At Farm Lot 59, a half-acre urban farm in Central Long Beach, tomatoes are behind schedule.
Typically by June, the farm is harvesting summer crops like tomatoes, beans and peppers, but because of the abnormally wet winter the region saw this year, everything is a month or so behind, said founder Sasha Kanno, who is also a member of the Farm Service Agency with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“Everything is really just kind of stagnant and struggling,” Kanno said.
In a normal year, the farm will see around 1 inch of rain, but the city got 15 inches this year.
Beyond the food itself, all that water led to other issues, like pests and fungus, said Kanno.
Urban farms like Farm Lot 59 are one piece of the larger food distribution network feeding people who face food insecurity across Long Beach, and across the spectrum, those organizations are struggling to overcome multiple challenges at once: This year’s lower-than-normal yield comes amid a heightened need after COVID-era benefits recently ended.
Still, the folks behind those organizations remain committed to the cause.
At Farm Lot 59, all of its edible produce goes to “farm to food banks”—over the past decade or so, it’s donated to senior centers, food banks, nonprofits and more. Now, the organization primarily works with Food Finders, who sends the farm’s produce to the U.S. Vets, and also supports a monthly food hub at Admiral Kidd Park.
“I love to keep the food in the community,” Kanno said. “There’s enough need here in Long Beach to consume everything, plus more. But, we’re still not picking tomatoes and peppers.”
A ripple effect on food distribution organizations
As food insecurity has risen in Long Beach, food distribution organizations have had to regroup and reevaluate their food resourcing and strategies to meet the growing need.
Agriculture issues, from droughts to flooding in part play a role, but experts in the food rescue space reference numerous other factors, such as food waste, supply chain and food transportation issues—all compounded by the rise in food insecurity.
The struggles have trickled down the chain.
At Long Beach Community Table, the organization used to receive 30,000 pounds of food each week, mainly from Food Finders and Food Forward, but also grocery outlets and a variety of other sources. Nowadays, executive director Kristen Cox estimates that number is closer to 10,000.
“Everybody is giving less than they were before,” said Cox, who first started seeing the numbers going down around February of 2021. One unspecified food bank used to provide “pallets and pallets and pallets. … Now we get about one to two pallets from that same place,” she said.
According to Kanno, despite record-breaking rains, the longer term trend of water shortages is also playing a role in the dwindling food supply. Droughts have delayed crops, and animals have had nothing to feed on, meaning hay has had to be supplied from out of state, adding to trucking and labor fees, she said. Through reviewing claims as part of her role with the Farm Service Agency, Kanno has noticed that the dairy industry in particular is decreasing rapidly.
Cox, however, believes that the issue is far larger than just agriculture.
“I think that we could actually have an overabundance of food, if our system was different,” she said.
At Christian Outreach in Action, a Long Beach-based organization that provides hot meals as well as a food bank, among other services, the organization has had to focus on expanding its number of food sources, as some have grown scarce, said executive director Dixie Dohrmann.
One grocery store, for instance, used to provide eight to 10 pallets of food every other day. Now, that number is three, Dohrmann said. The organization had to go to three or four other places to make up that difference, she said.
“I want to think that we can make it through this,” Dohrmann said. “It has repercussions—of what? I’m not sure. We all like to blame it on the pandemic, but there’s other factors involved.”
The work has paid off; the quantity of food at COA’s food bank has increased. But it’s not clear that every charitable group can replicate that strategy.
Many smaller organizations that stepped up to provide food pantries during the pandemic, Dohrmann said, have been unable to sustain it.
“A lot of smaller churches and groups want to do something for people, but it’s expensive, and it is consuming to make sure that there’s things on that shelf all the time,” Dohrmann said.
Expanding the supply chain
But it’s not all bad news. While urban farms like Farm Lot 59 are finding it difficult to maintain the same crop yield, other food suppliers—and new legislation—can help fill in the gaps.
One larger food supplier, which provides fare for many Long Beach nonprofits (and 400 agencies across Southern California), is Food Finders. Each month, the organization typically rescues about 1.3 million pounds of food from every source imaginable, such as grocery stores, convention centers, schools, hospitals and more, before distributing them to nonprofits, explained executive director Diana Lara.
While food donations to Food Finders have ebbed and flowed with trends—for instance, when egg prices skyrocketed earlier this year, egg donations of course decreased—the organization has been distributing even more food lately, largely due to the sheer quantity of sources that Food Finders uses, Lara said.
Lara also attributes some of the upward trend to California Senate Bill 1383, legislation which mandates that supermarkets and other food suppliers separate organic waste from trash, and donate at least 20% to nonprofits such as Food Finders. The legislation, which began its implementation process in 2022, proved to be “a huge boost,” Lara said. Its next tier, which includes some restaurants, hotels and venues, will go into effect in 2024, Lara said.
“Many of the doors that we were knocking on prior to the legislation being implemented, they didn’t have time for us,” Lara said.
Still, food waste remains a significant issue, said Lara—at least 30% of food produced in the U.S. goes uneaten, according to the USDA. Finding even more ways to lower that number could help ease food insecurity across the board.
A spike in need, and an issue larger than food supply
While not all organizations have felt the same level of impact, advocates agree that the need has sharply risen.
