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Who’s In Your Food Network?

For many people, the words ‘food network’ bring to mind faces of celebrity chefs like Rachel Ray, Guy Fieri, and Emeril Lagasse. When Alison Hensley, local food enthusiast and co-founder of the SOL Food Festival, hears those words, she sees a different set of faces.

She sees Jacob Grant at Los Olivos Roots Organic Farm, where Alison works, who grew the bumper crops of kale and other greens, carrots, and root vegetables that form the bulk of her current diet.

She sees her roommate whose friends’ backyard chickens provided the eggs she had for breakfast on the day we spoke.

She sees Chef Pink — a former SOL Food Kitchen chef who runs Bacon and Brine—who butchered and shared the Valley Piggery sow that became the bacon she ate with those eggs.

She sees her colleagues at the Lucidity Festival’s Mindful Feeding program, where she is the food and sustainability director, whose leftover almond milk fills her cup.

Alison has spent the last decade cultivating her food community and building those connections to where her food comes from. “I don’t want to support a food system characterized by a network of nameless, faceless people,” she says. “If you don’t know where your food comes from or how that farmer is growing it, then you don’t know what you’re putting into your body or what the effect on the environment was. You don’t have the same sense of gratitude for what you’re eating either. Creating those connections is what is at the heart of the eat local, sustainable, organic movement.”

Her experience with vibrant food communities and connections can be traced back to her childhood. At their home near the Angeles National Forest, her family grew a little bit of everything, from corn and peppers to squash, tomatoes, and cucumbers. They raised chickens, and at one point were the proud owners of a flock of turkeys and a few small pigs. Her neighbors had similar gardens and animals, she remembers, and at holidays and special occasions the community would gather to share food and stories.

In 2000, Alison started at UCSB with “a greater commitment to healing the world than anything else” and graduated in 2004 with a degree in Global Studies and Spanish Literature. She started working weekends at area farmers markets and fell in love with the good food and vibrant, deep-rooted community supporting it, from the farmers who grew the vegetables to the customers who bought them and chatted with her about their nutrition and health. Before long, she was working full-time at the markets and kept at it for nearly eight years.

Over time, however, Alison grew frustrated with what she saw as misconceptions about eating locally or organically — too expensive, too time-intensive, too complicated — that kept some Santa Barbara locals from enjoying the same food and community. She wanted to bring everyone involved or potentially involved in the local food movement together in the same conversation. So in 2010, Alison and Heather Hartley began working with CEC to develop the first harvest-to-home section of CEC’s annual Santa Barbara Earth Day Festival. Alison and Heather treated the experience as a trial run to prove to themselves that there were enough people in the community engaged and interested in exhibiting on food-related issues that it would warrant its own festival. That first harvest-to-home was such a success that the Earth Day Festival has had a food-related section ever since, and the SOL Food Festival was born.

They named the festival SOL—sustainable, organic, local—in recognition of the fact that sometimes just one of those labels alone fails to capture what it means to eat in an environmentally responsible manner.

“Defining local is tough,” she says. “I try to think more about regionally-appropriate food and what’s sustainable. It’s hard to find local grains and dairy, especially cow’s milk, in Santa Barbara County, and does it really make sense to talk about raising grass-fed dairy cows here with our climate and this drought? Sometimes, it may make more sense to purchase milk that comes from further away but which is produced sustainably. Figuring those things out and deciding what aligns with your values is part of the ever-questioning process.”

Alison is still growing her own food philosophy, grafting on new information and ideas and weeding out foods from her diet that don’t align with her ever-evolving food values. She was an omnivore, then a vegetarian, before finally switching back to eating meat again. A devoted researcher and reader of all subjects food-related, she’s continually influenced by what she reads and learns about our food system, and the shifting landscape of her pantry attests to that.

“Now, I’d say I’m an opportunivore,” she explains after a thoughtful pause. “My diet over the years has moved towards eating what’s in excess at any point in time.”

The hardest part of the process?

“Deciding what kind of food system you want to support and being willing to constantly ask questions about where the food you’re about to purchase or eat came from and how and by whom it was grown,” she says. “What we feed grows, and if we feed food systems that aren’t in alignment with our personal values, they are going to grow in place of other, more mindful systems that are better for the environment and us.”

With the SOL Food Festival, Alison has helped create a space where we can all ask those questions together while deepening our connections to the local food community.

Alison herself is continuing to develop her belief that the way to bring the greatest amount of healing into the world — both personal and environmental—is through supporting local, sustainable, organic food systems that prioritize well-nourished bodies and soils. She and the rest of the local food movement in Santa Barbara are striving to break down apathy surrounding food choices and the misconception that there’s only one way to eat—be it vegetarianism, veganism, or even ‘freeganism.’

“Instead, we’re showing that there’s a wide spectrum of involvement in our food system and figuring out where you fit in is an evolving, personal process,” she concludes. “Everyone is different, and everyone comes into it with a different need or goal.”

Need guidance developing your own food philosophy or just want to learn how to make sauerkraut? Join Alison, Heather, CEC and thousands of SOL Food Festival advocates on Saturday, September 27 from 10am to 6pm in Vera Cruz Park.

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