Envisioning an Edible City: Soil Born Farms Connects Community to Food
Shawn Harrison is a man on a food mission. If you ask the co-founder of Soil Born Farms about the nonprofit’s purpose, you’ll get a history lesson and personal vision all rolled into one.
“What we stumbled upon early was this idea that as more people moved into cities and became disconnected from an intimate relationship with food, a lot of issues started to emerge—health issues, environmental issues, hunger,” Harrison said. “So when we asked ourselves what Soil Born could do, a lot of our programs were designed to help create a holistic, urban-rural food system that promotes health and well-being.”
Under the name “Soil Born Farms,” the description reads “Urban Agriculture and Education Project.” Through its agriculture initiatives, the farm produces organic fruits and vegetables, trains the next generation of farmers, and harvests fruit from backyard trees to share with those in need. Through its education project, Soil Born teaches schoolchildren where their food comes from and offers adult classes in everything from cooking basics to advanced gardening. Every activity is designed to connect food, health and the environment.
“If you think about food—at least in the last 50, 60, 70 years—it’s been relegated as a rural act. And we completely dismiss that concept,” Harrison said. “It’s a human act. It has to be an urban-rural whole food system.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 81% of the U.S. population lives in urban areas, up from 64% in 1950. More people mean more food insecurity— households that are unable, at some time during the year, to provide adequate food due to lack of resources. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported 14% of U.S. households were food insecure, and that number rose to 20% for households with children under 18.
Urban farms, such as Soil Born’s 55-acre American River Ranch in Rancho Cordova, are only part of the solution. Most urban areas lend themselves to small gardens in homes, schools and community spaces. But what if the surplus from those gardens could enter the food grid, providing fresh produce for the food insecure?
Soil Born created Harvest Sacramento to do that. The program organizes community volunteers to harvest fruit from backyard trees, then donates the produce to the Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services.
“It’s about neighbors helping neighbors,” said Soil Born Co-Director Janet Zeller. “We know we can do our part, offering fruit from our backyard that we can’t use. But participating in this program also says we are not going to tolerate children going hungry who are sleeping a block away. It makes us a part of the solution.”
Thanks to a recent grant, Harvest Sacramento will not only glean fruit. It will also work with the Sacramento Tree Foundation to plant new fruit trees, teach homeowners how to take care of their trees, and sponsor garden builds.
Grants are one way to build programming and infrastructure for the nonprofit. But Harrison and Zeller agree that Soil Born’s financial health requires additional support from local businesses and individuals. They’re busy planning for their harvest fund-raising, which kicks off with the 13th annual Autumn Equinox Celebration on Saturday, September 19, at its original 1.5- acre farm on Hurley Way in Arden-Arcade.
“In order for this work to expand and have full impact, it requires the buy-in of the community,” Harrison said. “The community has to come and support it.” Community support comes from all ages. Through school field trips and summer day camps, children get a hands-on education in where their food comes from.
“We know for a fact that children who are involved in the growing or cooking of the food are willing to try things they normally would turn up their nose at,” Zeller said. “That’s powerful. And the ramifications of getting kids excited about healthy food when they’re young, and creating lifelong habits and memories with food—that can literally change the course of someone’s life and health.”
Soil Born also offers many adult classes and activities, including its Saturday farm stand, which operates from late May through mid-November. Shoppers come to the American River Ranch to buy organic produce harvested and sold by apprentice farmers, watch a cooking demonstration or simply enjoy a cup of coffee.
“When the food is grown right here, coming out of the ground, and you can go to a farm stand on Saturday and pick it up, that’s amazing,” said Leslie Julianel, who has shopped at Soil Born for the past three summers. “The food is so fresh, and you taste the difference when you cook it.” She’s sitting at a picnic table with farm stand friends, including young couple Hannah and Sterling Ashman. “We love being able to have a connection with a farm in the middle of the city,” Hannah Ashman said. “It’s rejuvenating.”
During its first 15 years, Soil Born created the infrastructure and programming to deliver on its food mission. But ask Shawn Harrison about his vision for the future, and he’s likely to paint a picture of an edible city.
“I see a time when the urban environment is not a tangential player in the food system, but it plays a vital role in terms of production and education,” Harrison said. “So our urban populace starts to feed itself. It’s highly educated. And through education, that leads to improved health, better environmental stewardship and the support for a more dynamic agricultural economy.
“How sad it would be if, 50 years from now, this uneducated population continues to be disconnected from food, if we continue to pave over farmland and steer investment away from agriculture. All of a sudden, the capacity of a region like this is lost. And how will we feed ourselves as a human society?”