“SLUG BUG!” shouts Pac – a Dig Deep Farms and Produce (DDFP) volunteer. Slug Bug is a game played by two or more individuals where individual X (Pac) identifies a Volkswagen Beetle car and shouts slug bug. Individual X then punches individual Y (Jesse) on the shoulder because individual X identified the Volkswagen Beetle car before individual Y. The object of the game is to shout “slug bug” before the opposition does. Pac and I rode with Jesse, the DDFP farm manager. Although Jesse is the manager his position reflects a one of an on the job teacher or coach and friend. Jesse has established great relationships with his team and it is very obvious to anyone who watches his interactions with his staff. We rode from Pacific Apparel farm to the next farm site, Seventh Step; the drive was pleasant and short.
Before I tell you about my experience with the various DDFP staff and farm sites allow me to tell you a bit about the organization as a whole. Each of the three urban farm sites operated by DDFP is named based on the property it is either located on or near. For example, Pacific Apparel farm is next to the Pacific Apparel store. Seventh Step Farm is on the property owned by The Seventh Step Program. The Seventh Step Program is a men’s reentry home, its occupants also tend to this particular farm site on the weekends. Firehouse Farm is located on the land owned by Fire station #3 in San Leandro. In fact, Firehouse Farm is where it all began two years ago. Dig Deep Farms and Produce started with community desire to see sustainable and fresh food options in their community. Dig Deep Farms and Produce is staffed by nine people, a mix of volunteers and employees. All employees began as volunteers and then when successful were hired as paid employees. The staffs of DDFP plant a variety of vegetables and herbs at the three East Bay farm locations.
Dig Deep Farms and Produce is a partner of the Alameda County Food to Families (F2F) program. Food to Families then collaborates with the communities of Ashland-Cherryland and West Oakland to provide fresh, locally-grown produce at an affordable price. Fresh produce is now more readily available to the residents of these communities. Ashland-Cherryland suffers from food insecurity and chronic health conditions. Both communities have more than three dozen liquor stores in each area. At these liquor stores fresh fruits and vegetables are most often not available, when they are available the selection is very minimal (ACPHD, 2010).
Although DDFP may have started with the same mission as other urban community farms, not many farms can boast having the impact on the lives of individuals and their families as this farm. Dig Deep Farms and Produce offers jobs to Ashland-Cherryland residents with the goal of creating a sustainable local food system. While meeting this goal, DDFP also increases self sufficiency in communities where the impacts of health disparities and poverty are prevalent.
Now that you have some background knowledge of the great work DDFP is doing allow me to tell you about my first experience hanging out with the team. My first visit to Pacific Apparel Farm was on a bright and warm Thursday morning. As I approached the farm I was greeted with warm smiles by Jesse, Reggie, and Pac. The men were working quickly in the intense California sun harvesting greens. As they raced against the clock it was apparent the harvested greens needed to be refrigerated as soon as possible. I rolled up my sleeves and jumped in alongside Reggie. Reggie, a 21 years old, Oakland resident worked with rhythm and precision. We sparked up a conversation around his accomplishments during the year he has worked for DDFP. Reggie was excited to tell me about his life and personal growth. Prior to working for DDFP Reggie was accustomed to getting into a lot of trouble on the streets of East Oakland and serving jail time. Reggie has since changed his life and is very proud of it. He stated that his lifestyle change included more than staying out of trouble; there is change in his eating habits. Because Reggie now has an increased level of responsibility, he has taken on a new level of maturity. Reggie stated “I am making better decisions, because I have responsibility and work ethic now, I now know how to eat healthy and I have access to healthy food. My mom and grandma see the change in my life since I have been working here.”
While still at the farm Reggie and I discussed the right time to harvest Russian and Swiss chard. I admired Reggie’s skills, abilities and finesse with harvesting the greens. I was curious about his life aspirations so I asked him if he would like to pursue higher education. He responded with a curious look as he continued to lean forward to harvest the crops. He responded by saying, “I guess I would be interested in studying plants.” I smiled and stated “Any college would be lucky to have you as a student.” We moved forward with our conversation and discussed his favorite experiences while serving the community through working with DDFP. Reggie smiled as he spoke fondly of the elderly residents whose homes he has delivered vegetables to. “Elders seem so happy to see us show up at their door with food. Some of these old people don’t even come out their house, let alone go to the store for food….I am proud of the work I do now, this work is better than what I used to do on the streets, I wasn’t going to get anywhere doing that.” Reggie’s story is inspiring and a great illustration of the work DDFP is doing on more than the individual level, but on the interpersonal level, and community level.
Tommie, a DDFP employee since its inception and oakland resident, jokingly calls herself an “original cast member,” yet two years ago she would have never imagined the role this farm would have played in both her life and her child’s. About two years ago soon after giving birth to her daughter Bri’arie, Tommie was looking for a job. Tommie’s dad showed her a flyer about a farm that needed workers, she applied and the rest is history! Tommie’s work includes packaging fruits and vegetables and delivering them to resident’s homes. She every opportunity to engage thoughtfully when working with clients and asks their specific needs as well as what they expect from a food supplier. “I raised my baby on the crops from this farm. My daughter couldn’t imagine not eating mostly vegetables in every meal, she prefers veggies over cookies and candy any day,” claims Tommie. “I am often upset with my mother when she prefers to shop at Whole Foods when what we carry is just as good and most often cheaper,” Stated Tommie. I asked Tommie how this experience has changed her life she stated “This job has made me care more about my health and especially my daughter’s health. A lot of kids are obese now days.” Tommie certainly is an integral part of the organization and her wealth of knowledge is progressively imparted on the other team members. In addition to working for Dig Deep Farms and Produce Tommie owns and operates a profitable business selling local, organic honey. Much of her business smarts, start up help and encouragement has come from working directly with DDFP personnel and residents. The community has been especially receptive, open, and honest with her and much of that feedback sparked her interest in supplying honey.
After spending the morning with the employees and volunteers of Dig Deep Farms and Produce I was ready to
get home as soon as possible to cook the Russian Chard that was given to me by the employees! Dig Deep Farms and Produce has played a major role in the community, but a more meaningful role in the lives of its staff. For both the community and residents DDFP is making a sustainable impact; they are digging deep into the hearts of the community and changing lives. The impact of their work can easily be measured in numbers regarding how many individuals have lower cholesterol or reduced heart attacks etc. Yet, the people behind the work have become empowered and this change could never be adequately measured.
Written by: La’Shay Morris
Contributor: Jessica Luginbuhl
Alameda County Public Health Department. (July 2010) The Health of Alameda County Cities and Places. A Report for the Hospital Council of Northern and Central California, 2010. Oakland, California.