Power to the People: Rebuilding Community in Petaluma

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When I think of Petaluma, California I think of a tiny little town 30 minutes or so north of San Francisco home to antique and outlet stores, many a poet and artist, dairy cows and rolling fields nestled next to quaintly rusted industrial-scapes. I have never really given much thought to the families and seniors in line at the free food pantries. The fact is though that Petaluma has changed a lot in the last five to ten years. In 2007 there was a 30% increase in the number of seniors visiting food pantries and a similar 30% increase in the number of children enrolled in the free or reduced price meal program at school. That’s one in three kids and a reminder that all is not as it may seem.

A job-hunting informational interview led me to Petaluma Bounty and Grayson James, the Executive Director of the non-profit dedicated to transforming the way the hungry get fed in Petaluma. He schooled me in the realities of Petaluma’s hungry when we met on a rainy March morning to tour Bounty Farm the urban farm arm of the organization’s four-pronged approach to addressing systematic change. “It’s the focal point for a healthy food system,” said James.

The other arms include: the Bounty Box, a weekly CSA sold wholesale to low-income families; four Community Gardens with three located on elementary school campuses; and, Petaluma Bounty Hunters (meaning one who chases down healthy fruits and veg all around town), a gleaning program targeted at backyard gardeners.

Each program has synergies with each other and with people and food. “You want to give people multiple options and many different ways to participate because that’s how you change the food system,” said James.

Bounty Farm lies along a stretch of Petaluma Boulevard North, one of the main arteries through town, and across the street from an RV sales business. It’s around the corner from Lucky’s supermarket and occupies land “donated” to the organization thanks to a charitable five-year lease at only $1 per year. The property is open to the entire community and is run by Amy Rice-Jones, the Farm Manager, and her forty some odd regular volunteers who come to weed, plant and build.

The day of my visit, two volunteers were planting seedlings and placing them in the sizeable greenhouse built at a one day “greenhouse raising” last October. It’s Petaluma’s first community greenhouse and was created by 25 volunteers including a 79-year old woman.

The system and the synergistic way the programs work together is a result of research into other cities around the country, who are doing similar things to make sure that everyone in their community has access to healthy, clean and affordable food. Most notably Portland’s which James said “is way ahead of other cities from the perspective of community gardens and includes a powerful statewide gleaning program. We’re not using their model but it was certainly inspiring.” Seattle’s P-Patch program was another inspiration.

When James started developing the program just two years ago, thanks to funding from the Hub of Petaluma Foundation that wanted to address hunger in Petaluma, he talked to all of the hunger relief organizations and educators in the area and realized that “if we really want to make a long-term difference we have to focus on more than just hunger relief.” The end result of his community meetings was that focusing energy on an emergency food system wasn’t going to cut it.

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“We think the way to do this [feed a community in need] is to become as self-sustaining as we can.” While not quite there yet, Petaluma Bounty works a little something like this: The chard, kale, broccoli, carrots, peas, onions and other food from the farm is sold to local restaurants who get to brand it on their menus as a Bounty Special, thus educating their diners about the program. Flowers from the farm are sold to local businesses as a weekly subscription, also branded – so that each place they sell is an opportunity for education. The joint sales of the farm are meant to support the operating costs of the farm.

The weekly CSA, Bounty Box, which currently serves 25-35 families, works with existing programs that serve low-income families and sells to them wholesale. These families, jazzed in turn, volunteer to assemble the CSA boxes. The CSA is currently self-sustaining thanks to retail sales and some local corporate sponsors, namely Clover Stornetta Farms, Kaiser Permanente, Exchange Bank, Petaluma Poultry and North Bay Construction.

The Community Gardens and the wholesale cost CSA project got their start thanks to a prior relationship with one of the three schools, which each happen to be the lowest income schools in Petaluma. James met with the families of the students and asked them to participate in the planning process. He asked what they wanted and what they could afford and they all went out to research prices at the local grocery stores to see what they could reasonably grow and sell in the CSA boxes. Their research resulted in an agreement that the community wanted organics and that they could sell them at wholesale for the same price or a little less than the price at local retailers. One of the schools, McDowell School, is both the packing site and a pick up site for the Bounty Box program. The gardens include classroom beds and beds open to local families where they are invited to plant anything legal as long as they do so organically. This helps bring families into the schools. Today there are four gardens being used by 65 families, each with their own plots.

The Bounty Hunters program just reached its 100,000 pound of collected and distributed food, and has two collection sites (for dropping off gleaned food), one at Elim Lutheran Church and another church on the East side of town. The program asks people to drop off any surplus from their gardens and volunteer drivers take the food to local food pantries, senior citizen centers and programs that serve low-income families.

“In addition to its primary objective of connecting good food to people who need it, folks are discovering that gleaning is helping to connect neighbors to neighbors, to increase awareness of the potential bounty of local food systems, and to foster a greater sense of community,” said James.

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It took a year to formulate the multi-pronged approach – one that addressed the question of how to build a community food program healthfully and affordably. The program is doing really well and the plan is to create 20 more gardens around town and launch a GYOB (Grow Your Own Bounty) Program that will teach people of all income levels about how to grow food, understand nutrition and educate them about the current issues facing the food system. “We want people to grow food in backyards, porches, balconies, bathtubs and sidewalks,” said James.

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Jen Dalton is the editor of the Local Eats series, which features how cities all over the United States are rebuilding local food systems from the ground up and conducts interviews for our Faces & Visions of the Food Movement series.  Jen co-produces Kitchen Table Talks, a local food forum in San Francisco and heads up Kitchen Table Consulting which provides strategy and communications services to promote and support sustainable businesses, local economies and good food. Jen is also serves as the Cheese Chair of the Good Food Awards and was the Programs Director for Slow Food Nation '08. Read more >

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  1. What a great idea. I was going to conact my local food bank to see if they'd be interested in some potted tomatoes to hand out this summer for people to grow. I thought if they'd grow a tomato they might get excited about growing more of their own food.
  2. this is such an inspiring story/program. thank you for sharing it!
  3. Mirit Cohn
    It's so great to learn about a community living local values - thank you for this report!

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