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Bubble Projects: Sustainable Agriculture and Food Access in the Central Valley

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The Central Valley of California was blanketed in beige as far as my eyes could see. Beige cut only by highways and housing developments, snaking through more beige. September beige–the skeletons of sunflowers, dried out with the last days of August. I knew beige. After all, I had spent the previous four years surrounded by Iowa corn and soybean fields. When I arrived in the Central Valley, I zoomed out on Google Maps to ensure that I was, in fact, 1,800 miles west of that Iowa town I had left behind. In the Central Valley I could really be anywhere, but nowhere else would I find such a collection of bubble projects.

I spent afternoons visiting local farmers markets, scratching names and numbers onto a coffee-stained notepad, and stuffing business cards into my wallet. Almost immediately, I was overwhelmed. And not for the reasons I had expected. Instead, my industrial agriculture blinders were replaced by a new pair of glasses—ones that showed the breadth of sustainable food projects run by individuals from diverse backgrounds, as well as those that benefited under-resourced community members. 

The thing is, all of these projects were bubble projects–projects that started in one little person’s one little sphere–that seemed insignificant when considered alone, but together have created an overwhelming impact. 

The Food Bank Effect

On a Friday morning in early September, I met Yasmin Frausto, volunteer and food drive coordinator for the Yolo Food Bank in Woodland, CA. I followed Frausto through a maze of storage and packaging, where stacks of food towered to the ceiling and circular bins lined the floor, brimming with family-sized cereal boxes and freshly-picked apples. In each room we entered, at least one new volunteer appeared, sorting and washing, counting and dividing.

Collecting donations from individuals, wholesale companies, manufacturers, retailers, food drives, and farmers, the Yolo Food Bank redistributes to 70 partner organizations. These organizations range from after-school programs, health care centers, faith-based pantries, soup kitchens, families, individuals, emergency programs and food closets.

At the weekly kids farmers markets, children have the opportunity to choose four to five produce items to take home, while volunteers share recipes and nutritional information for each of the chosen items. At the time of my visit, Yolo Food Bank staff were working to strengthen the Yolo Grown program, which increases the amount of local produce available at its partner organizations, ensuring that sustainably-grown, fresh, and culturally relevant produce remain accessible year-round.

Through its redistribution program, the food bank feeds 55,000 people each month with its life-saving bags of grain and bundles of fresh produce–a necessary feat in a community where one in six residents is food insecure, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Growing Into the Local Ecosystem

In the evening of that same day, I left industrial anywhere, USA for an entirely different scene. Within a half hour drive from Could-Be-Ohio, I watched endless beige slowly taper, folding, breaking, welcoming in the greens, the grays and the dark shadows of the mountains. It was as if a secret sculptor hovered over the land just beyond Sacramento and its surrounding towns, lifting and melding contours into a dreary slab of clay, and dotting it with brushstrokes of glaze.

That evening, I met with Thomas Nelson, co-owner of Full-Belly Farm in Guinda, CA. Nelson serves as the president and founder of the Capay Valley Farm Shop, a food hub that connects rural farmers with a network of businesses in the San Francisco Bay Area. He also serves as a board member for Kitchen Table Advisors, an organization that connects small, sustainable farmers, particularly from under-served populations, with the tools and resources necessary to foster viable, long-term businesses.

Despite the large number of Latinx farmers that inhabit the Central Valley, this population remains overlooked and too-often, under-resourced. Many Latinx farmers in the region begin their agriculture careers as farmhands, working on large industrial farms. When these farmers strive to manage sustainable farms of their own, organizations such as Kitchen Table Advisors give them the resources necessary to grow these farms into sustainable businesses, both environmentally and economically. Organizations such as the Capay Valley Farm shop then connect these rural farmers to corporations interested in selling local and sustainably-grown produce.

Nelson explained the development of these two organizations, as well as similar projects, in ecosystem terms. Through the growth of the Capay Valley Farm Shop, Nelson and his team have been able to occupy a niche market–the confluence between small-scale, rural farmers, and Bay Area food corporations looking to respond to the growing demand for convenient, local food access.

“There is a little niche we can occupy and grow sustainably within it,” said Nelson. “And the more niches that get occupied–that’s how change happens.”

When the Bubble Pops

I wondered if bubble projects might be too idealistic, too picture-perfect. Maybe they simply function to fill a void in our utopia-seeking, locally-grown, free-media-podcast-listening hearts. But maybe, a little idealism is okay. In fact, maybe it’s necessary, and maybe it’s the only way. We all know the large-scale picture, the one we see painted in the Washington drama, in the natural disasters, in the social disparities, in the papers, and on our Facebook feeds every single day. That picture is far from idealistic.

Yet, not a single one of us holds a paintbrush large enough to color over everything that is wrong with that picture. It would be impossible and overwhelming. We might even give up if we tried. So instead, we send our little bubbles out into the atmosphere. We watch them bump and grow along the way. We think that maybe our bubbles are too small, that maybe they’ll never amount to anything significant, never spread any change beyond their translucent walls. But you know the thing about bubbles? They always pop eventually. And when they do, all of that bubble-good spreads out into the world, mixing and merging with all the other bubble-good until, eventually, we create something bigger.

This article originally appears on the writer’s blog UprootedDiaries.com.

Photo courtesy of Emma Zimmerman.

Note: Yolo Food Bank has since moved to a new, 300% larger home, that will enable it to meet the community’s full food security needs. 

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Emma Zimmerman

Emma is a Boston-based writer, activist, and distance runner who primarily explores topics of environmental justice and women's rights. Emma graduated from Grinnell College in 2018. Beginning in July 2018, she spent four months traveling around the western United States, and collecting stories from women in agriculture, including two months in the Central Valley of California.

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