Keeping it fresh!

Food Share partners with many organizations from large scale growers like Driscoll’s to small farming collectives like Baby Root Farm to help ensure that people in need are able to enjoy the abundant fresh produce grown in Ventura County. In this issue we spotlight two of those partners, both committed to the goal of ensuring that everyone in Ventura County has access to nutritious, fresh food.

The VCAAA Senior Nutrition Garden, Oxnard

Ask Bob Mancuso, Head Gardener for the Ventura County Area Agency on Aging’s (VCAAA) Senior Nutrition Garden, about the type of fruits and vegetables he, and a small army of volunteers grow on a plot located next to Food Share’s headquarters, and be prepared for a very long list. “We grow crops on a seasonal basis,” he explains. “But, typically, we grow corn, beets, carrots, bok choy, all the different types of cabbages and broccoli, plus cauliflower, asparagus, peas, beans, turnips, probably eight or 10 different types of squash, multiple varieties of spinach and 15-20 different varieties of peppers.” 

That’s quite a haul from a previously unused plot of land owned by the County of Ventura. Originated in 2010, the VCAAA Senior Nutrition Garden is a collaborative effort between local government, Food Share, and private businesses to provide fresh, local, organic produce to older adults throughout Ventura County. Food Share’s Director of Volunteer Services, Christina Forino, recruits the hundreds of amateur gardeners it takes annually to plant, grow and harvest such an abundance of crops. 

When Bob took over the management of the garden in 2017, it was on a half acre plot and produced around 3,500 pounds of produce a year. Two and a half years later, the garden has expanded to 1.5 acres, the size of a small farm, and is projected to produce over 40,000 pounds of organic fruits and veggies by year end. And these aren’t limited to typical garden variety favorites. Bob, a former chef, also likes to experiment with more unusual vegetables. “The newest crop is a root vegetable called yacón. It’s high in fiber and has a sweetness that doesn’t spike blood sugar. So, it’s great for many of the people we serve because a lot of them are managing diabetes, or have high cholesterol,” says Bob.  

But it’s not only health-concerns that drive decisions about what to plant. “We sometimes have requests from seniors for things that they enjoyed when they were growing up, or have a tough time finding in U.S. supermarkets, like chayote fruit and Malabar spinach,” explains Bob. “We try to accommodate those requests and balance that with the most productive crops. Ultimately, the goal is to be able to produce enough food that we can donate it to other programs, in addition to our seniors.”

Baby Root Farm at McGrath Family Farms, Camarillo

Situated on twenty acres in Camarillo at the historic McGrath Family Ranch, Baby Root Farm is part of a farming collective with aspirations beyond just making a living as farmers. “We want to improve the health of our communities,” says Mike Roberts, Baby Root’s founder. “We can do that by getting our food out there so that everyone in our community, no matter their circumstances, can enjoy it. Food insecurity is a major concern for so many people and Food Share, as our local food bank, has a long-established distribution network. We’re so proud to partner with them. It’s a natural fit.”

Pastor Duncan of Grace Harvest Church in Moorpark, one of Food Share’s network of community-based food pantries, is grateful for the hundreds of pounds a month of surplus produce from Baby Root. The Saturday morning pantry serves between 380-440 individuals every week. “It’s a great blessing for our community and a bright spot in everyone’s week to receive these wonderful, organic, fresh fruits and vegetables,” commented Pastor Duncan. 

Mike Roberts is just happy that he’s able to continue what he sees as the legacy of Phil McGrath, whose family has farmed the 300-acre McGrath Family Ranch since 1868. McGrath’s passion for regenerative farming techniques and educating young farmers is what first inspired Roberts to leave his desk job and embark on a new career. “There are four parts to our mission at Baby Root,” notes Roberts. “To build systems of agriculture that support our community environmentally, socially, economically, and educationally. Being able to offer support to individuals and communities affected by food insecurity through our partnership with Food Share is a big part of that mission.” 

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