Supporting resilient communities, one meal at a time
New California culinary center creates 150 living-wage jobs, distributes 50,000 meals daily
By Leah Potter
Fabio Edwards said working at Dig Deep Farms — a Bay Area-based nonprofit in California that provides fresh produce to communities and institutions like hospitals and schools — helped him discover his passion: getting healthy, sustainable food to families in need.
“It’s important people not only have a place to get produce, but also learn how to grow their own, which is what we provide — we help people learn how to grow food,” he said. “It’s important that they witness that they can provide for themselves, and they can feed their families.”
After completing an agriculture apprenticeship at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Edwards’ mentor connected him with Dig Deep Farms. Two years later, Edwards is lead farmer and responsible for harvesting, weeding, watering, and managing garden beds.
“This is probably one of the highest entry-level paid positions you can get being a farmer I think in California,” Edwards said. “And we hire a lot of reformed people from the prison system. Most people that do this kind of work, they struggle to find a living wage, they struggle to pay rent, at times they struggle to even find work, period. But with Dig Deep Farms, we make sure that everyone is taken care of.”
Supporting resilient communities
Dig Deep Farms is supplying fresh, seasonal, locally produced sustainable ingredients from arugula to zucchini to the new Union City Food Culinary Center, which will open its doors Jan. 16. The center will deliver 50,000 ready-to-eat meals each day to institutions throughout northern California. It is already increasing contracting opportunities for local farmers and food entrepreneurs of color.
Not only will the culinary facility provide sustainable meals, the 56,000-square-foot center also features advanced, environmentally sustainable building technologies, including 270 kilowatts of onsite solar power, and energy-saving refrigeration and cooking equipment.
Dig Deep Farms is one of several organizations coming together to bolster the health, wealth, and resilience of people in Alameda County. All are committed to building relationships among anchor institutions and small-scale local food producers, processors, and community-owned businesses.
The new culinary center reflects the Anchors in Resilient Communities philosophy. ARC, which was convened by Health Care Without Harm and Emerald Cities Collaborative, brings together stakeholders in a community, including large anchor institutions like hospitals and schools with locally-owned business and nonprofits.
ARC’s community partners are also focused on addressing systemic inequities in the area. Residents of West Oakland (93% people of color) have a life expectancy 10 years shorter than people who live 6 miles away in Berkeley Hills (53% white). ARC’s goal is to create effective community-driven solutions to systemic and interrelated problems, like climate disruption and racial and health disparities.
“This center and the ARC partners who have mobilized around it represent a new model of collaboration and a critical step in building a strong, equitable, regional food economy that will be resilient to future disruptions and food insecurity challenges,” said Lucia Sayre, Health Care Without Harm’s regional innovation and community resilience director for the Healthy Food in Health Care program.
By employing the ARC model, these partnerships will help build community wealth in underserved communities of color by creating living-wage jobs and business opportunities in the food sector. The initiative is also working to increase the availability of fresh food in communities suffering from high rates of food insecurity and diet-related disease.
Bolstering community health and wealth
Kaiser Permanente has contracted with the new center to produce and distribute 2.5 million patient meals every year as a part of the health system’s goal to purchase 100% sustainable and local food by 2025. The health system also invested in the culinary center’s construction by providing a $2 million loan guarantee grant. Once the center pays off the loans, the $2 million will revert into a community fund to support local food business development.
Jan Villarante, Kaiser Permanente’s director of national nutrition services, conducts contract oversight of the food service partners that provide meals for patients in all of Kaiser Permanente’s northern California medical centers.
“It took a village. There was no one person that oversaw the whole project — it truly was a collaboration,” she said. “I know [it took] many entities within our organization as well as outside to make this happen and to really sell the concept as a new model to develop economic growth within the community as well as putting all the environmental overlays with that as well.”
The new culinary center will bolster a strong, equitable regional food economy that will be resilient to future supply chain disruptions and food insecurity challenges. Villarante said anchor institutions, like Kaiser Permanente, are critical to building resilient communities, especially amid a pandemic. She said following the outbreak of COVID-19, several local vendors contacted her and said if it had not been for Kaiser Permanente’s commitment to their company, “they would be extinct.”
“Health care is in the community during good times, during bad times, during economic upswings, during economic downswings, during pandemics, and during recessions,” Villarante said. “[By] strategically procuring foods, we will serve as an anchor to that community.”
One farmer told Villarante that when his wife was diagnosed with cancer four years ago, he didn’t have health insurance and worried his wife wouldn’t get the treatment she needed. But three years ago Kaiser Permanente’s commitment to his business meant he could afford health insurance and ensure his wife would receive medical care.
“It became more and more important to me then to really focus in on all of this, and we live and breathe this every single day at work,” she said. “As we got moving with it, we started really understanding the impact we could have with our procurement dollars.”
Creating living-wage jobs
Operated by FoodService Partners (FSP), the facility will create up to 150 living-wage, union jobs. FSP has been providing meals for Kaiser Permanente’s northern California facilities for over 17 years. Michelle Barclay, FSP’s general manager, said the new culinary center has helped FSP establish new relationships with local businesses, employment agencies, and local farmers in Union City.
“This center gives us the capability of awarding opportunities to individuals who are currently out of work because this center helps us grow with the relationships that ARC has made with anchor businesses,” she said. “Once we have established and introduced those relationships, we’re able to now say that this community can be economic, this community can be resilient.”
Barclay said she’s excited to support resilient communities and help people in Alameda County maintain a living wage and health insurance during a public health crisis. She said one of FSP’s employees approached her in the fall about the status of his employment, and Barclay was able to tell him, “You’ll be employed, you’ll be ok.”
“We did take a little hit at the beginning of 2020, and I’m able to pull those employees back to work, and [I saw] these employees cry because they’re happy to come back to work,” Barclay said. “They’re so happy, some of them can’t believe it.”
Monique Brown, director of workforce services for Rubicon Programs, works with individuals and families living in communities with high rates of poverty and who have been “left out” of opportunities to pursue middle-income employment.
For families or individuals that qualify for positions within FSP, Brown said Rubicon Programs support the worker to ensure they get to work on time and have child care. She added that Rubicon Programs will also work with FSP to employ people who live near the Union City culinary center to both improve their commute and allow individuals to serve their local community.
“Part of our role is to make sure the workers and communities understand fully what this means — that it’s not just a job. It is connected to a larger strategy and initiative to make our communities healthier, to have self-sufficient communities, and to make sure that local, small-scale growers and agriculture and other industries are incorporated into this process,” she said.
Edwards, lead farmer at Dig Deep Farms, said the ARC model both promotes local entrepreneurship and healthy communities, and Dig Deep Farms and its partners are setting an example as a resilient food system in California.
“We provide for local clinics that are community clinics and are for low-income people, mostly in low-income neighborhoods,” Edwards said. “I think if more clinics reached out to their local, small-scale urban farms, it could help expand the farmer, it could help expand the clinic, it can make people more aware of their programs and the health program that the clinic is providing.”
Located in California? Learn how you can purchase meals from the center and help improve your community’s health and well-being.
Located outside of California? ARC is a nationwide effort with many local pilots and a replicable model. Learn more and start building resilience in your community.
For more information, read this case study on the Union City Culinary Center project, which highlights the many financial and community partners who made it possible.
Leah Potter is the communications assistant at Health Care Without Harm.