With the COA kitchen preparing 1,200 to 1,300 meals per day for Meals on Wheels clients, the amount of fruits and vegetables needed for even one day can equal 200 to 300 pounds. “When we need something, we need a lot of it,” says Charles Lindner, Director of Kitchen Operations. “With very small farms, the farmers can’t always bring us enough for a single meal run.”
So with $10,000 provided by a grant from Kaiser Permanente, Laura Colgate, Director of Senior Nutrition Services, and Lindner embarked on an experiment in concert with Council on Aging employee Heidi Darling and her husband Gregg, who grow vegetables, and raise sheep and chickens on their two-acre farm near Penngrove.
Colgate and Lindner made a commitment to buy up to 200 pounds of zucchini per week from Darling, providing an incentive for the Darlings to carefully plan how to reach the agreed-upon level of production. “This is the first test we’ve done to see whether a local farmer can bump up their quantity to what we need and still be able to make it work for them,” says Lindner.
The Darlings had been farming for about six years, but hadn’t previously produced the volume of zucchini the kitchen was seeking, nor had they raised it as early in the year. “Usually we plan on the first harvest in June,” explains Darling, “but Charles needed zucchini starting in mid-May.”
Since this was a much larger number of plants than the Darlings had raised previously (they went from 25 to 75), they enlisted some help from the community. They received horse manure and straw for fertilizer through a neighbor, Lee Webster; mulch from West Coast Tree Service; and assistance from students at Sonoma State University, who helped plant seeds, pick up rocks, and spread mulch.
It’s turning into a “win-win” situation that has provided the Darlings with a guaranteed outlet for all the zucchini they can grow, and given the kitchen a steady source of the vegetable at a price lower than Lindner had been paying. “We are finding it is possible to support local small farming, without having to pay a premium to do so,” says Darling.