Alameda County Sheriffs Bet on Food’s Power to Elevate Communities – Next City
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Alameda County Sheriffs Bet on Food’s Power to Elevate Communities

Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan, her Chief of Staff Dave Brown, and Alameda County Fire Department Fire Chief David Rocha in front of the Dig Deep Farms food truck. (Photo by Corey Brown, courtesy DSAL)

On January 17, the Dig Deep Farms Food Hub, a certified community commercial kitchen and food distribution center, opened in Alameda County, California, under an unlikely operator at an unlikely location. The operator is the Deputy Sheriffs Activities League (DSAL), a nonprofit arm of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office focused on community policing. The location is adjacent to the county’s Juvenile Justice Center, in a warehouse that once held armored police vehicles.

Today, DSAL’s vision is that the warehouse will serve as command center to a network of integrated food businesses that improve access to healthy food, create jobs and incubate small businesses — and in turn, increase public safety.

The link from policing and public safety to a community-driven food economy has been a decade in the works, according to Marty Neideffer, Sheriff’s Office Captain and founder of DSAL. In partnership with Hilary Bass, who he met while she served as resident services coordinator for a local housing developer, the pair developed what they call “community capitals policing” to address huge discrepancies in unemployment, poverty, vacancy and chronic disease in the unincorporated areas of Ashland and Cherryland, located roughly 15 miles east of Downtown Oakland. (Next City profiled DSAL’s work in April 2019.)

Since DSAL’s founding in 2004, the community capitals policing model has resulted in youth-focused outreach, recreation and fitness programs and an “Eden Night Live” community night market. It also led to a focus on the local food economy.

“Years ago as a sergeant, I remember telling my lieutenant that the next great breakthrough in crime prevention was going to be urban farming,” recalls Neideffer. “He was like: ‘what the hell are you talking about?’ There was no understanding that engagement in the local food system could affect public safety or policing.”

But Neideffer and Bass were thinking about the social determinants of health — which include food — alongside job creation and business development in an area with limited access to healthy food. “We know there are linkages between criminogenic factors and the social determinants of health, and we’ve been trying in every conversation to articulate those overlapping issues,” says Bass.

In 2010 DSAL began to grow vegetables in a vacant parcel next to Alameda County Fire Department’s Station #24 and selling it affordably through local food stands. The organization now operates three urban farms across eight acres that feed into the Food as Medicine program run by the Alameda Health System.

In 2011, Neideffer and Bass began talking about a brick-and-mortar food hub not only to expand DSAL’s urban farming but also to serve as a sort of headquarters for a local food economy. After earning the support of the sheriff’s office, they spent several years developing collaborations across the county — including with the Alameda Health System and Alameda County Probation Department — and securing funding.

The “Farmacy” mural on the Food Hub (Photo by Corey Brown)

The $3 million food hub came together with three community development block grants, donations, funding from County Supervisors Wilma Chan and Nate Miley, the sheriff’s office, and a $1.195 million loan from Community Vision. ($187,000 of the loan was provided through the California FreshWorks Credit Enhancement program.)

“The two pieces of the project that most aligned [with Community Vision’s priorities] was that this would be an economic driver and creator of jobs in Alameda County — with an effort to provide opportunities for individuals coming out of incarceration — and an aim to include a commercial kitchen for entrepreneurs who are building businesses and build wealth,” says Sally Smyth, senior loan officer with Community Vision. “Geography is important … it’s not in downtown Oakland, it’s in unincorporated Cherryland and Ashland where there aren’t as many commercial kitchen spaces available.”

The 3,300-square-foot facility now holds a commercial kitchen that can be rented on a single-use or regular basis for cooking and food production, packaging, events and demonstrations. “We were just at the food hub with two local women who make cake and ice cream in their house — who cannot get permitted for production inside their home kitchen — and this space can be an opportunity for them to grow their business and make it real,” says Bass. She adds that as food businesses grow, DSAL can connect them to opportunities like selling at the the Eden Night Live market the nonprofit hosts.

Local entrepreneur Bria Hudson shares samples of her fresh, healthy juices at the Dig Deep Farms Food Hub Grand Opening. (Photo by Corey Brown)

The food hub will also be used to package and distribute food grown in DSAL’s urban farms (as well as other local farms in the area) to food stands and the Food as Medicine program. Supervisor Wilma Chan provided funding for refrigerated distribution vans, which will be operated by formerly incarcerated drivers and food handlers in a partnership with the Probation Department.

After a decade of work, the next challenge is keeping the warehouse running and creating a sustainable financial model. Neideffer and Bass also believe this physical brick and mortar spot will help people understand the link between a strong local food economy and public safety. “It’s huge to have the physical space representing this sprocket, where all the spokes [of community capitals policing] can link to,” says Neideffer. “It helps articulate the work we’ve done, while helping the community have a shot at economic opportunity.”

This article is part of The Bottom Line, a series exploring scalable solutions for problems related to affordability, inclusive economic growth and access to capital. Click here to subscribe to our Bottom Line newsletter. The Bottom Line is made possible with support from Citi.

Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, New York-based reporter who writes about real estate, architecture, urbanism and design. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, Curbed and other publications.

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