Can an Urban Farm Run by Police Create Jobs, Feed People, and Build Trust?


And the county’s jail system, which is run by the sheriff’s office, was put under a consent decree after a federal class-action lawsuit alleged conditions were so terrible that suicidal people were left naked in solitary confinement. A Department of Justice report issued in 2021 found the county for years violated inmates’ constitutional rights by not providing sufficient mental health treatment.

Putting DSAL in charge of community initiatives “ignores the immense and ever-present harm done by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department to any family who has had the misfortune to have anyone they love in Alameda County jail,” Burch said.

Neideffer contends that community initiatives are necessary for police “to avoid being considered an occupying force.”

It’s important for law enforcement to connect with their communities, he said, “not in a superficial way like going to meetings and reporting out crime stats, but being part of the community, understanding needs and ambitions, and adapting a public safety model.”

“It’s complicated,” said Arlene Nehring, who has worked as the lead pastor at Eden United Church in unincorporated Cherryland for the last 20 years. “I’m glad DSAL is here, but it’s a huge mistake to think that a law enforcement entity—no matter how wonderful they are—is the only solution.”

Cherryland is home to a growing population of Spanish speakers who have immigrated to the U.S.

“We often meet people in their first week in the U.S., and a lot of people come from places where law enforcement has no credibility,” Nehring said. “There are lots of experiences of people being very traumatized by people wearing badges. So, we know there are people who would never go to DSAL for help.”

Nehring sees a need for more systemic changes, noting that immigration reform would have the most dramatic impact on economics in the area, giving those who lack citizenship documents a path to steady, higher-paying jobs.

Kim Thomas, co-director of the Dig Deep Farms Food Hub, said she understands why people may have mixed feelings about a farm run by the police. Thomas was incarcerated in Alameda County before she became an intern with Dig Deep Farms. She said working with the farm and DSAL has shown her another side of law enforcement.

“They are human, just as I am,” Thomas said of officers. And the opportunities at the farm were life-altering for her, she said.

Thomas joined Dig Deep Farms as an intern in October 2018, referred to the program by her case manager. Thomas wasn’t interested in farming and didn’t know anything about it, aside from what she had learned watching her grandmother grow tomatoes and collard greens when she was a kid. Still, she saw the internship as a worthwhile opportunity.

“It was very therapeutic for me,” said Thomas, who eventually earned a certificate in permaculture. She landed a more permanent job at Dig Deep as a food “farmacist,” which involved going to the Hayward Wellness Clinic to assemble bags of produce for patients and share information with them as they work with a nutritionist.

“A lot of times when you eat unhealthy food, it becomes draining. It can affect the ability to work,” Thomas said.

She’s now a co-director of the Food Hub, a 3,300-square-foot site that opened in early 2020 to provide a space for packaging and distributing the farms’ produce. The site is home to DSAL’s food recovery program, which repackages leftover produce, dairy products, and other food from school districts and farmers markets and delivers it to low-income housing developments. Local food entrepreneurs can also rent out commercial kitchen and storage space as they work to grow their businesses.

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