By Camille Russell
Beets from Belgium. Strawberries from Chile. Apples from New Zealand. Crazy! Madness! We live in the richest, most productive agricultural region in the world. Yet, many of the fruits and vegetables in area grocery stores and restaurants come from hundreds, often thousands, of miles away. At the same time, food insecurity (hunger) in this region is among the highest in the nation. This is a symptom of an economic system that doesn’t value nature or human needs. It not only affects consumers and growers in our San Joaquin Valley communities but has serious consequences for people living in other countries and for the earth.
Our agricultural system needs an overhaul! What to do?
Food Commons Fresno (www.fresnofoodcommons.org) an organization with both for-profit and non-profit divisions is working to answer that question. It was inspired by national and international efforts to create a system dedicated to an environmentally sustainable, affordable source of healthy local food which ensures respect and fair pay for farmers and those who bring the food to market. Jenny Saklar, Operations Manager of the organization says, “Our goal is to loop local agriculture back into local food streams. That’s not easy! Today’s agriculture industry is built to export all over the world. We believe that changing the way we produce and distribute food is fundamental to solving the world’s most pressing social and ecological problems.” Saklar works with a small, committed group in Fresno that has a new vision for a local food system and is putting it into action.
Food Commons Fresno put together a leadership team with experience and business savvy. In May 2015 the organization launched Ooooby Fresno (www.ooooby.org/fresno), a produce distribution company. The name stands for Out of Our Own Backyards. Ooooby buys fresh, organic, locally grown fruits and vegetables from farms, repackages them into boxes of varying sizes, and delivers them to pick-up locations for people who subscribe to the service. Dozens of specialty items from local suppliers are available in addition to the produce boxes, such as eggs, bread, coffee, olive oils, dried fruits, and nuts. Hundreds of subscribers get weekly or every-other-week boxes at 22 distribution points in Fresno, Reedley, Yosemite Lakes Park, Clovis, Coarsegold, Oakhurst, Madera, and Merced.
If you are familiar with the T&D Willey Farms CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) boxes delivered throughout the area for over a decade, this sounds familiar. When Willey Farms decided to exit the CSA business, they sold their entire customer base to Ooooby. As a heartfelt gift to Food Commons Fresno for its vision and mission, Tom and denesse Willey half donated and half sold their CSA to the nonprofit arm of Food Commons Fresno. Initially, Willey Farms served as the main supplier of the produce in the weekly Ooooby boxes. Now a sizable and growing list of local farms supplying Ooooby can be seen on the website.
Advantages to the consumer of this farm-direct service are freshness, 100% organic produce, delivery convenience, and knowing that the purchase supports local farms. Most of the food is grown within a 100-mile radius of Ooooby’s warehouse. Challenges to eating locally include limited flexibility and seasonal choices.
Advantages to the farmer are a dependable consumer base willing to pay a price that fairly compensates for labor and overhead – rather than a price controlled by middlemen and market variables. Few farmers are prepared to coordinate a box subscription program in addition to running the farm so Ooooby makes the farm-direct venture possible and more lucrative. Fifty cents of every retail dollar received for produce goes directly to the grower. This is several times higher than the more typical 10 to 30 cents per retail dollar earned by farmers in the conventional food chain.
Ooooby has tweaked the Willey Farms distribution model by expanding choices for consumers who wish to use the “Sneak Peek” feature to preview the box contents and make produce substitutions for a given week.
On May 20, 2016, 150 supporters, board members, farmers, employees, vendors, musicians, and friends joined Fresno Food Commons/Ooooby as it celebrated its first anniversary. The party was held at the organization’s original location, or hub, at 504 East Belmont Ave. There was much to celebrate.
In April, Ooooby began accepting Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) payments so that low-income people who receive government benefits can use EBT to buy local produce more easily. Additionally, donations from individuals and organizations to an initiative called Everyone Eats! have allowed Ooooby to offer EBT discounts. Increasing the affordability of healthy food is a big part of the Food Commons mission as well as improving food access. Saklar proudly said, “In partnership with the Fresno County Health Department, Ooooby located new distribution points at three schools in neighborhoods categorized as ‘food deserts.’ The Food Commons Fresno team also ran Mobile Markets in 8 of the 12 county food desert neighborhoods.”
Another major success for the organization is the development is a wholesale business division which markets produce from trusted farms to numerous restaurants, food trucks, caterers, and institutions. This produce is about 75% organic.
In August of this year, Food Commons Fresno expanded from its original, small, converted restaurant site at 504 East Belmont to a much larger, facility at 202 Van Ness Ave. This space is designed to serve the organization’s growing needs and includes offices, a training room, a more spacious Ooooby packing line, and triple the original cold storage space. The Belmont location will become a production kitchen and food truck commissary.
In upcoming years Food Commons Fresno plans to launch its first retail market, pursue farming operations and farmland acquisition and expand hub activities to include a commercial kitchen and light processing. Saklar explained there is a non-profit trust component and a for-profit social benefit corporation within the Food Commons structure. They will always retain a 51% ownership to ensure that local food production assets and operations cannot be controlled or bought out by narrow interests. Both the hub and trust are governed by boards that include representation from the agricultural, environmental, and health communities. The organizational model will evolve to incorporate community and employee ownership of the local food system.
The websites and Facebook pages of Food Commons Fresno and Ooooby Fresno have a wealth of information about this innovative approach to developing a more sustainable, equitable, and rewarding system of growing, distributing, and consuming food. Information about becoming an Ooooby subscriber and making donations to Everyone Eats! is also available on the websites. For more information, contact Food Commons Fresno at 559-ORGANIC.
Camille Russell is a peace and social justice activist serving on the boards of Peace Fresno and the Community Alliance. She is a retired teacher who grew up in Fresno and graduated from Fresno State. firstname.lastname@example.org