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

Chronic diseases including cardiovascular diseases, cancers, chronic respiratory diseases, and diabetes, together kill 41 million people each year globally, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Diets high in processed foods and low in fresh produce—along with other behaviors such as tobacco and alcohol use or physical inactivity—have a palpable impact on one’s likelihood of suffering from one or more of these diseases.

Since January 2020, ALL IN has delivered more than 38,500 bags of produce to almost 3,000 patients. With access to 100 more acres, Dig Deep Farms will be able to expand their food supply to meet the demand from a growing number of patients.

Produce on a table from Dig Deep Farms. (Photo credit: Joy C. Liu, Alameda County Sheriff’s Office)

In September, under the state’s California Advancing and​ Innovating Medi-Cal initiative (CalAIM), Medi-Cal started reimbursing the prescription produce program. Instead of relying primarily on grants, donations, and other irregular funds, Dig Deep Farms now has a sustainable funding stream, with increased demand for the program from food prescriptions covered by Medi-Cal.

By the end of the year, Dig Deep Farms will add employees to its team, bringing the total number from 15 to about 25 farmers, Bass said.

Is Law Enforcement the Right Approach?

In addition to jobs that pay between $20 and $40 an hour, Dig Deep Farms offers internships to those who have been incarcerated. Interns can earn certifications in permaculture design, and some go on to land permanent jobs with the farm operation.

Helping residents create income and find economic stability is key to the design of the program. Invest in the community by way of jobs, health, and recreation and people will be less affected by crime, the idea goes.

The activities league isn’t unique to Alameda County; law enforcement nonprofit organizations at the local, state, and national levels run youth sports programs and other community activities under the title “activities leagues.” Alameda County’s DSAL started running sports teams and hosting events for kids well before it launched the farm.

But many question whether the league, as an arm of law enforcement, goes too far in its community approach, and whether it’s appropriate or effective for law enforcement to branch out into so many sectors to rebuild financial, human, and social “capital.”

“It’s the latest iteration of propaganda coming out of police departments,” said James Burch, policy director for Justice Teams Network, which advocates against police violence. He likens the farm to events like “coffee with a cop,” in which police officers  meet with community members, or other approaches to building trust.

“They’re desperate to establish a relationship with the community,” Burch said, arguing that often, police departments don’t deserve to build that trust. That’s been the basis for the push in recent years to defund law enforcement and put that money toward violence prevention and non-police crisis response teams.

Burch, who is based in Oakland, referenced the allegations that Alameda County sheriff’s deputies deployed tear gas at teenagers during the 2020 protests against law enforcement brutality.

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 complicated: 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.”

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.

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