Local Roots to National Market





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Published on Aug 17, 2011

By Megan Burks

On an overcast morning earlier this month, the New Roots Community Farm in City Heights was awake with the spicy-sweet smell of mint. Noeuth Ith, a Cambodian refugee who usually harvests the herb in small bunches to make spring rolls at home, was quickly hacking bouquets of green leaves from their bases and dunking them in water. With the help of other New Roots farmers, she boxed more than 30 pounds of the fragrant leaves to sell.

A first for the International Rescue Committee farm, the large-scale harvest was commissioned by Earnest Eats, a granola company based in Solana Beach. It purchased the mint to make 10,000 dark chocolate mint bars available for sale on the company's website this fall. If the bars sell, it could mark the beginning of a sustainable moneymaking venture for the farmers.

"A lot of companies give money to organizations like the IRC," said Mark Mandel, a co-founder of Earnest Eats. "We wanted to give refugees a micro-enterprise opportunity."

Until now, the farm's primary role has been to supplement refugees' meager food budgets by giving them a cheap source of fresh produce. Many of the farmers rely on public assistance dollars to pay the rent and purchase groceries.

For those who sell at farmers markets or fill orders for local restaurants, the farm also provides a modest second income—usually about $50 a week.

Earnest Eats paid Ith about $250 for her mint, which will be processed by refugees who work in the company's Oregon bakery. Ten percent of proceeds from the bar will go back to the IRC.

If the "Refugee Harvest" bars are a success, both the IRC and Earnest Eats said they'd like to see a much larger operation. Anchi Mei, a program manager for the IRC, said she envisions a collaborative in which all IRC farming programs in the United States grow ingredients for the bars. Together, they could produce at volumes large enough to get the product on store shelves nationwide; Earnest Eats currently distributes to Whole Foods, Ralph's and Jimbo's.

Read the rest at Speak City Heights:

Video Production: Brian Myers, Media Arts Center San Diego


Mark Mandel:
Earnest Eats started connecting with the local San Diego office of the IRC and just asking, "what can we do to help?"

Bilali Muya:
We are working on the Maryamo plot. She just have grown this mint for Earnest Eats. She could not find a job, so this is a job she could do. And she's happy and knowledgeable. So it's another way like more and more empowering. They can also get something from the stuff they grow.

Mark Mandel:
Using crops grown by refugees right on farms, such as the New Roots Farm here in San Diego, use it as a means for our bars and our products and then bring them to stores all over the country.

Bilali Muya:
This one is like a really good model, good measure for them, like to be able to grow crops special for companies. Keeping promises, like, "grow this for me and in two months I'll come and get it." It's another way of jumping to another next level for business and it's really a huge achievement for them.

Mark Mandel:
We're working with New Roots and the International Rescue Committee to buy mint that's grown right here at New Roots Farm. We're going to use that to create a brand new flavor that's going to feature the International Rescue Committee. And that flavor will be dark chocolate mint.

Bilali Muya:
This is what the IRC wants of us. We're working to develop a business and create a business for their farmers.

Mark Mandel:
This is such a pilot project. If this is a success, look at all the different crops that are being grown just here at New Roots Farm. There's endless flavor possibilities for us to create new products as well. So that also could be part of the objective and goal of this partnership.


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