Program Profiles: Local and Regional Food Systems

NorthEast Neighborhood Alliance, Rochester NY PlacerGROWN , Auburn CA Practical Farmers’ of Iowa, Boone IA Tohono O’odham Community Action, Sells AZ Woodbury County, IA   NorthEast Nei


NorthEast Neighborhood Alliance (NENA)
Market Gardens and Regional Farm Stand
1499-1501 Clifford Avenue
Rochester NY 14609
Phone: 716-342-3230

“Its great doing something good for the community. I get to meet lots of new people that feel like family now,” said Cortez Jones, age 15, a youth employee of the NorthEast Neighborhood Alliance (NENA) urban farm in Rochester, NY. “It’s a way to stay out of trouble but not have to stay at home and do nothing all day.” The youth who work with NENA say they like the leadership opportunities, the responsibility, the collaborative decision making skills, and the farming and marketing education they acquire.

Community building, job training and violence prevention are a few of the benefits that Community Food Projects like NENA’s market gardens provide. NENA’s three-year CFP grant for $140,000 is intended primarily to strengthen its efforts to build food self-reliance and wealth for the low-income residents of three neighborhoods in Rochester. Additionally, the City of Rochester provides $49,500 each year for the Summer on the City Farm Youth Entrepreneurship Program.

These efforts emerged from a six-year campaign to gain a new supermarket for the community after the last one burned down in 1992. Despite their eventual success in convincing the Tops Supermarket chain to locate there, community activists, such as NENA Planner Hank Herrera, realized that while the supermarket brought jobs and easy food access, Tops took its profits out of the community. NENA wanted to help residents to regain power through ownership of their community’s food production and distribution resources. In accordance with this model of community ownership, NENA has formed a land trust and now owns a three-acre farm site, a warehouse and a restaurant – all in the neighborhood.

NENA works in three northeast Rochester neighborhoods with a total population of 17,143. Fifty-eight percent are African American, 35% Hispanic and 7% white or other. The median household income is below the poverty threshold for a family of five ($16,500) and the communities receive more than $20 million annually in SNAP benefits (formerly called food stamps).

Working with local residents to grow and sell produce is a key strategy for NENA’s vision of recapturing their share of the community’s food dollar. NENA established two community gardens in 1999: First Street and Clifford- Joseph. In 2000, they bought a three-acre site that had historically been a farm. The gardens produce organically grown vegetables and fruits, including tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, summer squash, okra, collard greens, cabbage, garlic, onions, grapes, pears, peaches, and apples. The nonprofit group Politics of Food provides technical assistance, and nearly 200 people have volunteered in the gardens.

NENA employs a farm stand manager, a garden manager and 12 neighborhood youths (such as Cortez) who work eight hours per week after school and 30 hours per week during the summer. The teens are involved with all phases of production, including tilling, planting, weeding, operating the watering system and harvesting.

The farm and garden produce is sold at the Regional Food Stand in the Rochester Public Market, where NENA owns a 9,000 square foot warehouse and office building, with a large commercial cooler for fruits and vegetables. The Regional Farm Stand has evolved into a produce and food distribution business called GRUB for Greater Rochester Urban Bounty. GRUB sells products made by small-scale food processors in the 15-county Genesee/Finger Lakes region and markets to some of Rochester’s finest restaurants. Cornell Cooperative Extension conducts nutrition education and cooking demonstrations next to the farm stand to help promote sales.

The vision of NENA’s leadership extends beyond the boundaries of the community. They focus on regional economic development, supporting local family farmers who can provide the city with affordable and reliable supplies of many food products. They recognize the importance of value-added products, and the need to create micro-enterprises to help process, store, transport and retail farm fresh produce.

NENA seeks to expand its production and sales substantially in the future. Core elements of their strategy include creating a community supported agriculture (CSA) program and developing specialty markets, such as ethnic food processors and restaurants for products such as their habañero peppers, herbs and flowers. They would like to assist mom and pop corner stores to get refrigeration equipment so they can once again carry fruits and vegetables in addition to the expensive processed foods, they now offer. NENA also sees the potential to gain a share of the food purchases for institutional markets, such as schools, where local children could also benefit from healthier meals. NENA’s comprehensive market-based strategy is ambitious and unique, and many eyes will be on it as it seeks to scale up its production and distribution resources.

