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News Every Day |

Santa Clara County’s new food systems manager is looking to raise awareness about how everything is connected to food

Santa Clara County’s new food systems manager is looking to raise awareness about how everything is connected to food

The pandemic exposed cracks in the local food system that for years were festering as inequality in Silicon Valley grew.

In 2021, Santa Clara County responded by approving the Food Systems Work Plan Report: a strategy to build a stronger food economy in the region, tackle food insecurity and increase agricultural opportunities for local farmers, among other goals.

In December 2023, the county hired Cayce Hill as its first ever food systems manager to oversee the growing body of work. Before coming to the county, Hill served as the executive director for Veggielution — an East San Jose nonprofit that runs an urban farm at Emma Prusch Farm Park.

Q: What does a food systems manager do?

A: My primary responsibility is to address gaps, identify opportunities and improve coordination in the countywide food system. More specifically, it is to provide leadership and implement the goals of the county of Santa Clara’s work plan. That work plan is the county’s north star, it is my north star. There’s lots of listening and lot of learning right now to think about how I’m going to implement the goals of the work plan.

Q: What is a food system?

A: We can think of food systems as everything that’s involved in the production, aggregation, distribution, retail and ultimately end of life — hopefully cycling right back into production — of food. It’s the way that we grow our food, it’s how and where we aggregate it, it’s who grows the food, who cooks it, where we purchase it and what we do with all the food that we unfortunately don’t end up eating that’s produced. Many people think of food system as farm to table. It comes to a farm and if we’re lucky we know the farmer who grew it, we purchase it and we cook it or we eat at a restaurant. If we are thinking beyond that we also think of the food that goes through a charitable food response to others in the community.

My hope is that in my role I’ll really be able to raise up a much more expansive view of food systems which is not just about who grew it or cooked it or served it — but more about can those people afford to live here, can they breathe clean air here, can they find high quality jobs here that support their family and a dignified life here? There are many examples of how those issues are really being addressed within and by our county, which is why I’m really excited to be here. It’s very complex. Raising that awareness of what a food system is and the role that we all play in our food system is probably the biggest and best challenge I have in this new role.

Q: How do you interact with local businesses and nonprofits?

A: Local nonprofits and local businesses are huge partners to the county of Santa Clara. I think in particular because they have such a deep understanding and are so close to the needs of the community and know much more directly what the community aspires to and what the community needs. The county of Santa Clara at every turn partners with nonprofits and local businesses. I would say hands down we couldn’t be as effective without the partnerships of local nonprofits and businesses.

One great example is our Good Food Purchasing Program. Three county hospitals — St. Louise, O’Connor and Valley Medical — have all enrolled in the Good Food Purchasing Program that’s supported by our public health and procurement team. It basically creates an opportunity for us as a large institution to be able to really direct our buying toward really important values like local economies, environmental sustainability, animal welfare and nutrition and a valued workforce. That local economics piece is very specifically about connecting to local farmers, local vendors and local producers to get those products directly to patients in the hospital.

Q: What are the biggest challenges in your new role?

A: We too often think of food systems, and rightly so it is a huge part of food systems work, but we think of it primarily as direct emergency or charitable food response, getting it as fast as possible to as many people as we can. That will always be central to it, but I think the challenge and opportunity we have in front of us is to really think about what it is in our food system that isn’t working that leads to many people being insecure.

Hunger is a system of poverty. When we think about food systems now I think our challenge is, and I think we’ll rise to it, is to fully understand how food systems connect to affordability of housing, how it connects to our environmental sustainability, how it connects to the way we purchase goods within the county. That connectivity has not been part of the conversation I think for a long time and that’s really contributed to the vulnerability of our food system, frankly. Not just in our county, but across the nation. Those who were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, they suffered from the vulnerability in our food system. The opportunity to better connect this work and to find the intersection of this work and other areas of impact, I think, is the biggest challenge.

CAYCE HILL PROFILE

Company: Santa Clara County

Role: Food Systems Manager

Age: 49

Birthplace: Austin, TX

Current City: San Jose

Education: Bachelor of Science at Trinity University and Master of Public Administration at the NYU Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service

FIVE FACTS ABOUT CAYCE HILL

  1. I have a rescue duck at home named Olive.
  2. This is my first job in local government.
  3. I attended culinary school in Japan.
  4. I’ve never met a vegetable I didn’t like except for cooked carrots.
  5. I’m really good at memorizing song lyrics and stringing Christmas tree lights.
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