Digging Deeper for Better Food Access
and Better Health
Alameda County officials hope this food hub and urban farm project becomes a national model
Story and photos by Austin Price
On East 14th Street in the East Bay community of Ashland, a garden sits inconspicuously between a clothing store, a liquor store, and a Domino’s Pizza. Vegetables grow in rows and on trellises; planter boxes of mint, oregano, sage, and other herbs line the outside perimeter of a tunnel greenhouse.
On a Monday afternoon in early March, I found farmer Glenda McCabe in the greenhouse, digging her shovel into a bin of soil to fill a line of seed trays. “This garden serves as a stepping stone to our other sites,” she said, referring to two nearby gardens that along with this one make up Dig Deep Farms. This urban farming initiative was started by local law enforcement as a bid to increase food access, food security, and public safety in the unincorporated communities of Ashland and Cherryland north of Hayward.
As she began placing seeds into the trays, McCabe explained that once they mature, these seedlings will be transplanted into garden rows just outside the greenhouse or at the other farms. Harvests from these plants will be delivered to local farm stands, schools, and even clinics or “farmacies,” where food is prescribed as preventative medicine.
That afternoon, McCabe and other Dig Deep farmers would be seeding beets, chard, and collards. “These crops are selected for their nutritional value,” she said. “We plant practical, intentional crops, rather than focusing on cash crops or things that are fancy.”
The Bay Area, one of the nation’s wealthiest regions, is no stranger to the urban farming movement. Near Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse in North Berkeley, you can walk through neighborhoods vibrant with front-yard gardens and fruit trees. But go 20 miles southeast to Ashland and Cherryland, and you’ll sense the effects of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the area. These two communities suffer from the food insecurity and chronic health conditions that often exist where the current food system disenfranchises low-income communities of color. This is particularly clear now, as the coronavirus pandemic has illuminated longstanding inequalities and gaps in food access.
Dig Deep Farms aims to close those gaps and build a local food economy. It starts with the seeds McCabe planted on East 14th Street.
Food as Medicine
As unincorporated areas, Ashland and Cherryland fall under the jurisdiction of the county sheriff. “If it is the sheriff’s office’s responsibility to make these areas safe, then we should be asking ourselves what is it that’s actually making it unsafe,” said Hilary Bass, executive director of the Alameda County Deputy Sheriffs’ Activities League. It was that responsibility that compelled her office to found Dig Deep Farms in 2010.
Research has shown that food insecurity results in disproportionately higher rates of chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. According to Bass, poverty in Ashland and Cherryland has a significant impact on its population’s food security, which in turn puts a burden on public safety and public health.
Sasha Shankar, a permaculture expert and one of the farm managers at Dig Deep Farms, knows firsthand the effects of living in the midst of food insecurity. “I was born in Fillmore in San Francisco,” she said. “We didn’t have green spaces or local food options. Options were chips or candy from the corner store.” Shankar noticed that friends, family members, and neighbors often developed conditions like diabetes, hypertension, and other diet-related chronic diseases. When she enrolled in horticulture classes at Merritt College in Oakland, she became aware of the role food plays in community health. “I started to learn how we can bring healthy food to schools and families. The solution for me was to grow my own food.”
In a partnership with ALL IN Alameda County, Dig Deep Farms started a program called Food as Medicine. The premise is that produce from Dig Deep goes to community-based health clinics, where healthcare providers offer food prescription vouchers to CalFresh recipients or Medi-Cal patients, who can take those vouchers to the “farmacy”—one of three nearby farm stands—to get nutrition-dense produce.
“That’s what we do in healthcare: We write prescriptions,” said Dr. Steven Chen, the chief medical officer at ALL IN Alameda County. “So here we write food prescriptions that allow our patients to get four months’ worth of food.”
Art and Job Training on the Farm
From the beginning of Dig Deep Farms, Bass and her team have known that an urban farm could help the community in more ways than just by delivering food. For one, Dig Deep Farms runs a paid, six-week internship program that employs formerly incarcerated individuals.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the formerly incarcerated suffer an unemployment rate of over 27%—“higher than the total U.S. unemployment rate during any historical period, including the Great Depression.” To help this group find jobs, Dig Deep Farms offers skills training and a certification in permaculture design. Some interns transition into working for the farm as full-time staff. One former intern, Kimberly Thomas, now works as a “farmacist” at a Dig Deep farm stand at the Hayward Wellness Center.
Dig Deep Farms is also committed to improving the infrastructure to make food more accessible. The latest manifestation of that mission can be found in a new facility that opened its doors in January: Located on Fairmont Drive near Lake Chabot, the Dig Deep Farms Food Hub operates as the 3,300-square-foot home base where the Deputy Sheriffs’ Activities League aggregates the Dig Deep harvests with food from other nearby farms and farmers’ markets. At the hub, that food is repackaged and delivered to county Food as Medicine patients and nearby public housing projects. The Food Hub also houses a commercial kitchen where local food vendors can rent time for preparing their wares.
Outside the hub is a fourth farming site, which is designated for growing nutrient-dense foods like collards, beets, onions, and chard. On my March visit, Troy Horton, another farm manager, toured me by a spot where other staff were busy assembling coops for chickens that would help till and fertilize the soil to support flowers that would draw pollinators to the vegetable beds.
