Over the past few decades, much of the Inland Empire, the metropolitan area east of Los Angeles, saw a massive shift from agricultural production to urban sprawl. A booming shipping industry in Los Angeles and Long Beach lead to a rapid shift from arable land to gigantic warehouses to handle the flow of goods through Southern California’s ports. Despite the changing landscape, organizations are fighting to promote urban agriculture in a region desperately in need of access to fresh, healthy produce. Huerta del Valle Community Garden (HdV), in Ontario, CA, is leading the effort to develop urban farms throughout the Inland Empire, especially in low-income areas where produce access is severely limited. The Inland Empire Resource Conservation District (IERCD), a special district of the county of San Bernardino, has a mission to preserve and enhance the natural resources throughout their district. This includes promoting healthy soil and supporting the historic agricultural roots of the Inland Empire. Together, the IERCD and HdV continuously partner to provide healthy, sustainable food, improve soil health, and protect the Inland Empire’s natural resources.
As a result of the loss of agricultural land, increasing living expenses, and expanding communities, many areas in the Inland Empire have become ‘food deserts’- areas where fresh, healthy food is unavailable, too expensive, or difficult to access. Without easy access to nutritious foods and produce, residents are forced to turn to fast-food chains and convenience stores as they are often the only option. This has become an issue for public health and is especially prevalent in lower income communities.
In one such community in Ontario, HdV’s Executive Director Maria Alonso started looking for a way to provide organic produce for her son, who had recently been diagnosed with ADHD. His doctor told Maria that healthy food could help offset his symptoms without needing medication. But while medication was accessible via insurance, fresh food was prohibitively difficult and expensive to acquire. So, she and a group of neighbors began developing their own garden to provide fresh food for their families.
The project has since grown from a small lot to a 4-acre production area with around 60 community plots. With the guidance of Maria and Project Manager Arthur Levine, they are now looking to develop more urban farms to expand their production and provide educational programs to residents and farmers. HdV’s long term vision is to establish urban gardens throughout the Inland Empire to serve disadvantaged areas, but in the short term, Huerta del Valle is looking to grow its food and education programs in the local community.
One of the most exciting new programs at HdV is its Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, targeted towards local, low-income families. A CSA program connects local farmers with consumers to subscribe to a weekly box of fresh produce allowing families access to fresh food while supporting the farm’s operations. Much of this produce will be “gleaned”- produce that would not be sold to regular, large-scale customers. Not only does this cut down significantly on food waste, but also helps make the boxes affordable. Families can also use food stamps to purchase the boxes, further increasing program accessibility.
As part of the ongoing partnership, IERCD was awarded a grant opportunity though the National Association of Resource Conservation Districts (NACD) to support the expansion of the low-income CSA program. The Urban Agriculture Conservation Grant Initiative is available to member districts to advance agricultural conservation in developed or developing areas. The grant was written to support Huerta del Valle’s CSA program while also engaging farmers in the area to join a network of producers to help provide for the program and expand it into a multi-farm project.
The addition of a full-time CSA coordinator will allow for the expansion of the CSA program, with the first year goal of growing the CSA Program to 40 enrolled families and the long-term objective of reaching 200+ families. The coordinator will also provide outreach to both residents and farmers. Residents and CSA members will have the opportunity to attend workshops on nutrition and healthy cooking. Regional farmers will be approached to support the CSA program by providing excess produce that may not have value on the regular market. In addition, farmers will be introduced to IERCD programs – as well as programs through their Federal partner, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The ultimate objective is to develop a network of farmers and community members to rally behind the mission of local, affordable produce. The expansion of the CSA program will help meet the mission of the IERCD and HDV by supporting urban agriculture, promoting soil health awareness, teaching sustainable growing techniques, and encouraging land conservation.
Besides developing urban farms throughout the region, both the IERCD and HdV place a lot of emphasis on educating residents about the importance of urban farms, nutritional eating, and composting. In 2016, HdV served as a host location for the IERCD’s Student and Landowner Education and Watershed Stewardship Program (SLEWS). This program serves to connect high school students with a local landowner to perform conservation work. Through this program, students built a rain water capture system, helped compost hundreds of pounds of food waste, performed soil testing, and much more. HdV also helped support the development of IERCD’s Farm-to-Fork program, a statewide effort to increasing access to healthy food.
To bolster these programs and add more like them, HdV is also looking to add two education coordinators to help increase their outreach potential. Funded, by IERCD’s Special Projects Fund, these coordinators will be able to add classes on better farming practices, healthy cooking, and sustainability to the region.
The Inland Empire may never be able to return to its agricultural roots, but the residents of this region deserve access to fresh produce and urban gardens provide them with that access. The Inland Empire Resource Conservation District and Huerta del Valle will continue to find ways to reach this through our continued partnership.