Small Southern Arizona farmers are getting a boost from the Tucson Unified School District, which has agreed to purchase locally grown produce from them this school year.
Though TUSD has long utilized Arizona farms, this focused local effort targets small- and mid-size farmers within 90 miles of Tucson, who until now did not have the capacity to serve an organization of TUSD’s size.
Barriers have included an inability to grow enough produce to adequately supply TUSD and, for some, a lack of resources like refrigerated trucks and warehouse storage.
By agreeing to come together and pool their produce, the farmers have positioned themselves to serve as TUSD’s low-volume vendor. The lack of resources has been addressed by the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, which has offered warehouse storage and delivery of the goods.
“Everyone wins in this partnership,” said Michael McDonald, CEO of the food bank. “Kids get to enjoy fresh, local produce and learn about the diverse crops that flourish in our region; local food producers increase sales; and the money stays in Tucson to benefit our local economy. The food bank couldn’t be more excited to be part of this.”
For Dana Helfer and her husband, Paul Buseck, owners of Rattlebox Farm on Tucson’s southeast side, this is the beginning of something great.
They have been farming for seven years, first operating on the west side before moving to their new property two years ago. They primarily sell their organic produce at the Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market.
“Without that, there isn’t a stable market within Tucson to support consistent purchasing of produce,” Helfer said. “There are farms that go to several farmers’ markets a week, but none of those are sufficient to absorb the produce they are growing.”
As a result, many lose money, said Helfer, who has been able to mostly avoid that by working with the food bank, which has a consignment program for small- and mid-size growers.
“At the moment, what we’re doing now works for us, but in the coming year or two when we implement our plan to expand on our property, this co-op and having access to these resources will be enormously helpful,” she said.
The TUSD Governing Board approved the agreement in July, awarding contracts to the Community Food Bank and also to Denver-based FreshPack Produce to deliver to the central warehouse and 20 middle and high school sites at a cost of $1.5 million a year — about the same amount the district has paid in previous years, some of which will be covered by grants.
FreshPack will serve as the high-volume vendor, while local farmers’ produce will be delivered in smaller quantities for educational projects like student food tastings and international food stations at select schools.
Helfer is hopeful that over time she and the network of farmers will be able to better understand TUSD’s produce needs, allowing them to organize and find ways to meet it, growing the relationship.
TUSD food services director Shirley Sokol is on board with that idea.
“The district is enthusiastic about this new partnership,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity to help our children get the proper nourishment they need to become the leaders of tomorrow. We’re also glad to expand our local support for Arizona farmers, which will now include small farms within a close proximity to the community we serve.”
Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at email@example.com or 573-4175. On Twitter: @AlexisHuicochea