Laura Brehm restocks vegetables at the Sleeping Frog Farms booth at Mercado San Agustín. Sleeping Frog is one of the bigger farms teaming up with the Community Food Bank and Tucson Medical Center. The latter serves 2,000 meals a day.

Small local farmers are getting an opportunity to plant more crops thanks to a new program that guarantees a purchase of their produce.

Through a collaboration with the Community Food Bank, Tucson Medical Center has agreed to buy hundreds of pounds of produce from farmers within a 90-mile radius of the hospital.

For farmers, it takes the risk out of expanding their crop because there’s a large secured buyer. TMC serves more than 2,000 meals a day.

“We love it,” said T.J. Johns, owner of Sonoran Hydroponics. “It creates that bridge for the local grower to be able to enter that market.

“This has really given us a good opportunity to expand.”

Johns grows cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce in hydroponic tanks.

His produce can be found at Time Market, Food Coop and Five Points Market, as well as several farmers markets around town.

“More and more, people want to know where their food is coming from,” he said, noting that he began farming as a way to satisfy what he sees as the three basic human needs: water, food and energy.

“Food was something I could handle,” he said with a laugh, “but the outdoors is not my thing.”

He prefers greenhouse growing. Visit www.facebook.com/sonoranhydroponics to learn more.

One of the largest farms taking part in the program is the 75-acre Sleeping Frog Farm in Cascabel, which specializes in root crops.

240 lbs. of cucumbers

The Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona received a USDA Local Foods Promotion grant last year to facilitate a relationship between agricultural producers and institutions, said Kara Jones, the food bank’s farmers’ markets manager.

“Local farms have been losing money each year because they do not have enough outlets to sell all the fruits and vegetables they produce,” she said. “At the same time, local institutions had expressed an interest in supporting the local food economy, but didn’t have an easy access point to buy products.”

The food bank’s role is to coordinate farmers and place preseason orders so they can plant an adequate supply.

“This aligns with TMC’s health and community mission as the only community hospital in our region, so it is an ideal partnership,” Jones said.

This past season, TMC bought 240 pounds of cucumbers, 100 pounds of slicing tomatoes and 100 pounds of cherry tomatoes through the program.

Beth Dorsey, TMC’s director of food services, said the farmers were given a tour of the hospital’s kitchen to see how the food would be used.

“By providing economic security for farmers, they have greater confidence to hire additional workers, which supports the region’s economic health as a whole and keeps resources within the local community,” Dorsey wrote on a hospital blog post.

TMC sponsors farmers markets and offers planting space for employees in its community garden.

Businesses interested in participating can call Kara Jones at 882-3313.

Contact reporter Gabriela Rico at grico@tucson.com

Reporter

Gabriela's newspaper career began at the Tucson Citizen in '86 as the "movie-times girl" where she'd call local theaters for showtimes. Since then, she's written about crime, education, immigration, trade and business. She's been with the Star since 2007.