In the San Francisco Bay Area, the Pandemic Connects Rural Farmers and Urban Communities

When Covid-19 hit in early 2020, community nonprofits in San Francisco and Oakland pivoted to produce box programs.

Farm hands sort produce to be delivered that day as a part of a Community Supported Agriculture program. Credit: Spencer Weiner/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Farm hands sort produce to be delivered that day as a part of a Community Supported Agriculture program. Credit: Spencer Weiner/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

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When Covid-19 arrived in the Bay Area in 2020, bringing with it shelter-in-place orders, soaring unemployment, and shuttered businesses, Nina Arrocena knew that Mandela Partners’ food programs in West Oakland would have to pivot, and quickly. 

Before the pandemic, the nonprofit distributed food at seven neighborhood produce stands set up at libraries, schools and senior centers. These distribution sites were a vital source of food in neighborhoods with historically-limited access to fresh produce, as well as important links between the community and Mandela, which promotes access to locally-grown, sustainably-produced food and investment in small businesses and resident entrepreneurs. 

At one site, an elementary school, Mandela Partners had been distributing produce for five years. “The students and the parents and teachers were so used to seeing us there every Tuesday,” said Arrocena, its food access program manager.  

Across the bay in San Francisco, in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, a similar scramble to distribute food was underway. Bayview Hunters Point is burdened by the effects of what some activists refer to as a “food apartheid,” despite the close proximity of SF Market, the city’s wholesale produce market, which moves millions of dollars worth of food annually. Activists use “food apartheid” rather than “food desert” to connote areas that have limited access to high-quality, affordable food because of systemic racism and structural inequality.

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Bayview Hunters Point Community Advocates, a community organization with deep roots in the area, had long been working on plans for a community-owned grocery store, but when the pandemic shut down the city, those plans had to be put on hold as the urgent need to get fresh food to people in the neighborhood became clear.

“The plague hit,” said Tony Kelly, the development director for the organization, adding that his boss started getting phone calls at 1 in the morning from families “wondering where they would get food.”

“We were under lockdown, and we weren’t supposed to go out anywhere,” he said, and electronic benefit transfer cards issued through the food stamp program were not accepted as payment for ordering groceries online.

Mandela’s sites were shut down at the same time that need was exploding; a 2021 research brief from San Jose University showed that food insecurity had increased in the Bay Area 63 percent since the pandemic started, a trend that disproportionately affected Hispanics, households with children and people whose work or jobs were disrupted. One in five respondents in the San Jose survey reported using food assistance for the first time during this period. 

The need, and the search for a solution to this crisis, led both organizations to turn to a model for connecting rural farmers with urban communities that has been around for decades: a box program for distributing fresh, locally grown produce. And they weren’t alone: across the country, farmers noted an uptick in interest and sales in community-supported agriculture programs (CSA) in 2020, as people stopped going to restaurants and started cooking at home more often.

Marsha Habib, whose farm, Oya Organics, has sold produce to Mandela Partners in the past, said that membership in her farm’s CSA exploded from 20 or 30 customers to more than 300 members who bought produce boxes every week during the height of the pandemic.

Mandela Partners Became a Small Produce Box Factory

Amid the ongoing upheaval of 2020, Mandela Partners needed to figure out a safe way to reach residents, while continuing to support small local farms whose income was affected by restaurant closures.

For Mandela, that meant creating a paid, sliding-scale CSA to help offset the cost of the free produce boxes. Residents could sign up to pay for the boxes at full price, and others would be able to pay at a discounted rate through CalFresh, California’s food assistance program run through SNAP.

“The community was really excited to have a sense of normalcy,” Arrocena said, of the reaction to seeing Mandela Partners return to their distribution sites with produce boxes in hand, masked and socially distanced, early on in the pandemic. 

Word about the new programs spread; in 2020, Mandela Partners distributed 296,000 pounds of produce, according to their year-in-review report. 

