There’s something humbling about a 100-year old orange tree. Ancient, deeply rooted, with a gnarly trunk as thick as an old washing machine tub, its leafy crown is elegantly coiffed like that that of a manicured dowager. When standing in a large grove of these beauties one can’t help but imagine what they have seen in their lifetime, or what sweet murmurings may have passed from one to the other by way of soft summer breezes. In the midst of this quiet oasis in the otherwise hurly-burly world of San Bernardino County, there must be moments of playful giggling as the trees’ leaves were tickled by the harvesters’ hands. But as sprawl grew closer and the bulldozer’s roar got louder, the conversations must have grown more anxious as the body count of neighboring groves mounted and the subdivisions marched up the nearby hill.
By 4 o’clock on this July day, the temperature is still over 100. I’m standing in an orange grove owned by Bob Knight, fourth generation orchard man and general manager of Old Grove Orange. With us are Rebecca Hoggarth, a staff member of Community Action Partnership, San Bernardino County’s community action agency, and Loma Linda University public health professor, Eddy Jara, both leaders of the new San Bernardino Food Policy Council. Together, this threesome are working to protect these groves from development while promoting healthy eating and food security across the county.
None of those goals will be realized easily. San Bernardino County is big – the largest geographic county in the nation – and poor – it has nearly 400,000 low-income residents, about 20 percent of the population. The county is sliced and diced with freeways and warehouses that stretch as far as the eye can see. As the transportation hub for truck and train traffic that distributes the world’s goods arriving at the Port of Los Angeles, the place gives off a rough, diesel infused vibe. Perhaps it’s not coincidental that the city of San Bernardino is the site of the unofficial McDonalds Restaurant Museum which commemorates the nation’s first McDonalds, opened here in 1940. And as a testament to the chain’s enduring legacy, McDonalds recently tore down an orange grove to build a restaurant In nearby Loma Linda, known, unofficially, as “America’s healthiest city.”
Fortunately, Knight, Hoggarth, and Jara have a vision that builds on a different food history. Before there were freeways, fast-food joints, and obesity, San Bernardino County was home to California’s first commercial fresh-packed orange businesses. The power of this legacy and the promise for the county’s future is partially powered by Bob Knight’s development of the Inland Orange Conservancy, a non-profit, and Old Grove Orange, a for-profit farm enterprise which acts as a food hub for 28 area growers.
After college, Knight joined on with Fortune 500 telecomm giants to wire the world. Though he acquired a great deal of business acumen, he realized that he had become disconnected from any form of community. “I was a cog in a huge corporation,” he told me, “that can be disposed of in a nano second. I also became aware of how unresilient and cold our global system had become.”
With an entrepreneurial zeal that would leave most head’s spinning, Knight returned to the family farm and started the Inland Orange Conservancy soon to be followed by the food hub. The IOC operates a 1200 member community supported agriculture project, a “mini-farmers’ market” program to bring fresh local food and food knowledge to the area’s public schools, and donates tons of surplus produce to Helping Hands, an area food bank.
While Knight’s work was having an impact, it wasn’t enough to keep the bulldozers at bay. It was the food hub that gave area farmers the opportunity get on board the farm-to-school train and ensure the viability of their farms. Interestingly, farm-to-school wasn’t a new idea for Knight whose father started selling into the nearby Fontana school district over 30 years ago. But by aggregating their produce, the Old Grove Orange hub’s growers are now selling up to 5,000 boxes a week to 24 school districts with a combined student population of 1.5 million. According to Knight, “Farm to school was lifesaver and a farm saver.”
There are a number of factors which make the hub a competitive vendor. First, according to Knight, there’s a five-fold markup from grower to schools when one goes through the current citrus distribution chain (“Oranges,” said Knight, “are an egregious example of the commodification of agriculture.”). By “going direct” the hub eliminates much of that markup. Second, by aggregating all these orders into one, each farmer’s transaction costs drop significantly. Third, since they are not in the global citrus distribution chain, they don’t need expensive waxing equipment and post-harvest chemicals. “You just pick ‘em and pack ‘em,” said Knight. And last (you got to love this), as an orange tree gets older, its oranges get smaller thus concentrating their sugars. In other words, a 100-year old matriarchal tree is producing a very sweet orange tailor made for a 10-year old hand.
As much as IOC and the hub are breathing new life into the area’s agriculture, the threats to its long term survival remain real. Developers are bidding up land to as much as $100,000 per acre. For a 37-acre operation like Knight’s, he and his entire family would be set for life if they sold out. This is where Rebecca Hoggarth and Eddy Jara, the movers and shakers behind the San Bernardino Food Policy Council come in. As Hoggarth says, “The food hub has oranges that taste like oranges, and the food policy council wants to do everything it can to help farmers like Bob.”
One ironic exception to the hub’s list of participating school districts is San Bernardino. For reasons that seem both personal and historical, Old Grove Orange has not been able to sell to the district which has 50,000 students. “I think the food policy council can help with that,” said Hoggarth.
At a recent food policy meeting held at Loma Linda University, it became obvious how the future of the county’s food system was a community responsibility. Not only was Bob Knight among the 40 people in attendance, there was strong participation from many other stakeholder groups including the Latino Health Collaborative, community garden organizations, emergency food providers, Slow Food, and numerous public agencies. Farmland preservation, obesity reduction, and farm to school were all part of the Council’s discussion, which echoed something that Knight had told me earlier: “Food is a community creator. Whereas the global food system cuts people out, the local food system keeps people in.”