A loan of $5,000 helps Sabrina bring economic growth and farm-fresh food to an underserved community.
My grandmother used to grow hot peppers. Jalapeños and habaneros. She cultivated those seeds, year after year, saving them for the next season, for neighbors, for me. Taking them from Compton to Riverside, California. A Jack of all trades, she had a lot of interests that all coalesced around a theme of cultivating community. It seemed like a good model to follow. I have been a community organizer who has worked with low-income groups in 40 states for nearly two decades. I’m also a mediator, social justice champion, university instructor and director of a nonprofit. When I became frustrated seeing poor communities razed, I went to law school knowing I would be more effective changing housing policy. As housing victories came, I saw food retail leaving these same communities. One after another, grocery stores closed shop and residents had no source of fresh produce. My own theme began to coalesce.
As some measure of help, I grew my own food and helped residents of public housing grow theirs. I saved seeds, I shared food. I tried to help communities navigate the same old, large-scale, food system that brings more harm to the most resource-poor among us — finally deciding to pursue a system overhaul that brings benefits instead of fast food and liquor stores. Why not develop food entrepreneurs in these communities who would grow their own sustainable, local food systems grounded in creativity and innovation? Answering this question resulted in the launch of Home&Community’s SoLA Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Development (SEED) project.
These days, I’m the one growing my grandmother’s jalapeños and habaneros, following her lead. They grow in spite of my sometimes less-than-optimal care…like a strong-willed reminder of how and why I’m meant to work to cultivate community.
This loan is special because:
More about this loan
Home&Community Inc was founded in 2000, to help low-income residents improve their communities. Four years ago, we were dismayed by the number of clients in South Los Angeles who had few fresh food options. Helping people grow their own food was one thing, but making it sustainable and beneficial to the entire community was another. We acquired a small growing space and guest house to hold workshops to train residents how to grow and distribute farm-fresh food. With the goal of creating a sustainable food hub, we then established something unique: a co-working homestead for food entrepreneurs to innovate businesses in an incubator setting.
We focus on improving the health of families and children. In a community where one-in-six local residents is food insecure, our SoLA Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Development (SEED) project is grounded in citizen science, supporting entrepreneurs in explorations of innovative farm technology. After establishing our first cadre of local farmers, we are moving forward with the “smart farming” techniques of our SEED project to create a pioneering hub for agriculture technology that keeps resources in the community. These techniques serve as models for crop yields, carbon reduction, green innovation and strengthening the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
We’ve learned that people know what good food is and want to participate in healthy food options. But we’ve been challenged by the perception that “local food” is a privileged concept. So, we framed it for what it is – a social equity movement – and our clients overwhelmingly responded to that. They want good choices for their children. They want the same food options that more affluent people have. We decided to take a new approach to combating this problem – one that didn’t only focus on growing more food, but creating a sustainable program that increased food access while teaching marketable tech skills to residents.
What is the purpose of this loan?
Instead of seeking more space for growing in traditional plots, we will use new technology to take advantage of our already-secured, smaller space. A loan will help us complete the site plan and grow smarter to increase crop yield five-fold while providing training and workshop space to twice the number of participants.
In workshops, participants focus on the integration of computer technology and smart devices into food growing. They will develop monitoring for the aquaponics system and soil, light and crop sensors that allow farmer entrepreneurs to manage crops off-site. So much can be achieved with a bit of coding and an Internet connection! Produce sales that average $1050 a month at one site will increase with sales at two more sites.
We will spend the loan on materials to complete the farm site. Materials include a $3480 solar aquaponics system, $668 for sensor arrays, two Arduino Uno microcontroller boards for $120, installation of a drip irrigation system and bioswale at $475, and $210 in C Programming training materials – for a total of $4953.
In the past year, we have been searching for vacant lots to grow on. Just when we’d get one agreement in place or move forward in securing the site, something (municipality) or someone (private owner) would nix it. It has been a frustrating endeavor that we’ve had to rethink and be more creative about. In asking ourselves how to get more yields and more innovative training for low-income residents, we realized the answer is to bring in more technology and more pioneering farm practices.
There’s a lot of discussion around technology in agriculture and STEM learning for underserved communities. In most of it, the overlap between the concepts is not generally imagined. But we see it, and we see it in the community we serve: a community that is largely ignored in terms of technology and innovation. We imagine a community on the frontline of the agriculture technology and robotics market – an industry projected to grow to $16 billion by 2020.
We’ve been both appalled and inspired by one statistic: one-in-six local residents is food insecure in South Los Angeles. Each step in creating the SEED project has been an effort to change that statistic. When you help others grow food you never do so in isolation. When you do so with fun, creative tools, you’d be foolish to do so in isolation!
When we chose to be part of this solution, we were bound to be impacted. Every participant is unique and educates us along the way. Plus, the skills they learn are applicable for work in larger food/agriculture technology companies, neighborhood small farms, or their own enterprises. Also, more far-reaching impact can be found in carbon reduction and water and energy savings. This work is not just about us, but a larger community and our responsibility to promote it.