Let Them Eat Kale: Corbin Hill Farm

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Fresh zucchini at Corbin Hill Farm in upstate New York.

The folks behind Harlem-based Corbin Hill Farm don’t see sustainably grown local produce as a passing craze for the foodie elite; on the contrary, they’re figuring out a way to make it accessible to low-income communities on a large scale.

Founder and longtime Harlem resident Dennis Derryck has long been aware that people in his community and the nearby South Bronx don’t have much access to good, fresh food. But when it came to solutions, as he saw it, “all these small and beautiful things had very little impact. School gardens, rooftop gardens, educational programs–at the end of the program, where was the parent or the kid supposed to go?”

Derryck saw promise of more lasting change in the community-supported agriculture (CSA) model. But a traditional CSA design–in which members essentially invest in a local farm by paying a large share at the beginning of the season–wouldn’t work for neighborhoods where many residents live on food stamps and struggle to make rent on time. So Derryck tweaked the model to make sense for low-income consumers: Corbin Hill shareholders pay only a week in advance, can put their shares on hold at any time, and can use any form of payment–including food stamps. The program caters to neighborhood cultural tastes by including items like cilantro, tomatillos, and collard greens when possible, and every box comes with recipes written in both Spanish and English.

The actual Corbin Hill Farm sits on 95 acres Derryck owns in Schoharie County, New York. Eleven initial investors provided the start-up funds, and 75 percent of that money, Derryck notes proudly, came from African Americans and Latinos; 51 percent from women. “The investors should look like the community,” he says.

Originally, the plan was for that farm to provide the bulk of the food for urban shareholders, but Derryck soon realized the operation would scale up much faster by sourcing from a network of producers in the area. Now the food delivered to the city comes from a cooperative of 15 farmers–many of them young–who meet every January to devise a harvest plan for the season.

The first year the farm share was up and running, the goal was to reach 175 shareholders. It had 195 the first week. The second year saw an average 450 shareholders. This year, the third, Derryck says they’re averaging 750 shareholders so far. Clearly, he says, “it has struck a chord.”

Shareholders pick up their farm shares at one of 21 sites in Harlem and the Bronx. “Our goal is 150 sites, so nobody has to walk more than three or four blocks,” Derryck says. Most of the sites are in schools, churches, and social organizations–institutions already primed for community outreach, which could help explain the farm shares’ rapid growth.

“Why are we succeeding? It’s very straightforward,” Derryck says. “We provide quality. And it’s affordable. And accessible.”

But, Derryck cautions: Corbin Hill Farm is not a profitable operation yet. It will need at least 1,200 shareholders to break even. But at the rate the program has been growing, that doesn’t sound out of reach.

If it works, Corbin Hill Farm could be a great example of the real impact investment in local food can have when both growers and eaters find power in numbers. Farmers working together upstate benefit from a streamlined distribution process and a guaranteed market; and the more city people buy in, the easier it is to keep prices affordable. And the program also creates a connection between urban and rural communities that are otherwise worlds apart. Last year, when Hurricane Irene wiped out the two largest farms’ crops, shareholders pitched in with donations.

And people outside the community notice, too. Corbin Hill Farm can serve as a model for other neighborhoods to adapt to fit their needs. In the end, it might just show local-food skeptics that good food is only exclusive if you refuse to change the paradigm that keeps it that way.

Claire Thompson is an editorial assistant at Grist. Excerpted from Grist(July 5, 2012), an online magazine that has been dishing out environmental news and commentary with a wry twist since 1999.

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