Santa Barbara County Foodbank CEO Erik Talkin is a loud voice in the crusade for food security. With appearances on the California Association of Food Banks’ Board of Directors, Feeding America’s National Advisory Council, and at Feed the Children’s regional advocacy conference, where he gave the keynote speech last month, the anti-hunger maven speaks with a subtle British lilt and obvious passion. He gave a TED Talk — cleverly titled “Why Giving People More Food Doesn’t End Hunger” — just before the pandemic. But Talkin is about action. Between the ten million(!) pounds of food his 50-strong team has routed to county residents in 2023, to the Foodbank’s multiple award-winning nutrition programs, the man is on a mission, and seems as fit as anyone is to accomplish it.
You won’t hear that from him, though. Talkin is constantly moving, unruffled with the wins when one in four in Santa Barbara County still relies on the Foodbank. Over a third of those 100,000-some-odd people are children. As he told me over the phone last week, “There’s lots of food insecurity in this county. Only 15 of California’s 58 counties see more. The upside here is all of our fresh produce grown in the Santa Maria Valley, but you need to be able to want to eat that food – to want to eat produce and know what to do with it.”
Sir Francis Bacon’s observation that knowledge is power could be Talkin’s tagline too – in 15 years as CEO he’s invested heavily in food literacy via in-school presentations, cooking classes, farmers market programs and gleaning, a kind of foraging-lite, all of which serve preschoolers to seniors.
“Education needs to be lifelong, and our programs are about practicality. We’re getting kids involved in doing things rather than telling them what’s healthy and what isn’t,” he said.
Now food-related education is coming to the younger generation in hand-held format, with two new children’s books written by Talkin.
Jesse and the Snack Food Genie and Frankie versus the Food Phantom chronicle two kids who can’t shake the specter of cheap, nutrient-devoid food. Jesse is haunted by addictive snacks that rob him of his energy, while Frankie has few healthy and affordable options in her city, which is preyed on by a food desert ghost. The books follow Lulu and the Hunger Monster, Talkin’s first entry in his “Food Justice Books for Kids” series. Lulu is also centered on an appetite-antagonizing apparition, this one ordering the title character to keep her hunger a secret from her classmates. Jesse and Frankie pick up right where Lulu left off, from simply getting the meat and potatoes on the plate to ensuring they’re not just a Big Mac and fries, and finally, exploring what foods kids can grow right in their own community. With guides to help teachers integrate the books in the classroom, and easy tips for kids to incorporate into their lives, Talkin is optimistic about the role these stories can play in moving the conversation forward.
For good reason – they’re well-written. As a former playwright, screenwriter, and filmmaker in London, Talkin has penned everything from short films for festivals to fantasy for teenagers. Writing for children? That started with having his own, which spurred him to earn an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Talkin seems energized by a fresh audience, explaining, “They’re not jaded, they want to hear stories and to know stories, so they’re a great group to write for. It’s a particular area. Children’s books are different.”
‘Frankie Versus the Food Phantom’ and ‘Jesse and the Snack Food Genie’ by Eric Talkin | Credit: Courtesy
Lulu and the Hunger Monster won an International Literacy Association Social Justice Book Award in 2021, and since then, Talkin has seen a slight shift in the dialogue surrounding food insecurity, though it’s a bit pyrrhic. “During COVID, a lot more people became food insecure; everyone knew someone who lost their job or was affected. People are now more empathetic that food security is not a result of a lack of hard work or foresight, it’s just because things are ruinously expensive. With medical bills and car payments, having healthy food is the thing you cut from your budget.” Empowering communities and neighborhoods to support one another with sustainable, affordable nutrition can help soften that blow.
Like the programs he pushes, Talkin is ever-practical, focused on what’s next at the Foodbank. “We’re hoping to build a kitchen to produce healthy meals for seniors, and to expand our Spanish-language programming in education and providing culturally-appropriate foods. We also want to give support and encouragement to the Promotores Network of Spanish-language educators who come from within the community.”
When it comes to serving the community, there’s a lot of talkin’. But there aren’t a lot of Eriks.
You can find Talkin’s books at foodbanksbc.org/shop/
50 percent of the proceeds from his Food Justice for Kids books go directly to supporting the Santa Barbara County Foodbank, where you can donate at https://foodbanksbc.org/give-help/donate-food/?campaign=463585