Itzel Diaz, a Mandela CSA customer, said that she noticed that the food she got in her box lasted much longer and stayed fresher than the same kind of produce she bought at the grocery store. “It forces us to be creative with our recipes because sometimes we’ll get ingredients we wouldn’t typically pick up on our own at the grocery store,” she said, adding that she appreciates knowing what’s in season and that she’s getting local food.

The logistical challenges of creating and running these programs are many, beginning with the space needed to organize and pack the boxes. “We pretty much turned our small office into a warehouse,” Arrocena said. “We removed all the desks and set up stations so we could pack boxes, and we were doing like 400 boxes a week.” 

Uncertainty and fears about Covid-19 further complicated the situation, given that no one yet knew exactly how the virus spread, and volunteers and Mandela Partners’ staff tried to stay six feet apart as they worked. 

After setting up the website and marketing to potential customers through social media, Arrocena was surprised by the support that the community showed for the paid CSA. “We know that affordable, locally-grown produce isn’t possible without subsidies,” she said. “So it’s been nice to work with a community who understands that and supports the program through paying a little bit more.” 

For Arrocena, one of the program’s most exciting successes has been working with customers who weren’t previously part of Mandela’s network, but who wanted to support the farmers Mandela works with. She sees potential for future growth in reaching more customers in more parts of Oakland. “I would love it if neighborhoods could host their own CSA sites,” giving them “more control over the food that’s available to them,” she said.

Bayview-Hunters Point Community Advocates Confronted Distribution

In Bayview-Hunters Point, at the start of the pandemic, BVHP Community Advocates turned to Mandela Partners to source the food they needed for their free produce boxes, because Mandela already had relationships with local farmers.

But figuring out how to get the boxes to residents was its own obstacle. “Are we just using our own cars?” Kelly said they asked themselves at the beginning. “Who has a big enough SUV that we can get 50 boxes out by tomorrow morning?” They’ve since started shopping for a refrigerated van, a task made more difficult by national supply chain issues. 

Despite the obstacles, both Mandela Partners’ and the BVHP program have continued to operate since their hectic beginnings in 2020, and both organizations would like to expand. For all of their efforts, they know that they still aren’t able to meet all of their communities’ needs. 

Kelly said the 300 to 320 boxes that BVHP Community Advocates is now distributing every week to unhoused residents and food-insecure households in Bayview-Hunters Point are “only a drop in the bucket,” compared to the need.

And then there’s the cost. “High-quality, farm-direct food that values the farmers as well as the people who will be nourished by it is expensive,” said Anthony Khalil, food sovereignty manager at the nonprofit, as well as an environmental justice advisor for the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission. Figuring out the best way to cover or subsidize those costs at a larger scale is an ongoing process. 

“We want our produce to be accessible to everyone regardless of income,” said Habib, of Oya Organics, which is why the farm donates extra produce boxes to nonprofits in the area, donations that are supported in part by the proceeds from the CSA. 

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Especially when it comes to their long-term goal of setting up a co-op grocery store in the neighborhood, Kelly sees their work being supported by the community as much as by city government funding for public health and economic development issues. They are planning to launch a paid CSA called the Bayview Co-Op Box as one possible additional revenue stream, and as a way to engage other residents in the creation of the store.  

“We don’t really think government’s the [only] answer to it,” Kelly said, of the financial and logistical support necessary to sustain their work. “But maybe this coalition of government plus community-led efforts is,” he added. 

Khalil sees the progress they’ve made so far as an important step in the right direction toward reforming the whole system: agricultural, environmental, urban and rural.

“It doesn’t sit well when I’ve heard some folks refer to our work as an alternate distribution channel,” he said. The ultimate goal, he said, is to show that this model is not an alternate, but should be the primary way that food is distributed in the city. The website for the Co-Op Box explains this mission in greater detail: they hope to build “a sustainable food network by redistributing power in the regional food chain.”

The network would better support Black and Brown farmers and farm workers, and create markets for high-quality, local produce in neighborhoods like Bayview Hunters Point. 

“What we’ve managed to do,” Khalil said, “is take this crisis and build it into a real opportunity.”