Meet a woman whose drive, passion, and creativity are creating a lasting impact in the urban neighborhoods of West Sacramento. She is to food systems in California what spinach is to Popeye.
Sara Bernal is the Program Manager for the West Sacramento Urban Farm Program1 at the Center for Land-Based Learning.2 She practices and teaches urban agriculture as a way to increase food security in her community.
Her most recent project, using a mobile farmers’ market, makes it possible to reach that many more people. With her mobile market, she can take the fresh produce grown at those urban farms and bring it directly to people living in food deserts.
We caught up with Sara to talk more about the project, funding, and mobile market trucks.
Inspiring and Growing the Next Generation of Urban Farmers in California
The Center for Land-Based Learning is a non-profit organization focused on agriculture initiatives in California.2 Started in 2014, the West Sacramento Urban Farms Program3 is part of their Farm Business Incubator Program.4
Sarah is busy helping a new generation of farmers to start their own small farms. She does this by providing them with the land, tools, infrastructure, and mentorship they need to be able to run their own successful businesses.
Doing this in an urban environment makes vacant lots useful and beautiful again. And it also increases food access in low-income neighborhoods.
It also has an economic impact by increasing the number of small businesses and putting more money back into the local economy. In 2019 alone, the program helped launch 9 new farms.5
The West Sacramento Urban Farms Program has 4 major farm sites on which 6 different farmers can run their small farms. With the help of over 600 volunteers, they produce over 25,000 lbs of produce a month in the peak seasons.
So, what do they do with this incredible bounty? It gets distributed in the local area through food banks, schools, restaurants, farm stands, and of course, a mobile farmers’ market.
Getting Creative: Using the Wrong Grant the Right Way
We were lucky enough to talk to Sara about how she was able to get funding for a mobile market truck. What strikes us most about Sara’s story is her creativity and drive to get her idea off the ground.
She realized that the best way to create the most impact for community residents was to bring the food directly to them. Sara knew a mobile market truck was the answer.
“Having this truck is going to allow us to go to where people are already going and make accessing that food a much easier process for them,” Sara told us.
But, how do you get funding for a custom vehicle? In Sara’s case, she got creative with a grant from the California Department of Food and Agriculture.6 In 2019, she saw a grant that was meant to help small convenience store owners to access refrigeration units.7
“They wanted to increase the sales of locally grown produce throughout the state of California.”
“They had identified that corner stores were a lot more prevalent than grocery stores in most inner-city neighborhoods and that in some instances buying the refrigeration units to store produce was prohibitive for the store owner,” explains Sara.
“The grant was intended to reduce this barrier by allowing owners of corner stores to purchase refrigeration units allowing them to sell fruits and vegetables in their store.”
Regardless, Sara reached out to the department. She explained that their organization didn’t have a brick and mortar store, but would like to make the produce mobile with a refrigerated truck.
The department was very open to the idea and that same year she was successful in receiving the grant. After delays caused by Covid-19, they were finally able to launch their mobile market in July 2021.8
Food Access: Take the Urban Farm to the People With a Mobile Farmers’ Market
We’re so excited to see the real impact that having the truck has made on people’s lives so far!
They make sure to schedule stops at seniors & affordable housing complexes, where most residents don’t have access to a car.
Our goal is to get to as many low-income people as possible but all people really need more access to food,” says Sara.
On their first day of operation, they stopped at a seniors residence, the Margaret McDowell Manor. The seniors were so grateful to see the truck and the fresh, local fruits and vegetables. Some even said they hadn’t had fresh produce in months.
Every Tuesday morning since, there’s a lineup of seniors just waiting for the farmers’ truck to arrive! Residents say they look forward to the truck coming every week. They love the local produce, and they feel healthier because of it.
So Much More Than Just Fresh Fruits and Vegetables
Not only does their mobile market offer produce grown at their urban farms, but they also stock shelf-stable pantry items like rice, beans, and pasta. They also hand out recipe cards and cookbooks for free.
Bringing wholesome food items right to people that have limited food access means that they can provide them with the food that they want too. Growing and selling culturally-appropriate food is a big part of what the West Sacramento Urban Farm Program does.
Often, they’ll ask their customers what they’d like to see on the farmers’ market truck. In the warm California climate, they can grow pretty much anything at their urban farms.
Another bonus is that their mobile market customers on SNAP get a 50% discount on every purchase up to $40.
What a great way to give the residents of West Sacramento the tools and food they need to live healthier lives. Sara aims to make it easier for people to eat healthy, even if they have limited income and transportation.
With diet-related diseases like diabetes and obesity on the rise, using food as medicine is more important than ever. However, changing habits is an upward battle.
Sara explains, “It’s been really difficult to find ways for community members to create new habits. For instance, go to farm stands and add another stop to their day-to-day life.”
Community Partnerships Make All the Difference
The idea of food as medicine isn’t new. What we eat directly impacts our health and risk of disease.9 With that in mind, Sara understood that partnering with the community plays an important role in how urban farms can help increase food security.
Working with health clinics is one piece of the puzzle. And having a mobile market truck makes it that much easier to partner up with the right organizations and provide the right types of services.
Sara tells us, “We did some different types of research and talked to different community clinics. Moreover, we realized that they are already offering cooking classes for people that are pre-diabetic or diabetic.
The idea is that we could park the mobile market truck at different health clinics right after the cooking classes are done. Also, people can purchase the same ingredients that were just used in the cooking class for their meal planning at our truck.”
Sara didn’t stop there. She’s collaborated with other community partners to develop a prescription voucher program within the healthcare system. The purpose is to provide people with a means of getting healthy food as a prescription.
She also works with local school districts to make it easier for families to access healthy food. Some families don’t have the time or resources to get to the grocery store every week.
The mobile farmers’ market makes fresh, healthy food more convenient for them by bringing it straight to their children’s schools.
Her community-based approach helps her to gain a better understanding of the needs and barriers of its residents.
A Story That Inspires
“Our objective with the truck is increase food access in the community”.Sara Bernal
Sara Bernal’s dedication to increasing food security through urban agriculture is an inspiration to non-profits everywhere. One of her goals is to be able to create a self-sustaining food system. Operating a mobile farmers’ market helps her do just that.
Sara teaches us to think outside the box, but also to use the resources that we already have.
Are there vacant lots in your city? Why not turn them into urban farms like Sara did. Or how about getting creative when it comes to applying for grants? You never know what you can get unless you try.
Let us help you be a food hero like Sara and reach more people in your community. Contact us today to learn more about the benefits of operating a mobile farmers’ market.