Fresno Alliance/Ooooby

October 17, 2017; Next City

Fresno, California’s fifth-most-populous city, defies many stereotypes we may have of the Golden State. Be honest: When you think of California, do you picture beaches, Silicon Valley, or Hollywood? Think again. Fresno, with 520,000 people living more than two hours away from the coast, is neither an entertainment capital like Los Angeles nor a biotech corridor like San Diego nor a tech hub like San Jose or San Francisco. Nor is Fresno wealthy; its median household income, at just above $41,500, is roughly half that of its Silicon Valley cousins.

But Fresno is at the heart of a nearly million-person, rapidly growing, majority Latinx community, located in one of our nation’s most productive agricultural regions, the San Joaquin Valley. And Fresno has also often been a site of innovation in nonprofit-led community building.

Two recent articles in Next City highlight some of the latest developments. One involves the use of participatory budgeting—a process that enables residents to co-develop proposals and ultimately vote on the allocation of public resources to meet community needs—while the other involves an ambitious plan to create a Food Commons of linked community-based businesses.

We have highlighted community-building efforts in Fresno before. Back in 2008, NPQ’s Rick Cohen hailed a West Fresno community development corporation that “was obviously instrumental in the creation of a neighborhood shopping center, built contrary to the advice of ‘experts’ who said that the neighborhood could not support new retail services.” Last year, NPQ highlighted the Fresno Food Festival, which “originated as a way to develop the local economy and is now one of the leading regional food festivals in the United States.”

The two initiatives highlighted by Next City point to some additional ways that Fresno residents are employing community-based strategies to address economic challenges. The participatory budgeting exercise, for instance, stems out of an allocation of state funds that Fresno obtained in a pilot round of California’s Transformative Climate Communities (TCC) program, which uses state greenhouse gas auction proceeds to foster “local economic, environmental and health benefits” for low-income communities. It so happens that Fresno’s 93706 zip code, home to 40,000 residents, is “the most polluted postal address in California,” a neighborhood where, as Johnny Magdaleno writes, you can “still see the Foster Farms chicken factory, and smell exhaust from the processing plant where a food company turns cows into dog food.”

The amount of state money involved, $37 million, happens to make Fresno’s use of participatory budgeting one of the largest examples, if not the largest, of the use of the community-based participatory budgeting process in the nation. (According to the Participatory Budgeting Project, all US projects combined allocated only $97.5 million in 2015). Fresno residents made final decisions earlier this month, dividing the $37 million into 25 projects that will support “community gardens, new parks, better sidewalks and a community college.” Magdaleno reports that, according to Fresno resident Francisco Moreno, “bringing a college into the area would lay the foundation for an unprecedented neighborhood economy.” Moreno adds that, “When the neighborhood improves, the jobs are going to improve.”

The Food Commons effort, also profiled by Next City, complements this basic approach of resident-based community economic development. So far, the Food Commons involves fewer dollars, but participants are building a community-based economic institution that will likely have long-term impact. Already, the Food Commons includes “a farm, a community supported agriculture-style subscription service, a wholesale business, and a commissary kitchen available to food truck owners and other food-related entrepreneurs in the city.” Next City equitable cities fellow Deonna Anderson adds that, “A not-for-profit trust owns the for-profit business corporation. A financing arm, similar to a community development financial institution (CDFI), is in the works.” By 2020, the group also aims to “launch its first retail market, pursue farmland purchase and expand hub activities to include a commercial kitchen and light processing.”

Currently, Anderson reports, workers at Food Commons Fresno make above California’s minimum wage of $10.50 per hour, with farm laborers starting at $12 per hour and packers at $11. Over time, organizers hope to raise wages and add an employee stock ownership plan that gives employees a direct ownership stake. Organizers also envision using a direct public offering to allow community residents to invest and gain an ownership stake as well.

To run its community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, Food Commons Fresno “works with about 10 farms year-round and up to 40 others on a seasonal or one-time basis. Food Commons also works with suppliers to add non-produce products like coffee beans, olive oil, bread and chocolate to boxes. It also purchases goods like fruit jams and tomato sauces from the food production program at California State University, Fresno.” Buyers of Food Commons products includes local anchor institutions—such as the University of California, Merced, and Community Regional Medical Center—as well as local restaurants and nonprofits.

Kiel Schmidt, operations and wholesale manager at Food Commons Fresno, explains the group’s vision:

There’s communities and things that have been left behind in how agriculture has evolved and how our food system has evolved, and we’re trying to go back to those neighborhoods that were left behind and find a way where they can prosper as well.

Board president Warren King emphasizes the importance of designing an ownership structure that keeps the entity in the Fresno community for the long haul. King says the group wants “to do the best we can to ensure that if this concept is successful, that in 20 years or 30 years or 100 years, it would be very, very difficult for any one person or group to say, ‘man, the Food Commons is really successful. We’re going to sell it to some investor who doesn’t live in this community.’ We have plenty of evidence that that kind of structure is what’s hurt our communities. What created disinvestment in our communities.”—Steve Dubb