August 20, 2012
In an age of genetically modified foods, spiraling obesity rates and food prices, communities are responding by converting empty plots of land into thriving and sustainable urban farms, producing healthy organic fruits, vegetables and herbs.
Such is the case in the neighborhoods of Ashland and Cherryland, unincorporated areas of Alameda County under jurisdiction of the City of San Leandro – where few grocery markets serve a community of 37,000 residents.
Cherryland native Tammy Wakerling remembers a time when Cherryland residents enjoyed a community center and public swimming pool. She is the operational manager of Dig Deep Farms and Produce, a program founded by the Alameda County Deputy Sheriffs’ Activities League and funded in part by Kaiser Permanente.
Dig Deep seeks to prevent crime through job creation, to revitalize the community and promote healthy eating. It’s a non-profit social enterprise that provides fresh and affordable, locally grown produce for East Bay homes and restaurants from urban farms in Ashland, Cherryland, San Leandro and Castro Valley. The organization also buys produce from Veritable Vegetable, a San Francisco-based distributor of organic and sustainable produce.
Founded in 2010, Dig Deep provides employment opportunities for local workers, offers healthier lifestyle choices and works toward deterring youth crime.
Ashland, Cherryland and San Lorenzo have some of the highest rates of nutrition-related morbidity in Alameda County, according to a 2010 Health of Alameda County Cities and Places Report.
Many in the community believe a lack of grocery markets and other outlets for sustainable and nutritious food is contributing to high obesity rates and other health problems.
According to the report, the region’s obesity rates are 30 percent above the county average.
Dig Deep seeks to reverse this trend by providing communities with healthier food options. It’s partnered with People’s Grocery, a West Oakland non-profit, to run a community-supported agriculture project called “Grub Box” that produces organic and locally grown produce, made available to communities that otherwise might not be able to afford it.
Commonly known as a CSA (community supported agriculture), individuals commit to buying at least one box each week containing a selection of fresh produce. The content of each box varies by season and can cost between $10 and $25 depending on the size of the bag.
During this summer’s season, the boxes contain lettuce, yellow onions, red mustard greens, tangerines and carrots.
Dig Deep Communications Director Tommie Wheeler, one of the original 10 employees to work on the program’s first urban farming site, said she had no previous farming experience but learned how to plant, tend and harvest on the job.
In addition to paid employees, volunteers help care for the program’s three urban farms. Some of the volunteers are youths from the non-profit community-service organization Soulciety, as well as crime abatement and prevention programs run through the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office. In addition to these programs, many of Dig Deep’s volunteers are community members. The volunteers are provided internships that can lead to employment.
“The goal of Dig Deep Farms & Produce is to ensure that the people in our community have access to fresh, healthy, affordable food,” said Dig Deep general manager, Hank Herrera. “We also want to ensure that the people in our community produce distribute and sell this healthy food so that the community receives both the nutritional benefit of healthy food and the economic benefit of growing and selling it.”
“We see many additional community benefits from this whole system of the production, distribution and exchange of healthy food, but that is a longer story,” Herrera added.