[Source: A Guide to Community Food Projects, Maya Tauber and Andy Fisher, Community Food Security Coalition, 2002]

Becki Carlson
Executive Director
11477 E Avenue
Auburn, California 95603
Phone: 530-889-7398
Fax: 530-889-7397

Janice Thompson is typical of Placer County farmers: her Twin Brooks Farm is surrounded by new housing developments. To stay afloat in a sea of homes, Thompson and her husband, Francis, opened a specialty store, Newcastle Produce, a custom-built storefront adjacent to the gold country town’s former fruit-packing sheds. The specialty at Newcastle Produce is locally grown food. Thompson now sells much of her own produce to her own store. She also joined a nonprofit organization called PlacerGROWN, which helps identify her food as locally grown even when its sold elsewhere.

Placer County residents are coming to value fresh, locally grown food when they see it labeled on the shelf, said Thompson. The label allows them to vote with their food dollars to keep farming viable in Placer County.

California’s population has burgeoned during the past two decades, converting farmland to rural estates and other non-farm uses. Placer County’s losses have far exceeded other suburbanizing areas. Farmland acreage here has dropped 35% percent since 1978.

The PlacerGROWN program, started in 1994, helps farmers stay in business amid development fever. It may look like just a little sticker but it is full of meaning, says Sharon Junge, director of Placer County Cooperative Extension. The history, the people, the foothills of this beautiful area are all packed into that label. It offers people a choice of meaningful food.

Along with the label, PlacerGROWN offers a host of promotional services, including an annual Farm Trails guide, distributed free of charge to consumers. The guide features a local harvest calendar, stories of farmers, and a map showing farms and their products. Similar information is posted on the PlacerGROWN web site where one chatty teaser offers menu ideas: “OK, so youre wondering what to cook tonight. Check here for the latest recipes. We have vegetarian dishes, lactose-free ideas and more. Just a click away!” The web site will eventually allow farmers to post their products online and consumers to order them with a click. Anything and everything to make it easier for people to support local agriculture, said Becki Carlson, executive director of PlacerGROWN.

PlacerGROWN has begun recruiting consumer members, who receive a Farm Trails guide with discount coupons redeemable at participating farms, roadside stands and the Foothill Farmer’s Market. Consumers have boosted PlacerGROWN membership by a third, to 210, which is good news for the farmers.  “I just heard about someone who got the book and went to the farmer’s market for the first time,” said Carlson. “Her response was, ‘If I had only known what I was missing!'”

Placer County 4-H and Future Farmers of America are selling the coupon books as fundraisers, splitting the proceeds between their agricultural youth projects and PlacerGROWN. Carlson hopes schools will begin using the coupon program as a healthful alternative to candy in fundraising for sports, uniforms and field trips.

Despite the bleak statistics on farmland loss, plenty of beginners are still eager to try farming in Placer County. PlacerGROWN has joined with the county Cooperative Extension to host an annual Farm Conference, offering seminars and classes for some 200 participants, including new farmers and specialty crop growers, consumers and educators whose interests range from blueberries to wine grapes to mandarin oranges. When Placer County held the first Mountain Mandarin Festival over 10 years ago, there were only eight Owari Satsuma mandarin orchards in the County. Now there are almost 40.  “When you celebrate what is special – in this case, the soils, warm days, and cool nights of the foothills that pack these mandarin oranges with flavor- people want to be a part of it,” said Joanne Neft, who as director of the Placer County Agricultural Marketing Program works closely with PlacerGROWN. “So they plant. And then they sell. And then we have agriculture.”

