By Mark Winne on behalf of the Center for a Livable Future
Even though it’s past 4 o’clock on this mid-July day, the temperature is still over 100. I’m standing in an orange grove owned by Bob Knight, fourth generation orchard man, general manager of Old Grove Orange, Inc. and founder of the non-profit Inland Orange Conservancy (IOC). With us are Rebecca Hoggarth, a staff member of San Bernardino’s Community Action Partners, and Loma Linda University public health professor, Eddy Jara, both leaders of the new San Bernardino Food Policy Council. Together, this threesome are working to protect these groves from development while also promoting healthy eating and food security across the county. And Old Grove Orange and farm to school are at the heart of that effort.
Knight returned to the family farm after a long stint with a major telecomm corporation. Through IOC, he operates a 1,200 member community supported agriculture project; runs a “mini-farmers’ market” program to bring fresh, local food and food knowledge to the area’s public schools; and donates, through a food hub of 28 area growers, 168 tons of surplus produce to Helping Hands, an area food bank.
For most people, running a farm and supervising the operation of a non-profit would be enough, but it wasn’t enough to keep the bulldozers from neighboring groves. Through the food hub, Knight and his fellow farmers took the emerging farm to school movement to new heights while adding considerably to the viability of their farms. By aggregating their produce, the food hub’s growers are now selling up to 5,000 boxes a week of produce to 24 school districts whose combined student population is 1.5 million. As Knight put it, farm to school “was both a lifesaver and a farm saver.”
A number of factors make the hub a competitive vendor for schools. First, there’s a five-fold markup from grower to schools when buyers go through the conventional citrus distribution chain (“Oranges,” said Knight, “are an egregious example of the commodification of agriculture.”). By “going direct,” the hub eliminates much of that markup. Second, by aggregating school orders, each farmer’s transaction costs drop significantly. Third, since they are not in the global market, they don’t need expensive waxing equipment and post-harvest chemicals. “You just pick ‘em and pack ‘em,” said Knight.
As much as farm to school is breathing new life into the area’s agriculture, the threat remains high. Developers are bidding up land in this region to $100,000 per acre. This is where the San Bernardino Food Policy Council come in. As Hoggarth says, “The food hub has oranges that taste like oranges, and the food policy council wants to do everything it can to help farmers.” By bringing together both public and private sectors – health and planning agencies, food banks, farmers, educators – a food policy council focuses the attention of a community’s food system stakeholders on important food issues, such as the loss of farmland or the challenges of bringing healthy food to schools. They have two primary purposes: influence city, county, or state governments, and secondly, coordinate the efforts and common interests of an area’s food system stakeholders.
For example, the Old Grove Orange food hub’s list of participating school districts, ironically, does not include their home base of San Bernardino. For reasons that appear both personal and historical, it has been unable to sell to the district which has 50,000 students. “I think the food policy council can help with that,” said Hoggarth.
At a recent food policy council meeting held at Loma Linda University, it became obvious how the future of the county’s food system was viewed as a community responsibility. Not only was Bob Knight among the 40 people in attendance, there was strong participation from other stakeholders including the Latino Health Collaborative, community garden organizations, emergency food providers, Slow Food and public agencies. Farmland preservation, obesity reduction and farm to school were all part of the council’s discussion, which echoed something Knight had said earlier: “Food is a community creator. Whereas the global food system cuts people out, the local food system keeps people in.”
Mark Winne is an independent food system and policy consultant who writes, speaks, and trains on a number of food topics. He is the author of “Closing the Food Gap” and “Food Rebels, Guerrilla Gardeners, and Smart-Cookin’ Mamas,” and currently serves as a Senior Advisor to Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.
Today’s theme partner is the Center for a Livable Future.
Here are some social media posts you can use to spread the word about today’s theme and Farm to School Month:
Learn how a food policy council in CA helped an orange farmer find a new market: Local schools. http://ow.ly/p0f5n #F2sMonth
Learn how a food policy council in California helped an orange farmer find a new market: Local schools.