals, which are cultivate justice, fight climate change and build resilience.

The report also encompasses 10 objectives tied to those goals, among them: preserve agricultural lands; increase the viability of local farms, fisheries, food businesses and workers; elevate wages and working conditions for those in food-related businesses; scale up food waste prevention initiatives; increase leadership of people of color across the food system; build a local, sustainable and equitable food system; and plan for a resilient food system.

Carrying out those objectives will take the combined efforts of many people and organizations throughout the region, said Desai.

For example, she said, the region needs to do more effective planning for the future of agriculture in San Diego County, from preserving agricultural lands to addressing the costs and availability of water for farmers.

“If we don’t plan for agriculture in this region, it won’t exist here anymore,” she said.

Other strategies, she said, include convincing residents and business owners alike to support local food growers and fishermen. Critical to this effort is making local food more “mainstream,” such as urging supermarkets to carry locally-grown produce.

While many of the report’s objectives require action by policy-makers, businesses, nonprofits or other organizations in San Diego County, Desai said there are things people can do to further improve the equity, sustainability and resilience of our food systems.

Among those steps, said Desai, is supporting local food producers by patronizing farmers markets, independent food markets and locally-owned restaurants, and asking the stores where they shop to carry locally-produced foods.

Another step, she said, is to volunteer at a food bank, pantry program or nonprofit that provides food for the economically disadvantaged.

Those with financial means can donate to food-related charities and philanthropic organizations, she said.

Finally, she said, residents can educate themselves about the food system and how food reaches their households, asking the question, “How can we do a better job of getting local food onto our plates?”

Desai, a native of Philadelphia, moved to North County about five years ago when her husband was offered a tenure-track position at UCSD.

As a college student in Colorado, she worked at a student-run farm, and fell in love with the work. “I had found what I really needed to be doing,” she said.

She later moved to Vermont, where she started her own organic farm, and lived for about 20 years – also earning a master’s degree in environmental law and policy - before her move to Encinitas.

A lifelong vegetarian, Desai enjoys hiking, gardening, cooking and yoga.

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