Thousands of adults and children in Napa County live in households where putting food on the table is an iffy proposition.
These households are considered “food insecure,” and among the 58 counties in California, Napa ranks among the worst.
According to the most recent data from 2005, Napa County ranked 43rd among the state’s 58 counties for food insecurity.
Although it may not be apparent to tourists, or even local residents, Napa County has “pockets of real poverty,” said Karen Smith, public health officer and deputy director of the Napa County Health and Human Services Agency. Calistoga, in particular, has a “huge income gap,” Smith said.
In addition to poorer health, not having enough to eat or eating more junk food can lead to behavioral problems and poor school performance in children, Smith said. It can also lead to obesity and an increased risk of diabetes in adults because cheap food is often the unhealthiest, she said in a presentation to the Local Food Advisory Council earlier this month.
Formed in February, the Local Food Advisory Council wants to promote a more diverse Napa County food system, with healthy foods more accessible to all residents.
At the same time, the county's Public Health Division is working to bring nonprofit organizations and residents together to identify gaps in health care, Smith said.
She wants to bring farmers markets closer to low-income neighborhoods.
Farmers markets play a “huge” role in improving residents’ health, said Karen Schuppert, a Napa Farmers Market board member and chair of the Local Food Advisory Council.
“We have the ultimate climate in an agricultural community, so our infrastructure is already in place,” Schuppert said.
The challenge, however, is to encourage local farmers to grow something other than grapes. “No one’s going to pull up a cabernet vineyard to plant lettuce,” Smith said.
Other challenges include:
• convincing larger, institutional food producers such as jails and hospitals to buy more local food;
• convince consumers to eat healthy and local.
“We have to convert people to wanting healthy and locally grown food,” Smith said. “We also have to make it economically viable.”
To that end, every eligible food vendor at the Napa Farmers Market began accepting Electronic Benefit Transfer cards, which are identification cards for the food stamp program, at the start of this season, Schuppert said.
All food vendors are eligible except those selling food prepared on site. WIC checks — from the Women, Infants and Children program — are also accepted by most vendors who sell fruits, vegetables and cut herbs, she said.
A small step people, neighborhoods and schools can take immediately is growing food in their own gardens, Smith said. It’s especially helpful when schools create their own gardens, because children take what they learn home to their families, she said.
The focus in health care has always been about individual wellness, Smith said. The goal for the county — and what should be the goal for the U.S. — is shifting that focus to health for the whole community, she said.
“This country has enough resources to bring everybody up to a level of good health and wellness,” Smith said.