Nefts own job grew out of another Placer County effort to save farms. The Placer County Board of Supervisors realized four years ago that, under the onslaught of development, they urgently needed to act on preservation goals spelled out in their 1994 general plan. They appointed Neft to chair a citizens advisory committee to develop ways to assess and conserve farmland and open space. The committee created Placer Legacy, a county program dedicated to purchasing farmland or development rights. So far, Placer Legacy has spent $400,000 on farmland conservation easements protecting 320 acres and is working to place another 1,700 acres in easements.

Nefts committee also urged Placer County to provide marketing assistance for farmers; the supervisors responded by creating the program Neft now heads. She is under contract to the Placer County Agricultural Commission and focuses specifically on improving local markets for all agricultural producers. Her position is one-of-a-kind in the state.

“California is a land of abundance yet we import 38% percent of the produce we eat,” said Neft. “Isnt it silly? There is a better way: support farmers to stay in business, and preserve the land that is the foundation of their business, educate and build leadership that values the land and food.” Added farmer Thompson, “Any culture that places a value on agriculture will not go hungry.”

[Source:Weaving the Food Web. Jerod Lawson, Community Food Security Coalition, 2002]

Practical Farmers of Iowa
Rick Hartmann
Food Systems Program
2035 190th St.
Boone, IA 50036-7423
Phone: 515-232-5661, ext. 104
Email: [email protected]

Denise OBrien has a small, sustainable farm in southwest Iowa where she raises organic chickens and turkeys, as well as fruit that she sells fresh or makes into cider or pies. Denise sells her products to people from the local community who visit her farm and participate in several of the marketing programs run by Practical Farmers of Iowa. She believes that supporting the local economy is essential for building small farm infrastructure.

Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) received a 1997 USDA CFP grant of $135,600 for three years to help develop a food system that focuses on supporting local farmers and low-income households. Their Field to Family Community Food Project (FTF CFP) is notable for its success in creating new programs that become self-sustaining, locally run businesses.

PFIs goals are to help farmers access local markets; help low-income families establish linkages with churches and organizations that offer support; and inform the general public about the benefits of good nutrition, sustainable agriculture and supporting the local economy. Whereas many community food project grantees focus on one core program, FTF integrates a number of smaller projects under a common food system framework. In doing so FTF hopes to create synergies between the various programs, and catalyze new relationships between producers, processors and consumers. These projects, some outlined in more detail below, include a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), a farmers’ market; hands on nutrition education through cooking and gardening classes; a catering service that offers All Iowa Grown Meals; and supporting events such as the Harvest Festival, a summer camp and the annual Food, Farm and Nutrition conference.

USDA grant funds were used to help establish the first CSA program in Iowa, an operation run by five farmers and called the Magic Beanstalk. Community members who purchase CSA shares at the beginning of the season later receive weekly deliveries of fresh produce during the summer harvest. This system provides farmers with much-needed funds during planting and harvesting, and consumers with high-quality produce and a personal relationship with local farmers. The Field to Family project helped purchase a large refrigerator in the first year to increase storage capacity for produce. The Magic Beanstalk CSA remains self-sustaining and is a model example of a multi-producer CSA. They provide technical assistance to farmers from other areas who want to set up similar programs.

In order for low-income families and shelters to participate in the Magic Beanstalk CSA, PFI secured funds from local religious organizations and businesses to subsidize shares. The number of families supported ranged from 12-23 per year, depending on funding received. In addition, nearly 3,000 pounds of fresh produce from the CSA were distributed to local food pantries. The Healthy Food Voucher Program (HFVP), also started with CFP funds, distributed more than $6,000 in food vouchers redeemable for fresh produce from CSAs, farmers’ markets, grocery stores, or for cooking classes.

Ted and Amy Chen participated in the Magic Beanstalk CSA last year through the HFVP after being referred by a WIC dietitian. They came to Iowa two years ago from Taiwan and now have two babies. Every Sunday for four summer months they went to church to pick up their share of produce, meet the farmers and to learn about the different types of produce grown in Iowa. According to the Chens, it was the highlight of the week to find out what we would get and to go visit with the people there.

