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Group Hopes To Change Fresno's Food Economy

Feb 16, 2016

Hundreds of different food crops are raised in and around Fresno County. But many of those who live and work nearby have little access to the fruits of their own landscape. In fact, more people go hungry here in the Fresno metropolitan area than almost anywhere else in the entire nation. It’s this not-so-modest problem that Food Commons Fresno wants to solve — starting with their Community Supported Agriculture (or CSA) brand, OOOOBY.

"OOOOBY! Get used to saying it. OOOOBY, Out Of Our Own Backyards…."

That’s Fresno mayor Ashley Swearengin speaking last year on opening day of the group’s "food hub," a distribution center for locally grown organic produce. Their vision is to support smaller farmers, and get more fresh produce into the area’s food deserts. And nine months in, they’re making some progress. But their goals are ambitious. And the basic cost of food for those who need it most, may still be too high.

Credit Ali Budner

Jovita Hernandez has a problem. She’s a 36-year-old mother of three from Guerrero, Mexico, who makes ten dollars an hour working in the farm fields of Fresno County. But she says finding fresh food to bring home is often a battle. The closest grocery store is 3 miles from her home here in Kerman, her car is often broken, and then when she gets to the store she doesn’t find the quality of fruits and vegetables she’d like to purchase for her family.

Hernandez: “Tienen frutas. Pero igual organica? Pues, no. Pienso que les hechan muchos quimicos. // They have fruits. But organic like here? No. I think they put a lot of chemicals on them.”

"It would be good to see them open a store because we'd have a place to go buy vegetables, fruits and everything. That's good for our health." - Jovita Hernandez

Right now, she’s filling a large metal bowl with oranges, apples, lettuce, and a yam the size of a football. You see, today Hernandez has gotten lucky.  She was passing through the center of town, when she came upon what looked liked a one-stall farmers market on an otherwise empty street corner. Behind it was a giant banner reading "Food Commons Fresno." All she had to do, she was told, was answer some survey questions about her food shopping and eating habits, and she’d get to take home 10 dollars worth of produce.

She says she’d actually shop at a store like this if it existed nearby.

Hernandez: “Si van a abrir una tienda esta bien porque así ya tenemos donde  ir a comprar las verduras y las frutas y todo. Eso es bueno para la salud. // It would be good to see them open a store because we’d have a place to go buy vegetables, fruits and everything. That’s good for our health.”

And that’s valuable information for Kiel Schmidt. Business Development Manager for Food Commons Fresno, a fledgling business designed to keep more of the Central Valley’s food accessible to people living here.

"Schmidt: We have navel oranges from Tower Urban Family Farm. We’ve got mandarins from KMK. We’ve got some lemons here from Homegrown Organics."

"We've got this situation in Fresno where the county is one of the top ag producers in the world, however we have 12 food deserts within Fresno County, which by definition is a lack of access to fresh produce." - Kiel Schmidt

Schmidt and his team are out here today to figure out where the need for more regular access to fresh food is the greatest. Stories like Hernandez’s will help them decide where to set up more permanent markets, stores, and drop sites for their weekly produce box delivery service, OOOOBY, which stands for Out of Our Own Backyards.

Schmidt: "We’ve got this situation in Fresno where the county is one of the top ag producers in the world, however we have 12 food deserts within Fresno County, which by definition is a lack of access to fresh produce."

They see themselves as an alternative to the current way food from the Valley gets distributed.

Schmidt: "What currently happens in Fresno is that a farmer sells to a wholesaler and a lot of that food ends up in a terminal market like Long Beach or San Francisco where it can be shipped around the globe. What we’re trying to do is make local food economically viable.

Credit Ali Budner

Food Commons Fresno is essentially operating as a small-scale local produce broker. They’re buying from several dozen nearby farmers, selling wholesale to Fresno restaurants and retail stores, and to about 700 OOOOBY subscribers. All of this, they run out of their distribution hub, a converted old Mexican restaurant on Belmont Avenue.

Since opening last May, Schmidt has hired 10 local employees to do the sorting, packing, and outreach. With funding from some generous grants, they’re setting up 8 one-day produce markets in food desert neighborhoods, like the one here in Kerman today.

But this isn’t a bunch of do-gooders coming in to help the less fortunate. Schmidt, a Fresno native himself, remembers growing up in a food desert. And most of his employees know firsthand what it’s like to live without much money for food and without easy access to grocery stores.

"I travel about 5 miles just to go to a supermarket... There's no little markets or meat markets. If there is it's really expensive or the produce is not fresh. It's already old." - Itavili Lopez

Itavili Lopez, who’s with Schmidt in Kerman today, is a 25-year-old mother of two, who spent years working on farms herself. When she first started working for Food Commons last year she was getting food stamps but didn’t have a working car, so she’d have to walk or take a bus to get to the store.

Lopez: "I travel about 5 miles just to go to a supermarket. …There’s no little markets or meat markets. If there is it’s really expensive or the produce is not fresh. It’s already old."

Lopez gets an OOOOBY box now at a sizable discount because she’s an employee. She says, since bringing home this kind of food, her kids have already started eating healthier.

Lopez: "They like to open the box and be like "ooh what’s this and can we try it?!"  Or like they make a funny face cause they don’t know what it is."

Even so, Food Commons Fresno is still struggling to be consistently accessible to the people they are most trying to reach. Their vision is big and they’ve expanded fast.

Schmidt: "We have a very ambitious goal to kind of do everything! And that can be good and bad, you know."

Part of that tension is trying to balance what they pay their farmers and their staff with what they charge their customers.

This comes up back on the street corner in Kerman. Chad Sarkisian, a 31-year old father and Fresno County employee, is looking at some sample OOOOBY boxes. When Lopez tells him the price, he appears a little shocked.

Sarkisian: "You know I think 16 dollars that’s a little steep. If I kind of knew what that is or you know (Lopez: what?) or how to cook (Lopez: that one?) this… Lopez: That’s choi."

  You can fry it, she says. Sarkisian still looks unsure. He has bills and kids at home and he says he can’t afford to experiment. But Schmidt says they do accept food stamp credit for the OOOOBY program and customers who want to can donate money to buy boxes for families in need.

Schmidt and his team are also still working on a bigger vision for community financing to help them open these stores they’re talking about and maybe even eventually acquire farmland. In the next few months they’ll be rolling out the option for Fresnans to buy stock in the business. So that, as Schmidt says...

Schmidt: "Somebody living in the neighborhood can own a piece of the local food system."

If they can strike the right balance between their goals, their finances, and meeting people where they’re at, Food Commons Fresno might just be the change they want to see.