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Gabriela Sandoval: Partnering with Farmers to Ensure Food Safety

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When it comes to food, there’s no denying our world is set on an interwoven web of convenience. From restaurant-to-home deliveries to fully stocked shelves at the grocery store, most people don’t think twice about the steps taken to certify safe, quality food. And agriculture is no exception. If it weren’t for farmers and the care taken to ensure food compliance and safety, we wouldn’t have the staple fruits and vegetables so regularly available.

For Gabriela Sandoval, these thoughts cross her mind daily. As the owner and consultant for AG Food Safety Solutions, Sandoval specializes in supporting farms and agricultural food producers to stay in compliance with agriculture regulations. Raised in a farming family, Gabriela understands the hard work behind the scenes to get food on the shelves and the challenges farmers face to grow quality food and, importantly, maintain its health and safety.

Roots in Farming
“It’s important for us to find something that we love to do and make a living out of it. Find what you are passionate about and your passion will be contagious,” Gabriela said, reflecting on her journey into the world of food safety. If you had asked her in her early years whether she would have pursued a career in ag safety, she wouldn’t have envisioned this path.

Growing up in the 1980s, Gabriela watched her farming parents, Salvador and Gloria Sandoval, farm land and contract labor throughout the Central Valley, and she was no stranger to helping out. She recalls her teenage years running the Caterpillar and driving tractors on their farms. Crops such as watermelon, cucumber, wheat, onions and tomatoes were common harvest. But like most bright-eyed-youth, she wanted to pursue other interests and after high school she would forge her own path.

After college and traveling around the world, Gabriela married, started a family and established a career in the real estate and lending world. But it wasn’t until 2003, after her divorce, that her path took her back to Manteca and close to family. Her brother, Jesse Sandoval, had carried on the family business after her father’s passing years before. Here, she discovered her untapped leadership skills as her brother leaned on her support to navigate new changes in farm regulation.

“It was asparagus season,” Gabriela recalled. “My mom and brother had picked up an asparagus account and found themselves in the middle of a safe quality food, or SQF, audit. In the early 2000s, audits were fairly new to the farming world and little direction was provided. Calibration of auditors was lacking and led to auditors interpreting criteria. This made it difficult to develop an effective program.” Through their own navigation, self-training and recordkeeping, her family successfully passed their audit and managed to introduce new methods into other fields of packing and safety.

After the audit, Gabriela thought that ordeal was behind her, but she hadn’t realized other growers were paying attention. Albert Dal Porto, another farmer and friend, suggested she could help other growers navigate the same process. “Someone needs help with a program, to figure out what we need,” Albert had told Sandoval. “If you figure it out, you’re going be good at it.”

Consulting and Trailblazing
In 2009, with his encouraging words, Gabriela began working for a consulting company that took her under their wings and taught her how to speak with growers about food safety and create a system of policies and procedures. She realized this was a new path that sparked a passion in her and connected to her family roots. “What I really enjoyed was talking to my growers and helping them solve their problems. They were really fulfilling something in me,” she recalled, thinking also of her father and his experience as a farmer and contractor. But it was clear she had a strong leadership ability and by 2015, she branched off on her own to create AG Food Safety Solutions.

Creating a Strong Team
Gabriela acknowledged farmers were already keeping records but hadn’t formalized any process. Connecting all the pieces, she began to create a written program, and this brought attention to gaps in the system she hadn’t realized. “This opened my eyes to what growers didn’t have before,” she admitted. As her clientele grew, maintaining consistency became her number one priority.
Taking on the responsibility of her own business, Gabriela wanted to be consistent with her operations. “I realized food safety would become a legal document.” Acknowledging that the legal aspect could be complex, she called on the help of her best friend and attorney, Kelly Lee Jones. In December 2015, Kelly read through some of her first manuals to articulate the language. It was here Gabriela saw Kelly could help with compliance. By 2016, Gabriela had convinced her to come on board and work for AG Food Safety Solutions as her technical compliance director.
During Gabriela’s career in agricultural food safety, her daughter, Mariana Aguiar, was also observing, watching her mother pioneer in this field. “She was paying attention when we were out talking to farmers,” said Gabriela, smiling with pride. In 2020, after receiving a business and marketing degree from San Francisco State University, Mariana came on board, bringing her experience and innovation.

Just like the generational farmers Gabriela encounters, she acknowledges the mother-daughter dynamic in her business is building that next era. “She’s working with the next generation of farmers. She’s establishing her networks. It’s been such a beautiful experience to see her grow into her style of consulting,” she affirmed proudly. Mariana now works as a food safety consultant next to her mother, consulting with growers and packing sheds throughout California. Mariana spearheaded the creation of the company’s web app, now in its final stages of development. The app will digitize logs required to keep farmers and packing sheds in compliance with their food safety programs.

Paving the Way
Now in its ninth year, AG Food Safety Solutions has grown to help more than 175 farms throughout the United States. In addition to consulting, Gabriela sits on a national technical working committee and she’s a member of multiple associations including the California Sweet Potato and National Onion associations. Through her association involvement, Sandoval can converse with individuals responsible for writing audit questions and is able to provide a farm-level perspective. As part of the Food Safety Subcommittee of the National Onion Association, Kelly Lee Jones joined other association members in Washington, D.C., in February to advocate for legislation and regulations benefiting the commodity.

Looking back, Gabriela thinks about her journey with her family, her experience with consulting and her new-found love. AG Food Safety Solutions has become a trailblazer for other companies and strong support to growers all over the country. Whether it’s a two-acre grower or a 5,000-acre grower, she acknowledges farmers are the backbone of America, and she plans to continue to support and guide them to compliance.

“It just really comes down to understanding their plight, their frustration, and it’s very much about building that bridge of how to continue to survive and stay compliant.” Sandoval is comforted by growers who praise her efforts and say they sleep better at night knowing she’s in charge of their food safety program.