Eat your vegetables

Buying local produce is good for the community and your health

Soil Born Farms’ Shawn Harrison says Sacramento’s fertile farmland is one of our greatest resources.

Soil Born Farms’ Shawn Harrison says Sacramento’s fertile farmland is one of our greatest resources.

Photo courtesy of SOIL BORN FARMS

Sacramento possesses a unique asset, according to Shawn Harrison, the man behind Soil Born Farms, an urban-agriculture project located in Rancho Cordova. The region’s fertile soil and climate combine to produce high-quality food year-round.

“It’s simply a rare resource,” Harrison said.

But there’s a disconnect: Our region may produce 3 million tons of food a year—enough to cover the 2.2 million tons we annually consume—but 98 percent of our crops leave the area.

“The [food] system is broken right now in our region,” Harrison said.

A group of local-food advocates, including the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services, Valley Vision, Soil Born Farms and other nonprofit organizations, aim to fix that.

Food grown here should feed ourselves, the thinking goes, with a focus on alleviating food insecurity in low-income communities, creating new markets for family farmers and keeping agriculture-related jobs and money in the region.

“The optimist sees huge potential for locally grown food in our marketplace,” said David Shabazian, a senior planner with SACOG.

Shabazian serves as project manager of the Rural-Urban Connections Strategy, which analyzes economic growth and sustainability from a rural perspective. RUCS sprang from SACOG’s Blueprint project, which gained national attention for its visionary take on transportation, land-use and air-quality issues in stimulating economic development.

Among RUCS’ ideas: Remove barriers to local food, increase fresh produce in schools, increase the number of farmers’ markets and support the preservation of agricultural land, which already comprises the primary land use in our region.

For its part, Soil Born Farms recently received two grants, one of which will help support a growers collaborative and improve access to locally grown food for stressed neighborhoods in south and north Sacramento, Arden, Rancho Cordova and downtown.

The second grant, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will fund the development of what Harrison calls a “food-aggregator hub.” Currently, no local infrastructure exists that caters to small- and mid-scale farmers. With this system, family farmers who don’t have the ability to fill bulk orders placed by hospitals, school districts, restaurants and corporate cafeterias could drop off 10 boxes of lettuce at a central facility, and another farmer could drop off three cases and so on, until it adds up together to fill large orders.

“It’s a type of wholesalers farmers’ market,” said Bob Corshen, director of local food systems for the Davis-based Community Alliance with Family Farmers.

CAFF coined the logo, “Buy fresh, buy local,” recognizing the societal importance of our food choices. You need to eat three meals a day,” Corshen said. “You might as well make them healthy meals, environmentally friendly and connected to the community.”

The food-aggregator hub would act as a place to distribute and cool produce where wholesalers go to pick up cases. Fruits and vegetables could be graded, washed, cleaned, sliced and diced and packed at the facility.

“All the sudden it opens up new markets for folks,” Harrison said.

To build the infrastructure that bridges production with consumption, RUCS is focusing on connecting farmers with available land suited for food production and training growers how to best use the land. The consumption component prioritizes education, marketing and developing new outlets for local food, such as permanent farmers’ markets and farm stands in urban settings, churches and office buildings.

Harrison said the time has never been better for improving our local-food system.

“We’re having this huge debate about what our health-care system should look like,” Harrison said. “But we’re paying little attention to contributors to our health, and that is how we feed ourselves.