The Covid-19 pandemic hit local farmers hard. Small to midsize farms lost 90 to 100 percent of their restaurant business when the shelter-in-place order was issued in the Bay Area in March.
To help defray the losses, the Agricultural Institute of Marin (AIM), best known for operating the certified Marin Farmers Markets, developed a new partnership with regional farmers. AIM, a 35-year-old nonprofit agency, buys seasonal fruits, vegetables and herbs directly from the growers and packs them into a Bounty Box.
“Community members order Bounty Boxes, prepay and pick them up curbside at the Farmers Market,” AIM Chief Executive Officer Andy Naja-Riese says. “They don’t even have to get out of their cars.”
The program, a win-win for farmers and consumers, prompted AIM to go a couple of steps further. CalFresh/EBT (formerly food stamps) recipients can purchase Bounty Boxes at half-price, courtesy of Bank of America. AIM also received funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to donate Bounty Boxes to nonprofit groups.
“It’s been challenging, but there’s been some silver lining to help people stay healthy through good nutrition,” Naja-Riese says. “Now, we’re trying to figure out the future of our funding through the USDA, or private funders if that doesn’t come through.”
The Bounty Box is just one of AIM’s many successful programs. The foundation of the organization is seven year-round farmers markets located throughout Marin, San Francisco and Oakland. The Marin markets take place every Thursday and Sunday, rain or shine, at the Civic Center in San Rafael.
The Thursday market is commonly known as the local chef’s market due to the number of professional chefs who come to buy fresh ingredients for their restaurants. It hosts 100 farmers, food purveyors and artisans. The Sunday market, the third largest farmers market in California, is twice the size with 200 stalls. It was also named by the New York Times as one of the county’s top places to visit.
When the shelter-in-place orders went into effect six months ago, the governor deemed the farmers markets an essential service. AIM was forced to drastically alter operations to conform to the new Covid-19 guidelines. Market aisles were widened dramatically to allow proper social distancing. Shoppers can no longer touch the produce; they now must point to what they want and the seller packages it for them. Entertainment, music and children’s events were unfortunately nixed.
Though the market experience has changed, folks still line up to purchase the harvest of produce, meat, fish, dairy, nuts, legumes, foods cooked on site, flowers and a variety of prepared foods, including jams, jelly, pickles and hot sauces.
“We’ve actually seen during COVID that many people are coming to our farmers markets for the first time,” Naja-Riese says. “They feel safer compared to the grocery store, because they’re in an outdoor space buying food from places they can trust. It’s the fewest hands possible touching the food. Buying food directly from the person who grew it gives you comfort, a feeling of safety and peace of mind.”
The farmers markets match CalFresh/EBT purchases dollar for dollar up to $10. This year, AIM has already matched $190,000, which is more than any past year. The program, funded through a grant, gives shoppers access to healthy, affordable food.
If you can’t make it to one of the farmers markets, check out Rollin’ Root, AIM’s mobile market. Stocked with fruits, vegetables and dairy products straight from the farmers market, the food truck runs three days a week, making 11 stops in Marin at senior housing centers and food deserts, such as Marin City and West Marin. The delivery program’s main objective is to ensure the entire community has fresh food options, regardless of transportation or economic barriers.
Rollin’ Root has been vital throughout the pandemic, especially for seniors. It’s often their only opportunity to purchase mostly organic produce each week. Many older adults isolating at home suffer from loneliness or depression; an additional Rollin’ Root benefit is they can safely spend time outdoors interacting with the staff and their neighbors.
In addition to providing the community with access to farm-fresh food, education—in the form of three children’s programs—is key to AIM’s mission. AIM visits schools with Diggin’ in the Classroom, which encourages kids to think and care about how their food ends up on their plate. During the pandemic, they’ve shifted to virtual tours and online videos for distance learning.
When field trips resume, Diggin’ in the Farm will once again give students the chance to go to a working farm, where they’ll observe fields in different growing stages, learn about soil microbes, feed sheep and more.
Students participating in Diggin’ in the Market tour the farmers market with Mr. Green Jeans and meet the people who harvest their food. The excursion inspires them to get excited about food and make healthy choices.
AIM plans to construct a new, permanent building at the Marin Civic Center in San Rafael in the near future. The design will address climate change by reducing the use of greenhouse gases and incorporating renewable energy sources.
“It will be a world-class center to connect eaters and chefs with growers and meat, fish and dairy producers,” Naja Riese says. “We’re creating an authentic, welcoming and inclusive space. Right now, we’re working with hundreds of stakeholders—farmers, the county and many others—to develop the plan.”
The building will include a visitor center and demonstration kitchen where people can learn to cook nourishing meals using wholesome ingredients. There will also be space to host specialty lectures for the community and workshops for farmers and food business owners to improve and grow their companies.
While the center is based in Marin, Naja-Riese sees people coming from all over the Bay Area and California to experience the state-of-the art center and buy products from local farmers and food makers.
“We’re in the process of updating cost estimates, but we’re hoping to keep it between 10 and 15 million,” Naja-Riese says. “The Department of Food and Agriculture gave us $2,000,000 seed funding and we’ll be working on a broadscale funding campaign.”
It’s difficult to imagine how AIM manages all these programs and a few more with only 22 employees, especially when Covid-19 has put a huge strain on the agency. Nevertheless, they’ve soldiered on, working around the clock to keep the community food markets operating.
“We’ve maintained our ability to make a space for farmers and their products and feed the community,” Naja-Riese says. “It’s been very rewarding for our staff and for me.”