Low-resource families are also offered a series of classes in cooking, nutrition education and money management skills called Family Basics, which PFI initially co-sponsored but now is managed by Iowa State University (ISU) Extension. More than 60 people participated in 2000. In addition, CFP funds started a garden and nutrition program at the local Boys and Girls Club in Ames. Kids were provided with a 15 x 90 foot vegetable and flower garden, field trips to farms and nutrition classes. This project ended with the CFP grant in 2000, but may be revived by ISUs Agriculture and Education Department.

One of PFIs most exciting and successful projects is its All Iowa Grown Meals. PFI acts as a broker for organic and locally grown foods served by conference centers, restaurants and caterers. They work with 46 producers from across the state that practice sustainable agriculture. In the year 2000, they served approximately 6,000 people and generated $16,000 in revenue for the farmers. Each event features a special menu listing all producers and a few words about sustainable agriculture and buying local to support small family farming. To help sustain this program, PFI created a fee system and organized annual fundraising dinners.

In the future, PFI plans to apply for another CFP grant that would expand the 1997-2000 projects by increasing its capacity for storage, transportation, distribution and light processing of farm products. They have in mind an apparently never ending supply of projects, which together will further build the web of connections between farmers and consumers in Iowa.

[Source: A Guide to Community Food Projects, Maya Tauber and Andy Fisher, Community Food Security Coalition, 2002]

Tohono O’odham Community Action
Tristan Reader, Co-Director
PO Box 1790
Sells, AZ 85634
Phone: 520-383-4966
Fax: 520-383-5286
Web: //
Email: [email protected]

Just as the sky began to brighten behind Baboquivari Peak in Southern Arizona, the sound of gourd rattles, desert fiber drums and singing could be heard coming from the bahidaj (saguaro fruit) camp. The voices of young and old joined together in a traditional Tohono O’odham harvest song, giving thanks for the blessings of the desert. By the time the sun rose above the mountains, small groups of people were scattered across the desert floor gathering fruit from the towering saguaro cactus. Using long poles made of the ribs of dead saguaro trees, they knocked the saguaro fruit to the ground, collected and then boiled it into a thick red syrup used to make the ceremonial wine to sing down the rain and bring the monsoon floods to dry desert fields. Events like this traditional bahidaj camp are not just a fun summer outing or a quaint cultural relic. Indeed, they may prove to be the hope for restoring indigenous food systems, physical health and cultural vitality to Native communities across the US.

The Tohono O’odham tribe, formerly known as the Papago, lives in Southern Arizona on the second largest reservation in the US. In 1997, Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA) received an $80,000 USDA grant for three years to help re-develop a comprehensive food system, including the production and distribution of healthier and more traditional staples along with nutritional and cultural education. In an effort to decrease food insecurity and increase self-reliance in this impoverished Indian nation, they have concentrated on redeveloping traditional flood based dryland farming, home gardening and the gathering of wild foods.

Traditionally, the O’odham lived a semi-nomadic life in the dry Sonoran Desert. They relied on dryland farming, gathering wild desert foods and small amounts of hunting. These strategies served them well until relatively recently, when several policy developments drastically changed the structure of their community. During the 1940s federal policy encouraged the O’odham to leave their fields and earn wages in nearby commercial cotton fields. At the same time World War II took many men away from their fields for years at a time. The children were forced to attend boarding schools where they were discouraged from traditional foods and cultural practices. Shortly thereafter the O’odham endured the most severe drought in their history. New dams prevented the monsoons from flooding the plains, making traditional crop cultivation impossible. What had once been more than 20,000 acres of cultivated dry land had dwindled to what is now less than 10 acres.

The challenges the Tohono O’odham face today are immense: 66% of the population live below poverty level and 63% are unemployed; 47% of households have no telephone, while 29% lack plumb- ing and 47% have no vehicle. The homicide rate is nearly three times the national average, and fewer than half of O’odham adults have graduated from high school.

