The pandemic hit and instantly, farmers like Rodrigo Cala saw business evaporate.
Restaurants, schools and wholesalers canceled contracts for produce from local farms, like the tomatoes, herbs and peppers Cala grows in western Wisconsin.
So he and farmers behind the Shared Ground Farmers' Cooperative, a mostly immigrant-owned co-op in Falcon Heights, looked for a new way to sell food: by giving back.
The co-op tested a new program funded mostly by donations last summer giving community-supported agriculture (CSA) boxes each week to 62 households in need. This summer, the co-op aims to expand to 100 families, doling out boxes of carrots, squash and other fresh vegetables and dairy. The program boosts access to healthy organic foods for low-income communities of color, especially Black and Indigenous residents, while supporting mostly Latino and Hmong farmers with livable wages.
"What we try to do is break that barrier, bringing people that healthy food," Cala said.
The co-op, which usually markets food to restaurants, grocery stores and CSAs, is fundraising now to collect $40,000 to pay for the free food boxes, which will start to be distributed in June.
The new program is a bright spot in an otherwise challenging year for local farmers. But the COVID-19 pandemic also has highlighted local farms' vital role in the market and the racial inequities that persist.
"It takes the pandemic to do that," Cala said of the shift in focus to local food. "We hope it can last longer. … It's important for the community, it's important for the economy, it's important for the health of the people."
Shared Ground started in 2014, organized by farmers and the Latino Economic Development Center, a St. Paul nonprofit. Six Minnesota and Wisconsin farmers, including Cala, own the co-op and work with about a dozen farms.
"People making the decision to support local farms is what makes this possible," said Klaus Zimmermann Mayo, a Wisconsin farmer who is also one of the founding co-op members. "It's just about getting good food to good people."
When the pandemic closed restaurants, Shared Ground lost a third of its business. Then George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police, sparking global outrage and civil unrest that damaged several grocery stores, creating food deserts in Minneapolis.
The colliding crises inspired Shared Ground to launch the Food for the People CSA for residents of color, who are disproportionately impacted by hunger.
For 18 weeks from June to October, volunteers from Divine Natural Ancestry, a Black-led organization, delivered boxes filled with radishes, potatoes, eggs, green tomatoes and other items to 62 homes, eliminating transportation barriers.
"It totally reduces the social stigma of going to a food shelf. This is just a box of food delivered to your door," said Andrea Eger, Shared Ground's coordinator and sole full-time staffer.
Compared with white residents, Black and Hispanic Minnesotans have reported about double the rate of food insecurity — defined as being without consistent access to enough food — during the pandemic. As of December, 38% of white Minnesotans reported being food insecure while 84% of Black residents and 69% of Hispanic residents struggled to afford enough food, according to census data tracked by St. Paul-based Wilder Research.
More families in need were interested in Shared Ground's free program than the co-op could provide for last year.
The co-op also saw a dramatic spike in interest in paid CSAs, selling a record 300 boxes, nearly double the number from the year before. Eger said shoppers saw the bare shelves at grocery stores at the start of the pandemic and the COVID-19 outbreaks at meat-processing plants and perhaps realized the value of locally grown food.
"People were starting to see the weaknesses of the big food system," Eger said. "People really started to think about the food system differently and see that it is in fact very fragile. And supporting more local small-scale farmers is strengthening your local food economy."
Shared Ground is also mostly immigrant-owned, giving immigrant farmers a voice in a largely white sector, Eger added. "I think it's a model other people are inspired by."
Across Minnesota, hunger relief organizations have focused on increasing fresh produce.
For instance, in New Hope, The Food Group, one of seven food banks in Minnesota, shifted to buy more local products such as walleye and wild rice, especially from farmers of color, instead of national wholesalers. The nonprofit ended 2020 buying nearly four times as much food from Minnesota producers as it did in 2019.
In Turtle Lake, Wis., about 75 miles from Minneapolis, Cala is still more than a month away from dropping seeds in the ground but work doesn't end in the winter. He's busy tending to sheep and chickens while preparing his greenhouses and managing the 46 acres he and his brother own.
Cala moved to Minnesota in 2004 from Mexico City, where he had learned conventional farming skills from his mother. In Minnesota, he studied organic agriculture and now balances his full-time farm work with inspiring a new generation, training beginning Latino farmers at the Latino Economic Development Center.
"We're trying to make a living. We want to feed our families. And the only way to do that is the support of the community," he said. "The work of farmers is really important."
To donate to Shared Ground or for more details about their CSA, go to sharedgroundcoop.com.
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141