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New program helps people eat local produce while supporting Fresno farmers. Here's how
The Fresno Bee - 11/25/2021
Nov. 25—This story is part of the Central Valley News Collaborative — a bilingual, community journalism project funded by the Central Valley Community Foundation and with technology and training support from Microsoft Corp. The collaboration includes The Fresno Bee, Valley Public Radio, Vida en el Valle, Radio Bilingüe and the Institute for Media & Public Trust at Fresno State.
The pandemic has had disruptive effects on the Central Valley's food system, exacerbating challenges for farmers struggling to grow and sell their crops. At the same time, the pandemic increased food insecurity and many of the region's residents continue to face barriers to accessing healthy food.
In an effort to address these crises, a coalition of local nonprofits and community organizations launched an initiative last week aimed at providing thousands of under-resourced Fresno County residents with fresh, seasonal produce grown by the region's Southeast Asian, Black, Laotian, Punjabi and Latino farmers.
The initiative is funded by Growing the Table, a statewide philanthropic organization that helps farmers achieve economic security and sustainability while increasing access to fresh produce for food-insecure residents. The organization's mission is to support local community-based organizations in leading the food distribution drives.
The initiative aims to chip away at an entrenched paradox: While the Central Valley is one of the world's agricultural centers, many Fresno families do not have sufficient access to the fresh food grown in their communities. Despite the Central Valley containing more than 1.4 million acres of productive pasture and farmland, hunger levels were 25% higher in Fresno in 2021 than in 2019, according to the Central California Food Bank in Fresno.
Ashley Rojas, who is executive director of the local nonprofit Fresno Barrios Unidos, an organization that helps advocate for communities hard-hit by gang violence, said the partnership is one way to fix resolve the country's "broken food system." She said the program will also help Fresno County residents living in food deserts, which are areas where residents have difficulty accessing affordable or high-quality fresh food.
She said the initiative could serve as a model for how to build a food system that serves all residents, including the farmworkers who grow and cultivate the nation's produce.
"We know our food system is the most productive food system in the world, but we also know that our region is one of the hungriest in the world," she said. "So this pilot project really is an experiment of what it would look like to create hyper-local systems where the folks growing the food have access to be paid well and to feed folks who need that food."
Here's how it works: Growing the Table purchases produce from small-scale Black, Indigenous, brown or women-owned farmers or regenerative farming practitioners. The organization has paid some small farmers more than $200,000 for their produce. The organization then distributes these products to local community-based organizations, food banks, school districts or other trusted partners that serve disadvantaged communities.
For the next four weeks until Dec. 15, low-income and high-need families who have struggled to access affordable, healthy food will get the opportunity to pick up a 12- to 15-pound box of produce once a week at several locations across Fresno.
The coalition hopes to distribute at least 35,400 pounds of specialty produce. Fresno County residents can expect to see products like jicama, Hmong onions, persimmons, cilantro, spaghetti squash and bok choy in their boxes.
The produce boxes are free and accessible to the public. They are available for pickup every Wednesday at 1 p.m. at:
La Luna Bakery located at 2421 E. Clinton Ave.
King Kulture Clothing located at 4345 E. Tulare Ave.
The Fresno American Indian Health Project located at 1551 E. Shaw Ave. No. 139
Fresno agriculture could help curb food insecurity
Growing the Table was first launched in September to address growing disparities in access to food, housing and health care, among other vital resources within under-resourced communities, said founder Kat Taylor, who launched the philanthropic organization with her husband, billionaire and former presidential candidate Tom Steyer.
The initiative's goal is to reconnect small, diverse growers to the local community through a "restorative" and "holistic" approach, she said.
She said creating more equitable and resilient food systems for both Fresno's farmers and under-resourced communities "must be at the center of building back from the pandemic." She said a more sustainable form of farming known as regenerative agriculture could be the correct approach to rehabilitate the environment and address climate change, among other long-standing issues.
"If you think about the four crises that we're in the midst of — the pandemic, economic shutdown, another racial reckoning moment and severe climate change — those are all interconnected," said Taylor. "If we address the biggest view of our problem, we get a bigger solution and one giant solution is regenerative agriculture because it addresses so many of those issues."
So far, the philanthropic organization has donated about $2 million in funding to launch the program, she said, while a total of 350 small farmers from across the state have been beneficiaries. The organization has allocated $1.6 million in payments to small farmers and farm aggregators for produce statewide.
Several local organizations have been involved in the effort including the Asian Business Institute and Resource Center (ABIRC), Fresno Barrios Unidos, UFW Foundation, Cesar Chavez Foundation, Fresno State SERVE, Big Sandy Rancheria and Northfork Rancheria, and the Allensworth Progressive Association.
The food distribution pilot program is part of a wider effort to address food insecurity and help support socioeconomically disadvantaged farmers across the state. The organization operates a total of 18 regional programs, including in San Mateo County, Oakland and Sacramento.
Central Valley farmer paid to feed local communities
The program has had an immediate impact on some small farmers who have suffered amid the drought and are now experiencing supply chain disruptions and inflation, which have hampered their attempts to recover from the pandemic.
Long Her is a Hmong farmer who operates a small, 15-acre farm near Sanger with his wife, Charusan. Before the 42-year-old farmer was involved with the coalition's effort, he said he nearly gave up farming last year as many of the outlets, markets and stores he relied on to sell at or buy his produce scaled back or shut down their operations due to the pandemic.
"The pandemic hit and I could not get rid of anything — just trying to get anyone to buy from me was hard," he said. "I struggled for about two months trying to figure out what I was gonna do. I was to the point where I was about to quit."
Her comes from a long line of farmers and enjoys growing a wide array of crops that reflect his cultural upbringing and culinary traditions, he said. His farm is filled with produce like sugar snap peas, mustard greens, baby bok choy and peanuts that are frequently used in Hmong cooking. But the drought also made it difficult to keep farming, he said. He had to let nearly half of his farmland go fallow due to the lack of available water.
"It was really a struggle to keep everything watered because there was just nothing there," he said. "Some days my well actually went dry and I had to let it sit and hopefully it came up with some water. But the drought was really bad."
Her is one of several farmers in Fresno who have received a total of about $218,000 for their produce, which has helped him stay in business as he continues to navigate hardships caused by the pandemic. Though he's experienced many challenges this year, he said he's grateful to Growing the Table and other grassroots organizations that have helped sustain his farm.
He's hopeful that he'll be able to continue farming and eventually grow his business, he said.
"It's really helped us quite a bit," Her said. "I'm feeling more hopeful, it's getting a little better every day. Some days are good, some days are bad, but I'm more proud of what I've done at the end of the year than what I did day by day."
This story was originally published November 25, 20215:00 AM.
CORRECTION: The story has been updated to note that several farmers in Fresno have received a total of about $218,000.
Corrected Nov 25, 2021
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