This post guest written by Local First Arizona Economic Development Intern, Adonis Trujillo West of the busy center of downtown Tucson is a place that is fresh, local and friendly. Located at Mercado San Agustin, the Santa Cruz River Farmers Market, run by the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, is the spot to be every Thursday from 4-7 p.m. Farmers Almanac named it as one of the Top Ten markets to visit nationwide.
Kara Jones, Market Manager, shared the story of how their organization is increasing food security in Southern Arizona by providing new channels for the market’s producers. In talking with the farmers, the Community Food Bank discovered that many of them were growing on less than 60% of their available farm land. Most of the farmers that participated in the weekly markets had a desire to grow, but cited lack of consistent demand as the reason they couldn’t. The Community Food Bank saw a need to help farmers expand their impact on the local economy and reach new target customers.
“Direct to consumer sales weren’t enough to keep these businesses sustainable,” said Jones. “They were interested in entering the institutional market.” Despite the fact that agriculture’s contribution to Arizona’s economy is over $17 billion in total sales statewide and creates more than 88,000 jobs, the majority of local producers make a very meagre living from farming. 87% of Arizona’s agriculture operations have sales below $25,000 with the majority of sales going to a small number of large producers. The institutional market consists of larger establishments such as hospitals, schools, prisons, etc. Businesses in this market typically order in bulk and demand a consistent product flow throughout the year. Creating access to institutional markets was one way to help level the playing field for smaller, local producers.
Individually, local farmers could not enter these markets. “The farmers did not have the capital or the capacity to serve these institutions,” said Jones, so she and her organization worked to develop a strategy to help overcome these barriers. “We set aside a lot of time to visit with farmers and find out what their needs really were,” said Jones. Thanks to a USDA grant in 2014, the organization was able to structure a program to help. Jones and other workers met with twenty farmers, spending almost a full day with each doing assessments. They visited farms ranging from one-third acre to twenty acres.
In April 2015, Jones created an alliance with twenty of the farms interviewed. Collectively they could handle the demand of potential customers and reduce risks involved with larger orders. This took adaptability on the part of the farmers who had to be comfortable aggregating their products with other growers and accepting a lower price point. In return they would receive greater volume, more consistent orders and lower risk. To assist farmers entering these new markets, the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona provided the warehousing, labor, refrigerated trucks and logistical support.
In June of 2015, the Community Food Bank acquired its first major contract with Tucson Medical Center. As a locally owned hospital, TMC was early to see the value in supporting other local businesses. This partnership perfectly aligned with TMC’s vision of enhancing quality of life and overall health for the people of Southern Arizona. “The partnership with our local community food bank benefits the community by providing economic security to our local farmers,” commented Tucson Medical Center Director, Beth Dorsey. TMC committed to a set volume of produce per week and the farmers could rely on this income. “We receive great tasting, fresh produce at a competitive price,” said Dorsey. “These high-quality products provide nourishment to our patients, guests and over 3,200 employees. With our partnership, we have been able to explore different varieties of produce that we may have not been exposed to through our normal procurement channels.” TMC found unexpected surprises and fresh, locally grown chard became one of the most popular offerings at the hospital.
Not long after, the Tucson Unified School District came on board and placed the local farmers as a vendor on record. Rani Olsen of TUSD Food Services found the program to be a very positive one for the district. “We are exploring seasonal foods together, classroom by classroom, and developing a knowledge, vocabulary, and excitement around them before they show up on the menu,” says Olsen. Olsen loves feedback from students saying things like “I loved that kale salad we made and can't wait to have it for lunch! My mom and I made the recipe at home this week!" Now there are weekly deliveries to these institutions full of produce such as tomatoes, cucumbers, chard, broccoli and many fruits. These larger institutions take part in a contract forwarding process, which means they meet three to six months before to plan out meals. This organizational style gives the farmers a guide on what crops to plant and when. “There is a lot of planning that goes into each meal at these organizations,” according to Jones. Jones admits that there was a steep learning curve while her organization learned the needs of each institution. Now the program is able to scale and the team is ready and willing to bring more health and education institutions into the partnership. Institutions who are interested in being part of this innovative program can reach out directly to Kara Jones at the Community Food Bank offices.
In one year the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona helped direct more than $30,000 to local producers. The money that stays here helps local farmers continue to grow and helps the community stay healthy. With their current model of operation, each of the businesses plays a vital role in ensuring all parties succeed. This model promotes growth and sustainability. In the next six years, Jones hopes to keep as much as $1,000,000 local. Jones is quick to point out that having a strong localized food economy is key to achieving greater food security in this region. “These programs show that it’s possible to have a community with food security and food justice.”