More than two years after the first meeting of community, health and business leaders known as Sonoma Health Action, the council charged with taking health care improvement into its own hands has come full circle.

With two successful programs under way, the group commenced one of its final initiatives this month, addressing the root of health issues articulated in the initial Health Action gathering.

“We have an important mission before us, and this is our chance to look beyond our own self interests and work together on behalf of the community, to be healthier, to live longer and provide better care to all,” said former Third District Supervisor and a chief founder of the group Tim Smith at the October 2007 meeting.

Through the course of planning sessions, break-out groups and design teams, Health Action has successfully launched a healthy living program called iWalk; a community gardens program, iGrow; and a medical home effort, the primary care initiative. This month, the council launched the Sonoma County Food System Alliance, which will work to break down barriers to healthy foods and eating.

The alliance convened for the first official time Nov. 2 includes a roster of about 30 food- and health-related stakeholders, ranging from farm and livestock advocates to restaurant owners, hospital administrators and nonprofit officials.

“The idea is to bring a council of influential decision makers in the local food system together with health, business and environmental people and commit to generating at least one project together,” said Dan Schurman, chief executive officer of Ag Innovations Network, which assembled the planning group and is leading the effort.

“The challenge is when you are talking to organizations that represent opposite poles and historically have not worked together, finding common ground can be difficult. But the overall goal is always to create a more sustainable and equitable food system.”

The Sebastopol-based nonprofit launched in 2000 was created for that exact purpose, though this will be the first time it has organized in Sonoma County. The results of Ag Innovations' efforts in other places have varied broadly depending on the conditions in a particular region. For example, Marin leaders instigated the creation of a permanent farmers’ market and conversely, in Ventura County, planners decided to develop farm worker housing.

“It is too early to say what we might  be capable of doing, but I think with such a diverse group of representatives at the table, it will be the first time we can see and discuss possible initiatives that would only work if we crossed our own borders,” said alliance member and Amy’s Kitchen representative Paul Schiefer.

During the initial meeting, members laid the groundwork for completing a comprehensive assessment of the current food system, and in the coming months they will identify a set of indicators to measure progress.

“Initially we wanted to identify what part of the food system needs attention and more importantly the goal of the food system in the county,” said Ag Innovations President Joseph McIntyre.

He said planning usually takes from 10 months to a year, but the Sonoma County effort will be somewhat accelerated. The group hopes to have a program identified by mid-2010, but the alliance could continue to meet for as long as needed to keep implementation going.

“There is a lot of agreement among members of the committee so far around the direction we need to head. … I have the sense one way or another we need to do a better job making healthy food accessible and affordable to everyone, and there are clearly some gaps to making that an option,” said Mr. McIntyre.

The group includes representatives from the Council on Aging, Redwood Empire Food Bank, Beretta Dairy, Petaluma Bounty, Sonoma County Farm Bureau, the Sierra Club, Sonoma County Ag Preservation & Open Space District and others.

 “From my perspective, this is a great opportunity to explore what kind of partnerships could be formed between groups that often are trapped in their own little silos,” said Council on Aging Director of Senior Meals Jane Doroff.

“It is clear food producers have found ways to make food cheap, but it isn’t always the right choice, and we have seen that that has some serious health ramifications.”

The group will meet again Dec. 2. For more information, e-mail info@foodsystemalliance.org, call 707-823-6111 or visit www.sonomahealthaction.org or www. foodsystemalliance.org.