Grow, buy, eat local
New coalition lands half-million-dollar grant to promote local food
When six people gathered for a long meeting in December, no one brought doughnuts, cookies or potato chips to share. Instead, the center of the long table around which they were seated was dotted with about a dozen bright-orange mandarins from Tri-L Mandarin Ranch, a family farm in Oroville.
That was appropriate, because if these folks have their way, access to nutrient-rich, locally grown vegetables, fruits and nuts, like those mandarins, will grow in substantial measure for all members of the Chico community.
The meeting was held at OPT for Healthy Living, the local center on Mangrove Avenue promoting nutrition and a healthful lifestyle. Each person in attendance—including OPT’s Karen Goodwin and Stephanie Elliott of the GRUB Cooperative—came from a different Chico-based organization focused on nutrition, organic gardening and farming, small farmers’ markets, or low-income access to nutritious food.
They comprise the nucleus of a new coalition—called Cultivating Healthy Communities (CHC)—that recently was awarded a $500,000 grant from the California Department of Food and Agriculture to increase “food security” (reliable access to food), improve health, and increase economic self-sufficiency here in Chico.
“This is a very comprehensive grant. It supports the farmers’ markets, it supports workshops in lower-income communities, and it supports the creation of community gardens” in Chico and throughout Butte County, explained project manager and grant-writer Julie Estep of Adept Professional & Training Services.
In order to maximize community buy-in and make the project sustainable in the long term, said Estep, “we’re trying to work with existing community structures, organizations—people who are already involved.”
Each of the six target outcomes in the wide-ranging grant has a community organization backing it up. The local GRUB Cooperative’s community-gardens program (part of the GRUB Education Program) is overseeing the creation of 15 new community gardens, some of which will serve as venues for gardening workshops, free for low-income participants over the course of the 2.75-year grant.
Potential garden sites will be evaluated by “accessibility to lower-income neighborhoods, proximity to other community gardens, hours of operation, and things like that,” said Elliott, executive director of GRUB’s Education Program. Extra produce that community gardeners don’t use will go to local nonprofits like the Jesus Center and the Torres Community Shelter.
Regarding the possible uses of the grant, the coalition is hopeful that community members will bring proposals to the coalition. “Our role is to support them in figuring out what’s going to work best for their community,” said Elliott.
Similarly, if a handful of small farmers or a group of gardeners wants a workshop on a particular topic, the coalition is flexible in providing that. “My goal is to have a ‘menu’ of workshops that cover all the basic skills that you need to be growing at a really small scale, organically. … But the goal is to offer those on demand,” said Monica Bell, urban-farming workshop trainer for CHC.
The grant also extends to smaller farmers’ markets.
“I struggle along with one, or if I’m lucky, two farmers,” said Richard Roth of cChaos (Collaboratively Creating Health Access, Opportunities and Services), who runs the Friday-afternoon Chapmantown farmers’ market and the Thursday Oroville Fire House market. The demand is high for smaller, neighborhood markets, but the supply of local farmers “just isn’t there,” said Roth.
To fix the supply issue, CHC will provide funding to help reduce financial obstacles to entering new markets, and will also provide marketing workshops for new farmers, which, Roth hopes, will bring new farmers into the smaller markets. Chico State’s Organic Vegetable Project (OVP), directed by agriculture professor Lee Altier, may serve as a venue for such workshops, as well as the location for training in long-row organic-vegetable production and “variety trials”—testing the marketability of various vegetable varieties in terms of ease of growth and popularity—to be performed by Chico State students under the grant.
“No one wants to see Chico become another Southern California,” with no remaining agricultural heart and a lack of connection to its food, said Altier, who is acting as the principal investigator for the grant and will be overseeing its budget. He is the point person for the grant’s fiscal sponsor, the University Research Foundation.
Yet another goal of the grant is to get “healthy food to people who have access difficulties,” particularly lower-income people, said Estep. Money has been set aside to get smaller markets “EBT-enabled,” meaning even the smallest markets will accept EBT, more widely known as food stamps. The the two cChaos-run markets already accept EBT, as do Chico’s popular Wednesday and Saturday Certified Farmers Markets. Three times a year, the project will fund EBT-promotion events that give EBT users extra EBT credit for buying at the markets.
Once those underserved populations have access to fresh food, via newly strengthened farmers’ markets and local community gardens, CHC will connect the dots with a bike-powered kitchen cart, where OPT’s Goodwin and others will demonstrate how to cook with fresh veggies at CHC events.
Jesus Center Community Garden gardener Jason Winton is thrilled. “We need a little bit of money to get us planting on time,” said Winton, standing near raised garden beds planted with lettuce, onions and garlic. “We’ve just been using [plant] donations here and there,” he said. If the donations don’t come at the right time, “we end up planting too late and getting no harvest, or a very small one.” Grant money, a volunteer coordinator, and workshops to get new volunteers to join the effort will lessen the problem, said Winton.
Still lacking a website or a phone number, CHC members are scrambling to make themselves accessible to the community as they plan their launch. Currently, the best way to contact the group is through its Facebook page.
“We need the jobs, we have a long growing season, and we have good soil,” said Estep. “What we keep saying [is], every time you buy from a local grower, that money circulates back into the community and strengthens it. We’re just trying to bring it home and strengthen what we have.”