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When you think of Sonoma County food, do you think of gourmet dining, wine pairings and exotic cheeses? Or do you think of hunger, junk food and obesity?

The answer is increasingly both, according to recent assessment of local food production and consumption.

The report by the Sonoma County Food System Alliance found that the county "food system" has evolved into niche markets for outside customers, even as hunger and food insecurity grow and nutrition increasingly becomes a luxury within the county.

"The last hundred years, the variety of food crops produced has decreased to mostly those products that can be distributed and marketed outside the county," the report concluded. "The quantity of food produced has also decreased and has been replaced by wine grapes."

Meanwhile, the number of Sonoma County residents who seek supplemental food and nutrition from the Redwood Empire Food Bank continues to grow. The local food bank, through its 146 partnering agencies, now reaches 78,000 county residents a month, a figure that has increase 20 percent in each of the last two years.

Last June, the food bank served 10,000 more meals than it did the same month a year ago. "This whole escalation of food insecurity began with the recession," said Gail Atkins, the food bank's director of programs.

The food bank partners with non-profit agencies such as churches, child care centers and shelters to handle some of its programs. Funding cuts to non-profits could force them to scale back their participation, she said.

The Sonoma County Food System Alliance is a county-based coalition of food producers, distributors and consumers working toward a sustainable local food system. It is part of the statewide Food System and Ag Futures Alliance.

Of the more than 54,000 county residents eligible for the federal food stamp program, now known as Calfresh, 71 percent were not enrolled.

"Increasing participation has the potential to significantly bolster the amount of benefits received locally and dollars circulated into the local economy," the report said.

Key findings include:

<BL@199,12,11,10>Fresh, healthy foods are not consistently available in all communities. Some neighborhoods lack access to grocery stores and are over-saturated with fast food outlets or rely on smaller markets.

<BL@199,12,11,10>While a number of organizations offer education about the health benefits of growing, preparing and preserving fresh food, these efforts likely reach only a small percentage of the population.

<BL@199,12,11,10>Too few local students participate in cooking and nutrition courses. Most cooking classes are aimed at high-end culinary arts and few are affordable for lower income residents.

<BL@199,12,11,10>While meat producers are thriving, the county is shackled by a lack of a multi-species meat processing facility.

<NO1>Farmers markets are growing in popularity and many local residents use them as a way of accessing fresh produce not available or affordable through retail markets.

<NO><NO1>The report also found that the county has limited infrastructure for processing and distributing local farm products. Investing in such infrastructure could bring significant economic benefit to the county, through jobs, local recirculation of sales dollars and increased municipal taxes.

<NO>One project being explored by the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, or CAFF, a group that fosters family-scale agriculture, is the establishment of a center for locally grown foods in the North Coast.

It would create a single point of purchase and sale for locally grown farm products, allowing buyers to purchase local products from small farmers.

<NO1>A completed feasibility study of the project is due later this summer.

<NO>"The idea is that small and medium-size farmers bring their foods and vegetables to the center and this enables larger buyers, institutions like Sonoma State University, to buy from local farmers," said Terry Harrison, past president of the North Coast chapter of CAFF and owner of Foxwhelp Farm in Healdsburg.

Harrison said the recession also has forced some vineyard owners to diversify into other food crops. In some cases, he said, vineyard owners are raising livestock such as sheep, pigs and hens.

"You can mow down cover crop with sheep at a third of the cost of running a tractor through," he said. "They also have some cattle and they use manure for composting" vineyards.

"The grape market hasn't been very good for the last two or three years," he said.

Jennifer McClendon, program director of the Santa Rosa-based Network for a Healthy California, said promoting local, fresh food would could also help reduce epidemic rates of obesity and related chronic diseases.

McClendon said the most recent study from the Center Public Health Advocacy in Davis estimated that the economic cost of obesity in Sonoma County was $436 million in lost productivity and health care expenditures.

McClendon said increasing the number of people enrolled in food stamps could help subsidize the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables.

"To make a difference, we have to make it affordable enough for people all income levels to buy fresh fruits and vegetables that are locally grown," she said.