Soboba Welcomes Fresh Produce

◆ By Mike Hiles

When Riverside Food Hub was awarded a USDA “Farmers to Families” grant, it sought nonprofit distribution sites where boxes of fresh produce could be delivered and put to good use by grateful families. The Soboba Foundation is the nonprofit arm of the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians and was able to quickly set up a weekly distribution program to benefit its tribal members.

Throughout the month of June, 320 boxes of fresh produce are delivered each week to the Soboba Reservation where it is stored in a refrigerator truck. The truck was already being utilized for the tribe’s pop-up market that was created amid the pandemic, so residents didn’t have to leave the reservation to shop at nearby grocery stores for essential items.

Contents of the boxes change each week based on the seasonal fruit and vegetable harvests from local farms, but a recent delivery included baby carrots, pears, iceberg lettuce, celery, strawberries, Pink Lady apples, white peaches, tangelos and sweet corn. The endless variety provides opportunities for families to incorporate healthy, fresh produce into their meal recipes as well as having nutrient-rich snacks on hand throughout the week.

“Our CalFresh Healthy Living nutrition educators have worked at Soboba’s schools, teaching about healthy eating, physical fitness and gardening,” said Andrea Morey, Program Coordinator II for Riverside University Health System – Public Health, Nutrition & Health Promotion Branch that has partnered with Riverside Food Hub. “Our team is eager to bring in other educational resources, as the tribal administration requests them. We deeply honor our relationship with Soboba and knew that this food box program opportunity needed to be shared with a diverse segment of residents, including tribal organizations. Food access is a burdensome concern for many, but Soboba opened their doors immediately when we presented the opportunity.”

Each box is valued at $20 retail, estimating the weekly delivery value at about $5,000. The joint venture of the Soboba Tribal Council, Tribal Administrator Michael Castello and the Soboba Foundation has run smoothly since it began. After many of the foundation’s signature fundraising events were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, President Dondi Silvas said she was happy to be able to do something for her community and tribal members once again.

“We are grateful that the tribe took the time to fill out all the paperwork to get this program started,” she said. “These items are all locally grown with no pesticides and the white peaches are amazing!”

Soboba tribal members Doris Placencia and her sister Joyce Placencia drove up to the side of the Soboba Sports Complex to have their boxes of produce loaded before they went inside to shop at the pop-up market on June 10.

“We came last week, too, and there’s always a really good variety,” Doris said.

Soboba Foundation board members staff the check-in table from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each Wednesday. So far, they have not run out of product before the end of the day and when there were about 60 boxes left over on June 3, they were quickly shared with tribal employees and residents of the Santa Rosa Band of Cahuilla Indians and the Cahuilla Band of Indians reservations.

Vanessa Minott, Tribal Administrator for the Santa Rosa Band of Cahuilla Indians, said her tribe was very thankful for the Soboba Foundation’s donation.

“Soboba staff were gracious enough to bring 36 produce boxes to our tribal office so our staff was able to disperse them to our tribal members,” she said. “We’ve gotten a lot of good feedback from the community and personally, I was very grateful to receive a produce box because it has been a hardship getting to the city to get fresh produce.”

Minott said the items have allowed her to provide a healthy alternative in her family’s meals.

“As our sister tribe, Soboba has always thought of Santa Rosa and our people and we can’t thank them enough for their endless support,” she said.

Andrea Candelaria, Vice Chairwoman of the Cahuilla Band of Indians, was present when the donation from Soboba was delivered to her Tribal Hall.

“We received 54 boxes of fresh produce; they were distributed on a first come, first serve basis and went very quickly,” she said. “Cahuilla Tribal Members and the Band were very grateful to receive this generous offer. We are of the mindset that the more we can keep our tribal members from going out, especially the elderly and/or the vulnerable, the healthier our community will be. We received several calls from tribal members expressing their gratitude and would like us to pass this on to Soboba.

On June 10, Soboba Cultural Department’s Tribal Land Resource Management (TLRM) crew members Julian Briones and Jared Miranda spent about 45 minutes delivering 15 food boxes to elders who reside at the reservation. They are part of the Canyon Crew that also maintains a Native/Community Garden that is used for a variety of interpretive programs. In 2018, Scott Berndt of the Riverside Unified School District and its Riverside Food Hub program helped the crew install a more efficient irrigation system for the garden. He is the grant coordinator for the Farmers to Families Food Box program and along with UC Master Gardeners provided agricultural advice for Soboba’s garden design and planning.

Berndt said there are currently three local farmers providing produce and 10 more who are undergoing food safety training and food safety certification, which is required by the USDA to participate in the Farmers to Families program.

Although the Riverside Food Hub has been in operation for about three years, Morey said the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box program was a very immediate response to COVID-19’s effect on agricultural production, restaurant closures and grocery shortages. Many agencies applied for community distribution and staff at the public health department helped to coordinate a network of partners for the free produce boxes.

“This program helps the farmers because we are purchasing the produce for the boxes from them at fair prices,” Berndt said. “The program has been a godsend because our sales dropped 90% because of the COVID-19 shutdown. This program has allowed me to keep workers busy from the increase of activity to support the food boxes.”

 He said it has been challenging to find locally grown produce from Food Safety Certified farms and that the need is greater than the number of boxes that he is contracted to deliver for the USDA program. Berndt’s farm blog can be found at berndtsplants.blogspot.com.

Photos courtesy of Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians

Soboba Foundation President Dondi Silvas and Sponsorship Coordinator Andrew Vallejos staff the check-in table for produce box pickups on June 10 at the Soboba Sports Complex

Soboba Foundation President Dondi Silvas and Sponsorship Coordinator Andrew Vallejos staff the check-in table for produce box pickups on June 10 at the Soboba Sports Complex

Nathaniel Arviso, left and Andy Silvas deliver USDA Farmers to Families Food Box Program produce to vehicles of tribal members on June 10

Nathaniel Arviso, left and Andy Silvas deliver USDA Farmers to Families Food Box Program produce to vehicles of tribal members on June 10

Noli Indian School Principal and Soboba Tribal Member Donovan Post, left, checks in with Soboba Foundation President Dondi Silvas to receive produce boxes for himself and family members during a recent weekly pickup at the Soboba Sports Complex

Noli Indian School Principal and Soboba Tribal Member Donovan Post, left, checks in with Soboba Foundation President Dondi Silvas to receive produce boxes for himself and family members during a recent weekly pickup at the Soboba Sports Complex

Contents of the produce boxes vary with seasonal fruits and vegetables from local farms. Soboba was designated as a distribution center during the month of June

Contents of the produce boxes vary with seasonal fruits and vegetables from local farms. Soboba was designated as a distribution center during the month of June

Each week, 320 boxes filled with fresh, locally grown produce is delivered to the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians reservation for distribution to tribal members by Soboba Foundation members on Wednesdays throughout the month

Each week, 320 boxes filled with fresh, locally grown produce is delivered to the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians reservation for distribution to tribal members by Soboba Foundation members on Wednesdays throughout the month

Andy Silvas, at right, prepares produce boxes for Soboba Public Works employees who checked in at the Soboba Foundation table on June 10

Andy Silvas, at right, prepares produce boxes for Soboba Public Works employees who checked in at the Soboba Foundation table on June 10