“Earth care, people care, fair share,” Horton said, listing the principles of permaculture that guide his vision for the farm. “A big part of this is showing how not too large of a site can produce what we need to be sustainable.”
At the Food Hub, Bass pointed out the mural by local artist Bobby Arte, which fills the side of the building. It shows a variety of produce and farmland stretching towards the Bay Bridge with the word “Farmacy” proclaimed in golden letters. Incorporating art and aesthetics in urban farm spaces is an important component of Dig Deep Farms, Bass explained.
“Turning these vacant, blighted lots into these beautiful spaces of permaculture and green and freshness is not only good for its access to job skills and certification, but it’s important for the people who walk by every day,” she said. “Having access to a green space, a place where you can take a deep breath and smell what we’re smelling right now, that shouldn’t be a ‘nice to have,’ it should be a ‘must-have’ in every community.”
Responding to the Pandemic
Of course, March would bring a sense of urgency to the problems that Dig Deep Farms is commissioned to address. The very day I visited with Bass, Horton, Shankar, and McCabe at the farms, a Grand Princess cruise ship under quarantine for multiple Covid-19 cases was making its way through the Golden Gate to the Port of Oakland. Two days later, the World Health Organization classified Covid-19 as a pandemic, and by the end of that week, the Bay Area had initiated the country’s first stay-at-home order.
By the end of June, Covid-19 had infected more than 2.5 million people in the United States, causing more than 125,000 deaths across the country (nearly 500,000 worldwide), according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. Those numbers alone are overwhelming, but what they don’t show is how this virus disproportionately affects disenfranchised communities and puts a strain on an already fragile food system.
“Those that are vulnerable in the best of times remain the most vulnerable in the worst of times,” Larissa Estes, executive director of ALL IN Alameda County, said in a call on March 16. “That’s what we’re starting to see on the ground through this current pandemic. Food insecurity continues to remain a huge concern.”
Early in the pandemic, all across the country, hundreds of cars lined up at food banks. School closures made school lunches unavailable for many food-insecure children. Meanwhile, restaurant and business closures meant that many industrial-scale farmers were losing buyers for much of their crops, leading them to dump or destroy much of this season’s harvestable food.
For Bass, the current pandemic has only highlighted a longstanding need for a local food economy, one based on local producers, local food vendors, and local food delivery infrastructure. Fortunately, in Ashland and Cherryland, the Food Hub’s January opening had already laid the groundwork to address this urgent need.
The Dig Deep Farms staff quickly tapped into its own harvest, aggregated food from local farmers’ markets, and closed its farm stands. They partnered with local restaurant Avila’s Taqueria to prepare hundreds of meals, and they set up a weekly food pickup at the Food Hub. The first week, they were able to provide meals and produce for 700 families.
When it became clear that the pandemic would require a longer-term program for food delivery, Bass orchestrated a weekly delivery system with community partners. Dig Deep Farms partnered with Bay Cities Produce to aggregate more food. East Bay Paratransit drivers offered to deliver food to community members and Food as Medicine patients. With a grant from the Stupski Foundation, Dig Deep started an initiative called Emergency Food Production to pay local vendors $15,000 to produce 1,000 meals to be distributed by the Food Hub. As of the end of May, 800 individuals had signed up for weekly food deliveries. There was enough funding for 15 vendors, but Bass was actively searching for funds to cover more of the 152 vendors who had already applied.
“We really are accomplishing a lot of goals,” Bass said of their current Food Hub–based food delivery system currently operating in lieu of the farm stands. “This has the potential to be longer termed than what we’re even imagining. The key is that we built it. Now there’s an opportunity to improve it and look at how to sustain it.”
Growing Food on ‘Marginal Land’
“The pandemic is forcing people to think hard—and to feel deeply—about their connection to food,” Oakland-based journalist Jason Mark recently wrote. “This explosion of interest in food production can help create a new cultural landscape for long-term community and ecological resilience once the pandemic has passed. And it couldn’t have come soon enough.”
Of course, a local food economy revolution has been a long time coming. Even 50 years ago, Wendell Berry questioned the modern food system that divorced food production from healthy food consumption. If anything, Berry wrote, the industrialized food system is just bad land-use decision-making.
“How much food could be grown in the dooryards of cities and suburbs? How much could be grown along the extravagant right-of-ways of the interstate system? Or how much could be grown, by the intensive practices and economics of the garden or small farm, on so-called marginal lands?”
In Ashland and Cherryland, the ground that makes up Dig Deep Farms could be seen as “so-called marginal land.” It’s behind a Pacific Apparel clothing store, next to Alameda County Firehouse #3, on a hillside off Fairmont Drive. But to Bass, Shankar, Horton, McCabe, and the rest of the Dig Deep staff, this marginal land is community and a place to grow food. ´
Journalist Austin Price covers wildlife, ecology, fish, and farms—anything to do with our relationship with nature and place. Find his work for Sierra, Earth Island Journal, Yale Environment 360, and other journals at austinmprice.com.