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EcoFarm: Reaching Food Deserts

Pature raised chickens roam the land at Live Earth Farm in Watsonville.


Even in this area we call the salad bowl of the world, there are food deserts -- areas where fresh produce isn’t easily accessible.  Now there’s a new effort underway to reach these food deserts.  It begins with farmers at the annual EcoFarm Confernce.  

When Thomas Broz and his wife Constance started Live Earth Farm seventeen years ago, they had just an acre-and-a-half of land, and a goal of connecting people with the source of their food.  They began by offering Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes at their son’s pre-school. “Sure enough we had about 15 families the first year that we grew vegetables for and joined a few farmers markets and that was kind of the start.  And today we have almost 900 members,” said Broz.  Now they have pasture raised chickens and grow a rotation of 50 different crops on 80 acres of land.  You can find their produce in area famer’s markets, restaurants and even a couple school cafeterias.  As their farm has grown, so has the organic food movement, which means there’s more competition.  “We used to have members waiting to get into our CSA, that’s not the case anymore,” said Broz.


In looking for new opportunities, Broz has his eye on food deserts.  These are low income areas where people don’t have easy access to fresh produce.  “So that’s why in Watsonville, even though the area is surrounded by prime farmland, because there are areas that are rather poor and there may not be a supermarket close by it can be identified as a food desert,” said Allie Quady with the Ecological Farming Association.  Locally the USDA has also identified food deserts around Marina and Santa Cruz.  EcoFarm recently received a grant from the USDA to help teach farmers like Broz how to tap into these markets.  Their efforts begin this week at the annual EcoFarm Conference in Pacific Grove.


“Look at this market as a winning situation,” that’s what Dina Izzo tells farmers looking to market in food deserts.  Izzo owns BluDog Organic Produce Services, a company that helps farmers develop crop plans and marketing strategies.   Izzo will present at EcoFarm.  “So the idea is to create a marketing strategy where the idea is feeding food deserts that will turn a profit for them,” said Izzo.   One of the first things farmers can do is sign up for the government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) so that their farm can accept food stamps.  “So folks who need help in accessing fresh food, can use their EBT card and farmers can use this program to actually create a new market where they’re actually getting market value for their food.  Now if the farmers choose to change whatever their pricing structure is to help accommodate lower income folks in these deserts, that’s up to them,” said Izzo.  EcoFarm’s Allie Quady says another idea they’ll be talking about is establishing CSA drop off points in the food deserts, and reconsidering the traditional CSA payment structure.  “So for example pay as you go.  You know most CSAs you pay up front because that works for the farmer, so how can you make it work for a farmer, but have a pay as you go model that works for someone who doesn’t have a chunk of cash to put down right at that moment,” said Quady.


They’re also connecting farmers with organizations already working in food deserts like the United Way which has identified corner stores that could sell fresh produce.  And the Second Harvest Food Bank which trucks food in to Watsonville’s food deserts.  “I think our approach is basically to compliment what is already happening,” said EcoFarm Executive Director Ken Dickerson.  “And in the case of the Second Harvest Food Bank there are limits to what they can effectively do in these communities.  They provide the food to these communities and do a wonderful job, but as they pointed out to us in some of the areas they are only able to deliver food once or twice a month.”


Live Earth Farm’s Thomas Broz says he feels well positioned to help fill that void. “I think originally organics was very much a fringe market, and there was a risk in kind of pursuing it.  And I think this is exactly another opportunity,” said Broz.  What comes next will be up to the farmers and the ideas they come up with at EcoFarm.  The Conference continues into the weekend.