Many community members survive on government commodities and SNAP benefits (formerly called food stamps). Most people no longer participate in rain and harvest ceremonies, as they seem meaningless if no one is planting fields or gathering desert foods. The decrease in physical activity combined with an imported diet has wrought havoc on the O’odham. In the 1960s diabetes was unknown in this community, yet now more than 50% of the population is affected-the highest rate in the world.

The 1997 USDA grant has helped TOCA reinstate the practice of gathering as well as cultivating traditional O’odham foods. Several scientific studies have confirmed that foods, such as tepary beans, mesquite beans, cholla (cactus) buds, bahidaj (saguaro) fruit , chia seeds and prickly pear, help regulate blood sugars and significantly reduce both the incidence and effects of diabetes.

Approximately every three years the O’odham harvest acorns in the fall. They also gather several different medicinal plants. In traditional flood based farming called “Ak Chin,” the O’odham use plants that have adapted to the desert, such as tepary and mesquite beans, 60-day corn, squash, melons and caño (sugar sorghum). These are planted during the monsoons, which flood the plains with most of the 11 inches of annual rainfall. The demand for traditional foods has grown five fold over the past three years, from 100 to more than 500 participants in various TOCA programs.

Through the CFP-supported program, TOCA has sponsored more than 100 trips to collect wild foods, developed demonstration plots to grow traditional crops in the floodplain and established a community garden. In addition, TOCA helped families start gardens at home to grow traditional foods by providing technical assistance and equipment. They worked with 37 families in the first year, 63 in the second year and 78 in the third year. More than 1,000 packets of traditional seeds were distributed, as well as equipment such as rototillers and fencing material. Cultural and practical support was provided by the community elders to teach planting songs, rain ceremonies, and appropriate planting and harvest times. Traditional foods education was also offered in workshops and community meetings, with more than 400 kids and adults participating over the past year.

When asked of the future direction for this program, Tristan Reader, co-director of TOCA, excitedly speaks of a new production farm, the establishment of a cooperative for food processing and farming equipment (such as tractors and rototillers, as well as food processors, grinders and bean cleaning machines). He also is excited about a new Tohono O’odham Community College, which offers a course in traditional food systems taught by Danny Lopez. Danny and Tristan are working on a book and video series on growing and harvesting traditional foods and associated cultural practices. Tristan believes this is a long-term investment of resources that may lead to an effective solution to the prevention and treatment of diabetes. With the National Institute of Health predicting a nationwide doubling of type two (adult onset) diabetes over the next 20 years, the O’odham project holds significant potential as a model for other Native communities.

[Source: A Guide to Community Food Projects, Maya Tauber and Andy Fisher, Community Food Security Coalition, 2002]

Woodbury County, Iowa
Organic and Food Friendly Community
Robert B. Marqusee
Woodbury County – Courthouse 6th Floor
Department of Rural Economic Development
620 Douglas Street
Sioux City, IA 51101
Phone:  712.279.6609

Web:  //

In 2005, Woodbury County, Iowa made headlines by becoming the first U.S. county to offer tax rebates to farmers transitioning to organic production. While this was a historic step, it also was just one piece in a rich mosaic of policies and programs to promote local and organic agriculture. And although some of these efforts are similar to food system work in other places, Woodbury County is unusual in several major ways: it is a rural county deep in the heart of industrial agriculture; the county government has made a strong commitment to supporting organic and local agriculture as an economic development strategy; and the local food system work has evolved from a small, all-volunteer effort to significant economic and policy changes within just a few years.

A local group called Sustainable Foods for Siouxland (SFFS) started organizing in 2003 to help provide markets for farmers who were raising sustainable, humanely-raised livestock and products, partly due to concern over the negative impacts of factory farming. Dedicated volunteers raised public awareness of the importance of local and sustainable foods, and SFFS opened a year-round farmers’ market in 2004.

In 2005, a turning point came when Woodbury County hired a Director of Rural Economic Development, who was charged with determining what the county could do to stimulate economic growth while maintaining the rural character of the community. The new, forward-thinking Director, Rob Marqusee, recommended that the County Board encourage local purchasing and begin producing organic products.

