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America’s farm-to-fork capital is still struggling to lift up urban farmers

Sacramento touts itself as the farm-to-fork capital of the nation, yet still has food deserts and roadblocks for urban farmers — especially farmers of color.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Once the City of Trees with more trees per capita than anywhere in the U.S. — a name that goes back to the 1850s — Sacramento regularly competed with Paris for the top slot in the world. Yet in 2012, Sacramento was recognized as "America's Farm-to-Fork Capital," a branding campaign aimed at uplifting regional farming and aiding culinary tourism. The name made it into the larger community consciousness in 2017, when it was plastered on the local landmark water tower — erasing the previous "City of Trees" signage and shocking many residents.

"This recognition as America's Farm-to-Fork Capital isn't something that this region needs to grow into because we've been walking this walk for decades," then-Mayor Kevin Johnson said in 2012 when the award was given to the city. 

Sacramento does have a sizeable urban farming scene. Downtown apartment complex balconies are sprinkled with greenery — native flowers, herbs and vegetables scaling the city's heights. New construction generally gives homes small, patio-sized backyards. Plenty of urban farms grow produce year-round, as well as a city-initiated community gardening program where residents can rent plots. 

There are also newer initiatives like the Oki Park project, which is turning a 6.3-acre unused utility lot into a community hub with a dog park, urban farm and community plots and is set to be lined with native hedgerows. 

However, locals still struggle with the new identifier and the lack of action that has come with it, including Sacramento's own USDA-designated food deserts

"'America's Farm-to-Fork Capital' feels self-congratulatory and just makes me think of gentrification. It's a sales pitch for tourism, but also for well-heeled people that want their neighborhood to be associated with those sorts of buzzwords," said Spencer Lahr, a Sacramento resident. 

Long-time community member Alfred Melbourne, the owner of Indigenous-led Three Sisters Gardens, has been working in the community for years to bring fresh, organic produce to those affected by food deserts and gang injunctions. Unfortunately, these roadblocks have led to over-criminalizing the area's youth — predominantly Black, Indigenous and other people of color. 

"I'm here to work with these at potential high promise youth and keep them from falling into the system and a trap, which we know is quite literally just modern-day slavery," Melbourne said. "We know that starting from point A when you feed a kid better, they perform better, test scores go up and behavioral problems go down."

Three Sisters Gardens, a nonprofit urban farming program established in 2018, was born out of Melbourne's experiences with incarceration and understanding of the school-to-prison pipeline. After his release and meeting with one of his elders, a vacant lot next to the elders' house was donated to Melbourne, and the urban farm was born.

"I realized what was happening out here in our community. And I knew that when I came home, I had to be a part of the solution and not part of the problem," Melbourne said. 

Now, Three Sisters Gardens has four farms, pays youth for their work on the farms, brings chefs in to teach them how to prepare different produce, and hosts skill shares and community events like movie nights and concerts. In addition, they donate their harvest weekly to food banks and make preassembled bags of produce to give out to community members at no cost — each bag clocking in at over eight pounds. All the work is divided up between six to ten paid young people, depending on funding, and twelve regular volunteers. 

Three Sisters Gardens is on the cusp of its fifth location, in a highly sought previous tree nursery for which the government was accepting proposals. Melbourne and his team were unanimously voted to take on the space and have since been waiting for the "red tape" and bureaucracy to clear so they can break ground. 

Melbourne's work goes beyond the garden — a testament to the power of community and solidarity. Melbourne helped form the Broderick and Bryte Neighborhood Association to combat gerrymandering, preserve three City Council seats and keep their historic district together — a ruling in their favor came down last week. 

"This just happened where our small little farm in the community gave people a space to come and get together and talk and unify our collective voice and put together a strong front so that we could combat issues like this. I don't want to take all the credit, but I know that we were an integral part to help bring community members together and give us the hope that we need, and then the rest of the community- they came out in force. We couldn't have done it without them," Melbourne said. 

Despite Three Sisters Gardens working in the community and having a heavy presence past a box of peppers, Farmers who are Black, Indigenous and people of color aren't afforded the same opportunities and funding as their white counterparts.

"White-led organizations [are] coming out here, stealing space and helicoptering over our community standing because they have the privilege of the degrees and the time. They're standing in front of us at all the lines to receive funding now. They're coming out here trying to mirror the work that we're doing and cutting us off," Melbourne explained. "I know that they're talking to City Council, county supervisors to try to get more land out here, when we've been scraping along for four years with no money, no pay doing the work."

Melbourne will continue to grind and work on his goals for Three Sisters Gardens, which include a co-op facility to "transform our community and create a food oasis from a food desert" and work with the city to take over a permanent lease. 

"As a full-blooded Native American, I'm landless in my own country. So to have space like this, that we could never afford, would be a strong foothold in our own community, in our own land, to be able to continue to grow and support a needed community." Melbourne said. 

Melbourne shares the struggle with the current branding of Sacramento. 

"It's a gimmick because if we're going to be the farm-to-fork capital, then we have to look up all of the farms and the work that's being done in the communities and give support to farmers of color that are struggling on the margin and be able to create more of a market specifically for us. For me to get into the Davis Farmer's Market, it costs a large fee upfront and then also a percentage of our sales at the end of the day. So you need to really get behind farmers of color and show how we're the farm-to-fork capital. I think there's a lot lacking in that statement," Melbourne noted.

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