Dig Deep Farms’ Food Hub: Investing in Local Health & Wealth

Dig Deep Farms’ new food hub in San Leandro

Over the last two decades local governments have become increasingly involved in cultivating community-based food systems as a path towards community and economic development. In Alameda County, the Deputy Sheriffs’ Activities League (DSAL), a nonprofit founded in partnership with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO), supports a range of food system initiatives. Established in 2004, DSAL was founded on the notion that community safety and well-being goes beyond arresting and incarcerating people. The nonprofit began by offering social and recreational programs for young people in the unincorporated communities of Ashland and Cherryland, where there were few after school activities available.

As DSAL staff engaged with youth and their families, they saw firsthand the deep connections between poverty, disinvestment, and the political and social dynamics of living in an unincorporated community. Residents who live in Ashland and Cherryland experience disproportionate burdens of unemployment, poor health outcomes, and lack of access to healthy foods. Unincorporated communities are governed by a county’s board of supervisors rather than an elected city council and mayor. This means that the county is responsible for providing municipal services and programs for residents living in those areas. Informed by what they’ve learned from community members who participate in their programs, DSAL, in partnership with the ACSO, has evolved to establish a “community capitals policing” framework for the organization as well as a large unit within the agency called the Youth and Family Services Bureau (YFSB). The framework emphasizes creative placemaking and workforce development as a means to strengthen the connections between the physical environment and the people who live and work in a particular area. As DSAL co-founder, Captain Marty Neideffer puts it, “We’re trying to address crime at its root by investing in community development initiatives that will result in a safer and healthier community now and into the future.”

Inspired by the rich agricultural history of the East Bay and local movements for a green economy and sustainable food systems, DSAL launched Dig Deep Farms (DDF) in 2010. Dig Deep Farms, established in partnership with local residents, is an urban agriculture social enterprise that improves the well-being of individuals and the larger community through access to fresh, locally grown foods, jobs, and skill building.

Over the last nine years, Dig Deep Farms increased their capacity and infrastructure to currently include seven farming staff who operate three farm sites, where they grow more than 15 varieties of crops on close to 6 acres of land. The produce is grown using permaculture principles and agroecological practices, and primarily supports their Food as Medicine program. Food as Medicine is a partnership with local health clinics, medical staff, and practitioners to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables, reduce individual and household food insecurity, and reduce healthcare utilization through addressing diet-related conditions. Dig Deep Farms sets up ‘food farmacy’ stands in clinics where patients are screened for food insecurity, social isolation, and diet-related conditions. Providers are also trained on issuing food prescriptions to eligible patients on CalFresh and/or Medi-Cal, which are redeemed at the food farmacy.

A critical element of Dig Deep Farms is to facilitate a 6-week internship program for people coming out of periods of incarceration. This internship concludes with a graduation ceremony where those who complete it receive certificates in Permaculture Design and Urban Farming. The goal of this internship is to not only provide access to skill-development and resume-building opportunities for those needing to get back into the workforce, but to also cultivate a pipeline of future employees for the farm, Food Farmacies, Food Recovery, and food hub operations. Individuals are referred into the internship by their case managers within the YFSB or other partners in the YFSB re-entry model, Operation My Home Town.

“We’ve been involved in food systems work because we recognize its substantial potential for stimulating a local economy and creating a sense of place, which in turn will reduce crime issues.” Captain Marty Neideffer, founder of DSAL

Since 2014, DSAL and Dig Deep Farms have been planning and developing a food hub facility that will be operational in January 2020. The food hub is a well known project in the Bay Area, and like Community Foods Market in West Oakland, is an example of the dedication it takes to see a project through from concept to a fully operational business. The new facility, a former warehouse located on just over 4.5 acres of county land in San Leandro, is being developed into a 3,300-square-foot food hub that will provide critical infrastructure for local food system activities.

In 2019, Community Vision provided DSAL with $1,290,000 in financing, supported by a $187,500 credit enhancement from California FreshWorks, to complete renovation of the food hub. The food hub has a commercial kitchen that is priced to be accessible to small, local businesses, and also includes cold storage that will be used by the kitchen tenants, Dig Deep’s three farms, as well as a new county food recovery initiative.

“Dig Deep Farms’ food hub is the type of social enterprise that the credit enhancement program was created to benefit. The food hub is a new project with little collateral, yet has huge potential for increasing healthy food access and for building wealth in disinvested communities. By providing them with a credit enhancement, this project was able to attract the financing needed to complete construction and begin operations.”

 – Esperanza Pallana, Senior Program Officer at Community Vision & California FreshWorks

By bringing together multiple programs under one roof the food hub will address common capacity and resource issues that cause barriers to successful development, launch, and operations of small businesses and local food system activities. These include:

  • Commercial kitchens can be cost prohibitive for start-ups and small businesses.
  • Food recovery projects (which are now mandated by the State of California) are in need of cold storage space and paid drivers to pick up, sort, and deliver surplus foods.
  • Small farmers struggle to meet retailer’s volume needs and cosmetic standards while securing a fair and livable price for their produce.
  • There is a need across Alameda County for cold storage for food recovery, small food businesses, and farm production.

The design and business model was developed and informed by many partners involved in local community-based food systems work. Through a collaborative planning process, DSAL developed a hybrid model for bringing in revenue and establishing food hub programming. Produce will be sold to both institutional and retail customers, and revenue will be earned through the commercial kitchen and cold storage space, while maintaining affordability for start-up food businesses and businesses looking to expand.

The concept of a food hub as a strategy to address issues of healthy food access and economic development has received much attention over the last decade. Defined by the National Food Hub Collaboration as, “a business or organization that actively manages the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of source-identified food products primarily from local and regional producers to strengthen their ability to satisfy wholesale, retail, and institutional demand,” food hubs provide critical infrastructure to support smaller farmers in bringing their product to market. More than just a market solution; however, food hubs in the U.S. have a long history that is rooted in self-determination and economic empowerment, particularly among Black farmers in the rural South.

Here in the East Bay, California FreshWorks and Community Vision see the value in DSAL’s food hub model particularly due to the organization’s combination of programs that prioritize economic development for the county’s historically disinvested unincorporated communities. Dig Deep Farms has been running several programs over the years, including farm production, a re-entry internship program, farm stands, and most recently their Food as Medicine program. When fully operational, the food hub will include new programs such as food recovery, the commercial kitchen and storage space, and support services for small businesses.

“Dig Deep Farms is grateful for the support of FreshWorks and Community Vision. They took the time to ask questions to really understand our vision for a revitalized local food economy in Alameda County’s unincorporated communities. The impact of the food hub will be seen for years to come.”

 – Hilary Bass, Executive Director at DSAL