An hour before school lets out at Cocopah Middle School in Scottsdale, a steady but slow stream of drivers pull into the parking lot to pick up insulated bags of fresh produce through the Farm Raiser program. For one hour, Megan Gardener, a farmer, parks a Rhibafarms van near the front office and shows 31 buyers this week’s local selection, including Egyptian spinach and beansprouts.
Lara Vineyard, the president of the middle school’s Association of Parents and Teachers picks up seven bags to deliver to teachers who are in class and parents who are unable to pick up theirs. . For every $25 bag of produce sold, the APT earns $2.50.
“We’re exploring different ways to fund-raise for the school and provide service to our greater community,” Vineyard said. “We understand that everyone is busy; to provide fresh produce and have one less trip to the grocery store is a win-win.”
The Farm Raiser program is one of the latest efforts from the Sun Produce Cooperative, a group of eight small farmers working together to keep their farms running successfully. The produce travels more than 50 miles to be ready for Farm Raiser boxes. From the farms across central Arizona it travels to Maya’s Farm in South Phoenix to be aggregated. They are picked up by Rhibafarms and brought to the San Tan Valley where they will be driven from to be distributed at five Tempe and Scottsdale schools on Fridays and Saturdays. It’s a long journey, but for the farmers it has been worth it.
“I feel like I’m back at the beginning of development again,” said Maya Dailey of Maya’s Farm. “That’s part of why we started the Sun Produce Cooperative, pooling local farmers together in way that we can aggregate and build a customer base and the capacity of small farms.”
Schools and other distributers don’t often want local produce because it might be a liability. To get around this, in 2017, a group of smaller farmers earned their Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) certification, a voluntary audit commonly used by larger farms to ensure produce is grown, packed, handled and stored safely.
“Small farmers are underserved. We’re sandwiched hard between the real industry and the desire to see this happen,” Dailey said. “The plight of the small farmer in this country is pretty sad right now.”
The group received some assistance with paperwork by the Maricopa County Department of Health and Cindy Gentry, a food systems coordinator. At the end of the training, they decided to pool their resources. This idea is not new either. There are other informal partnerships within the state, like Yuma’s Leafy Green taskforce that aims to prevent foodborne illnesses and the Tucson Unified School District’s relationship purchasing locally.
“Instead of [the farmers] doing everything by [themselves], they began to build relationships of trust around food safety certificates,” said Gentry. “Let’s figure out ways for people to work together, to gain entry into new markets. Not necessarily competing with the big guys and gals, because we can’t, but let’s find our niche.”
The group began making deliveries a few months later, with their first customer Litchfield Elementary School District in western Maricopa County. Their produce is used weekly in the cafeteria to give the students a fresh addition to their lunches.
Less than a year ago, the Sun Produce Co-Op began the Farm Raiser program. Parents and teachers are able to buy a bag of fresh, local produce weekly and in turn a portion of the sales to support the school.
The Cooperative is still in its infancy and is clarifying its goals. Dailey is interested in expanding the program’s nutrition educational outreach, and Gentry wants to expand the Farm Raiser program to another five schools in the next five years. They need more staff, trucks, a place to aggregate, marketing and a field coordinator to really thrive. But that takes money and time, two things farmers have a very short supply of.
“It’s been bubblegum and paperclips because we don’t have a truck,” Gentry said. “We use different growers’ vehicles. We use [different farmers’] coolers. We just kind of make it work. The big idea is cooperation, coordination, leverage and to create a demand, to give a taste of Arizona.”
In October, the Cooperative will begin deliveries in Creighton School District, just northeast of downtown Phoenix, and is piloting an assembly-line style of Farm Raiser boxes in Mesa. Grants are always being filled out, and Gentry is also searching for partnerships that can be forged between the Sun Produce Co-Op and other programs.
Dailey believes that spreading awareness about the Sun Produce Cooperative and educating people on the value of nutrition will help their cause.
“We swim upstream a lot,” Dailey said. “There’s not a lot of funding and there’s not a lot of support systems in place for farmers. But, when you educate a customer base, they have the ability to act with their dollar differently.”
In the upcoming years, the Cooperative is looking to expand the reach of its Farm Raiser Box program to more schools, expand their emerging nutrition education program and increase the number of schools serving local produce in their cafeterias.