At his recommendation, the Board passed its historic Organics Conversion Policy in 2005, which offered property tax rebates to farmers transitioning to organic agriculture (up to $10,000 a year for five years). The Board also passed a Woodbury Health Initiative, establishing a public campaign for healthy lifestyles that included a mobile farmers’ market and middle school cooking classes using fresh, local ingredients. In early 2006, the Board passed a Local Food Purchase Policy, which requires the county food service to purchase food grown and processed within 100 miles, with a preference for organics.

All three policies are highly unusual for a rural county with a long tradition of commodity corn and soy production and a heavy presence of industrial agriculture enterprises. Rather than following the traditional economic development model of trying to lure in outside industry, Woodbury County is building on the community’s assets by supporting local and organic agriculture. Yet while this focus is timely and eminently sensible in todays food system, it is still almost unheard of. According to Rob Marqusee, “There is an insidious discrimination against family farmers in economic development. They forget that family farms are a highly valid and respectable business.”

But it’s a different story in Woodbury County, where the county, SFFS, and other regional stakeholders have collaborated to develop local food businesses. One of the first steps was to open a store in Sioux City to sell locally grown and organic meats and products, featuring 20 regional producers. They also renovated a local-organic foods restaurant, with the county providing 20% of the $100,000 in funding. The restaurants kitchen also is utilized to process organic salsa using locally grown ingredients, using the winning recipe from a local contest. The salsa will carry the “Sioux City Sue” brand, developed by the county for foods produced from local ingredients. The restaurant and food store are adjacent to the year-round farmers’ market. The non-profit that runs these businesses is in the process of reorganizing them into a farmer-run coop, to enable the producers to capture a higher share of the proceeds.

What has been the impact of all these policies and programs on the local community? For consumers, access to fresh, locally-grown products has increased through the local foods store, and the mobile and regular farmers’ markets. These markets accept Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT, electronic version of Food Stamps) and WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program coupons, which helps ensure that low-income consumers have access to the local bounty. The WIC coupons account for about 80% of sales on the days they are accepted.

For farmers, sales of local food are growing rapidly. According to the farmers’ market director, Pat Garrity, the number of active producers at the market has doubled from 10 to 20 over the last two years, and sales have increased about 20% in the last year. Farmers are seeing that they can count on selling their crops locally, and are increasing production and diversifying their crops to meet the growing demand. And more money is circulating in the community because local farms and businesses are providing jobs and supporting each other. About 20 new jobs have been generated by the local food businesses, and the climate of support for organic agriculture is attracting larger enterprises that will provide more jobs, including a $40 million organic soybean facility, which will hire 150 new employees and require quadrupling organic soy production in the state to meet their demand.

More organic farmers will be needed to help supply this new soybean facility and other expanding markets. Recognizing this, a local community college started an organic farming diploma program (the first of its kind in the country) to help train farmers. The county also offers other support for local and organic farmers, including an organic conference, a mentor network, and a new DVD and website to promote organic farming in the area, created with support from the Siouxland Chamber of Commerce. The county is even developing plans for a modern Homestead Act to provide beginning farmers with farmland and a home. This climate of rapidly expanding opportunities for farmers is exciting and unusual in todays economy, and might persuade other counties to take a second look at the potential benefits of building on local and organic agriculture.

Interestingly, even with all these encouraging developments, to date only one farm in Woodbury County has taken advantage of the organic conversion tax rebate, although others are planning to, and several farms in nearby counties have recently transitioned to organic production. Still, the impacts of the policy and related efforts go far beyond the number of acres of farmland converted to date. They have helped develop an environment that is attractive for local and organic agriculture, which has created new jobs and opportunities, as well as providing as an example and inspiration to others. They also have generated hope and excitement about the community’s future, something that is all too rare in rural America. According to Rob Marqusee, The most important thing is that people are taking over their own destiny. They are creating a community and regional vision for establishing an economy based on what they can actually do with what theyve got.

Some of the material in this profile was adapted from the report Counties and Local Food Systems, published by the National Association of Counties in July 2007.

Updated 7/2010