When Long Beach Community Table had to temporarily close a few months ago while it was between warehouses, “people were calling me and crying like every day,” Cox said.
The organization was still serving about 1,800 people each week, but in the past, it had the capacity to serve about 3,000. The group also had to cut down on its homebound deliveries for three and a half months, which was “devastating” both for Cox and the recipients, she said.
“It made me break down in tears multiple times. People would show up at my house and ask for food because my house is my home office,” Cox said. “It was really, really hard to not be able to provide the resources that we wanted to, and it is getting more challenging.”
Christian Outreach in Action, meanwhile, has been able to meet some of the rising need. On just June 19 alone, the organization served nearly 300 people at their food bank, a number that used to fall around the 150 to 175 range for a single day, Dohrmann said.
Of the people the nonprofit serves, the fastest growing population has been seniors, a group who is on a fixed income, with a lot of that money going toward housing, Dohrmann said. Some seniors stop by the organization every other day, or every day, she said.
“I think that they are sustaining because of us, and that breaks your heart, but they’re putting their resources, what they have, toward shelter,” she said.
Expenses have also increased, and the organization has had to purchase items it didn’t have to in the past, such as paper products. Utilities and other overhead costs have also increased, Dohrmann said.
“I do think that we’re headed toward a lot of food shortage,” Dohrmann said. “I don’t know if we ever really regrouped from the pandemic, when the shelves were pretty empty.”
Some experts reference the end of the state’s additional food aid this past March, a benefit initially implemented due to the pandemic, which provided tens to hundreds of dollars in additional funds each month to lower-income families, as a factor contributing to rising need.
This summer, for instance, eligible families will now receive $40 per child, compared to $125 last summer, a substantial decrease, said Lara of Food Finders.
With benefits decreasing back to pre-COVID amounts, and with the current costs of food remaining high due to inflation, Food Finders’ partner agencies have seen more and more people, with food insecurity climbing to higher numbers than prior to the pandemic.
In addition to the increased demand, the pandemic had other impacts on food supply that still linger.
Amir Zambrano, managing director of programs at Food Forward, an organization that serves as a “bridge organization” working between distributors and partner agencies, pointed to the logistical issues with transporting food as another hurdle that organizations are having to overcome.
“It’s not that there’s not enough food, it’s out there,” Zambrano said. “It’s just sometimes we can’t get to it because it’s too expensive to pay for a truck to come down from Salinas to Los Angeles or to wherever that may be.”
The organization, though, is now operating a level that it has not before and is on track to meeting a goal of receiving over 70 million pounds of produce this year, Zambrano said. While weather was a factor in donations dwindling earlier this year, donations remained within 2-5% of last year, Zambrano said.
Shifts to sustainability
At Farm Lot 59, Kanno is preparing for the summer, which is estimated to be the hottest on record. The farm is already 15 degrees warmer than at the shore, a mere 3 miles away.
“As farmers, you know, we obsess about the weather constantly,” Kanno said. “I have all the apps and every morning, I look and look and look, and it changes every time you look at it.”
For urban farmers, whether you’re a backyard grower, a community gardener or a farmer for a living, the whims of the weather are just part of the job. That’s what makes the things that can be controlled—namely, outreach, policy and education—so key.
“Agriculture is really stressful, regardless of weather, and then on top of it, we’re a nonprofit,” Kanno said. “Most of urban agriculture is things like this, a small half-acre run by a bootstrap nonprofit, scraping by, serving the community and all the capacity that we can, but not getting any funding.”
By the nature of her work, Kanno has become an advocate for more farming-friendly policies in the city.
For example, even though land is available in Long Beach, the leases that are the most common, which have two- or three-year terms, make it difficult to plan over the long term.
“Having longer leases, having the city of Long Beach be a better partner, and a better advocate for local food systems, I think would be a great first step for them,” she said.
But even at the grassroots level, every person can make a difference in some way.
The food system, after all, is far larger than just going to the grocery store, said Kanno, who hopes that people will recognize the effort and labor that has gone into the food on their plates.
“Eating seasonal is the best thing to do … and then sharing what you have in abundance,” Kanno said. “But keeping those dollars local is really where it’s at.”
Organizations, though, can also work together to improve the food supply.
The Food Bank of Southern California, for instance, is looking to partner with local farmers, said product acquisition manager Laurie Settle. The organization is also opening a new North Long Beach location in the coming months, focused on collaboration. The space will serve as a “sharehouse,” with an office and conference area, a warehouse, refrigerator and freezer space, for other food organizations to utilize.
Over the past few months, Cox of Long Beach Community Table has also been working to increase coordination with other local agencies. She plans to create a database that organizations can use to see who has extras of what products, to make sharing and supporting one another easier.
But like Kanno, Cox thinks the most sustainable solution is for everyone—not just the groups most committed to the cause—to get more involved.
“The majority of our grandparents had gardens themselves and knew how to sustain their family,” Cox said.
Apart from developing community gardens, Long Beach residents who don’t have much space can create container gardens or vertical gardens, which can be kept on a porch, patio, or even just by a window, Cox said.
“I want to see more sustainability. And I don’t care if it’s somebody using a grow light in their closet at this point,” said Cox, noting that potatoes, which are a nutritious superfood, can grow in the dark. “If you can supplement your own food sources, you’re in a much better situation.”