AIM Uses Farmers Markets and Programs to Give Back to the Community

Andy Naja-Riese (courtesy of AIM)

At their heart, farmers markets are about community. And for the Agricultural Institute of Marin (AIM), which runs eight local markets including two at the Marin Civic Center, that means much more than just hosting a shopping area — it includes supporting the 350-plus farmers who sell at the markets, championing the restaurants that buy the produce and making sure healthy, nutritious food gets from local farms to members of the community no matter what their economic, mobility and health limitations might be.

“One of the biggest barriers to eating a healthy diet is transportation and mobility, and we know that despite the popularity of farmers markets there are folks, particularly older folks, who might not be able to visit the market,” says AIM CEO Andy Naja-Riese. “In response we created a mobile market.” This successful program, called Rollin’ Root, brings fresh organic food from AIM farmers to senior housing and community sites around the county in a mobile refrigerated truck. AIM just won an Excellence in Innovation Award at the 28th annual Heart of Marin event for the program, which often offers produce at discounts or for free through CalFresh/EBT and AIM’s Senior Bonus Bucks.

“This model is really important for us because we want to make sure our small to midsize farmers that are struggling during Covid can survive,” Naja-Riese says, pointing out that when the shelter-in-place orders took effect, many small farmers lost as much of 90 percent of their restaurant sales. “We want to bring the farmers market experience to people throughout Marin County who may lack access to healthy foods and provide incentives to make those healthy food products more affordable.”

Naja-Riese says that while farmers markets have always been popular, as the pandemic rages on he has seen more individuals and households turning to the markets as their source of groceries and nutrition — healthy food that is as important as ever for immune health during a pandemic. “Even though farmers markets are essential services, they are open, outdoors, have a short supply chain with the fewest number of hands as possible touching the food,” he adds. “We knew that when Covid started there were older adults and other high-risk people who might not be comfortable going out in public.”

The answer to that problem was another innovative AIM program created in April called the Bounty Box — people can pre-order a box of freshly selected fruits and vegetables that they can pick up curbside. “We created all these programs to help more people in our community experience the benefits of locally grown produce.”

Soon, AIM formed a collaborative with nine other Bay Area nonprofits and applied to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for Farmers to Families funding to provide Bounty Boxes to local community groups for free. “Using the funding we were able to pay farmers market rate and then donate bounty boxes to communities in need — we were able to donate hundreds of boxes every week,” Naja-Riese says, adding that Marin’s food insecurity rate has doubled to 12.2 percent since the pandemic started. “It was such a lifeline because it helped farmers earn income and also helped to feed people with dignity.”

After the USDA changed the program last August and no longer prioritized local and regional food, instead turning to large-scale industrial agriculture to get out as many boxes as possible, AIM was forced to adjust. Naja-Riese called the move “very disappointing,” but was able to find more funding to keep the program going, and then in January announced a new collaboration with Growing the Table, Performing Stars and ExtraFood for a 10-week pilot program delivering boxes and feeding thousands of under-resourced families.

“In partnership with 10 farmers — most of whom are BIPOC, women and immigrants and who use climate-smart practices — we will be curating a total of 250 Bounty Boxes a week over the next 10 weeks,” he says.

As for what the future holds for AIM, Naja-Riese says the Center for Food and Agriculture at the Civic Center, to be implemented in phases starting in 2023, will feature a world-class farmers market, experiential learning and training, solar panels on a permanent structure, trees for shade, cold storage, a teaching kitchen, demonstration gardens and community gathering spaces. 

Photo by Brent Ferguson