Opinion/Solutions: Sheriff runs a farm to fill need for food and jobs

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

A sheriff’s department is building on its experiment intended to reduce both hunger in the community and recidivism among people released from jail.

About a decade ago, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office took an unusual step: It started farming.

Then-Sgt. Marty Neideffer, who is now a captain, and Hillary Bass, the executive director of the Alameda County Deputy Sheriffs’ Activities League (DSAL), had just read Van Jones’ The Green Collar Economy, which outlines a vision for tackling economic inequality and environmental problems simultaneously.

Bass, Neideffer, and their colleagues were inspired to follow that strategy to provide sustainable jobs for people coming out of jail, who typically have a difficult time finding work.

“We were figuring out how to interrupt the recidivism rate,” said Bass, noting that their initial goal was to offer economic opportunities to people returning to their homes from jail or prison. “If nothing changes in the hometown you’re going back to, why would your behaviors change?”

Twelve years later, the program they created, Dig Deep Farms, looks a lot different than it did when it started. And while it hasn’t solved the vast problem of economic inequality in the Northern California county of nearly 1.7 million people, Neideffer and Bass have seen a positive impact, and they have more plans for its growth.

The farm employs about 15 farmers who grow food for county health initiatives, run a job-training program for formerly incarcerated people and operate a food hub to distribute fresh produce to people who need it. Now, they are betting big on its future with land leases that will grow it from seven acres of farmland to 100.

The sheriff’s office operates the jails in Alameda County, which lies east of San Francisco and counts Oakland and Berkeley among its most notable cities. The agency also has law enforcement jurisdiction for the unincorporated areas of the county.

The county was once a hub for manufacturing, but factories left the area decades ago, and communities like Ashland and Cherryland have struggled with some of the highest rates of poverty in the county.

Bass saw the farming effort as a chance to create real economic change in the area. “We wanted to create some opportunities economically in our community – let’s just see if it interrupts that cycle,” she said. “If it [also] happens to beautify the earth and feed people healthy food, it’s a no-brainer.”

And yet despite those potential selling points, some community members see the effort—like other community efforts undertaken by law enforcement entities — as a public relations move at a moment when public opinion about the police has waned.

Expanding the farm

Bass recalled the initiative’s first plots of land: a small parcel next to a firehouse and a gravel-filled plot next to a clothing business. To some, creating a project that would meaningfully reduce crime and increase job opportunities sounded like a very tall ask for a couple of inconspicuous empty lots.

Now, nearly a decade later, Dig Deep Farms, which has a home base in the San Leandro Hills, is currently putting the final touches on the new incarnation of Ardenwood Historic Farm, a 90-acre operation it recently acquired through a lease. It will be the newest of six farms and will operate a community supported agriculture (CSA) program as part of a county effort to create what Bass describes as a “circular food economy.”

The new farm will allow Dig Deep to increase its capacity dramatically for growing food: Before signing the five-year lease with the East Bay Regional Parks District, which owns Ardenwood, Dig Deep Farms was farming just seven acres.

The farm’s produce is at the heart of several county-wide initiatives, including a food as medicine program, in which patients at county health clinics are prescribed fresh produce. A person suffering from diabetes, for example, can get a 12-week prescription from their doctor for free fruits, vegetables and herbs that are delivered to their home each week.

Such efforts have emerged across the country to allow health providers to prescribe fresh, unprocessed food to take on the compounding problems of poor health and food insecurity.

Farming for human and environmental health

Steven Chen, the medical director of the ALL IN nutrition program, said the partnership with Dig Deep Farms, which focuses on regenerative farming practices and permaculture, sets it apart.

Regenerative farming is being looked to as a way to sequester carbon dioxide and reduce water pollution and soil erosion. Troy Horton, a permaculture expert and farmer who co-manages Dig Deep Farms, explains the farming philosophy as “do no harm.”

The farmers don’t use pesticides or weed killers, and they don’t till the soil. They use double digging — a technique used to increase soil drainage — and plant companion crops and cover crops together to keep as much of the soil covered as possible, which reduces water usage and deters weeds, Horton said. They preserved the land’s native trees and planted around them, attracting bees and other pollinators.

Chen said it’s reassuring to prescribe food that he knows won’t be laden with pesticides to patients, but it’s more than that.

“I want to challenge the idea in health care that we look at just human health, and instead look beyond at environmental health, soil health and others,” Chen explained.

“Health care in this country is a $3.9 trillion industry, and 90 percent of that goes to chronic disease,” he said. “This is health care waking up, creating and using its dollars to think about food systems.”

Since January 2020, ALL IN has delivered more than 38,500 bags of produce to almost 3,000 patients. With access to 100 more acres, Dig Deep Farms will be able to expand their food supply to meet the demand from a growing number of patients.

In addition to jobs that pay between $20 and $40 an hour, Dig Deep Farms offers internships to those who have been incarcerated. Interns can earn certifications in permaculture design, and some go on to land permanent jobs with the farm operation.

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This story comes from our partners at the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about social issues.