Soboba families receive fresh produce from Farmers to Families Food Box program

Soboba Foundation president Dondi Silvas and sponsorship coordinator Andrew Vallejos staff the check-in table for produce box pickups Wednesday, June 10, at the Soboba Sports Complex. Valley News/Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians photo

Mike Hiles
Special to Valley News 

The Soboba Foundation, a nonprofit arm of the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians, was chosen as a distributor for the Farmers to Families Food Box program. The U.S. Department of Agriculture grant was awarded to the Riverside Food Hub who partnered with Riverside University Health System – Public Health to find suitable nonprofit distribution sites where boxes of fresh produce could be delivered and put to good use by grateful families. 

Each week in June, 320 boxes of fresh produce – with a total value of about $5,000 – are delivered to the Soboba Reservation where it is stored in a refrigerator truck that was already being utilized for the tribe’s pop-up market that was created amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

Contents of the produce boxes vary to include seasonal fruits and vegetables from local farms. Soboba serves as the designated distribution center during the month of June. Valley News/Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians photo

Contents of the boxes change each week based on the seasonal fruit and vegetable harvests from local farms, and the variety provides opportunities for families to incorporate healthy, fresh produce into their meal recipes as well as offering nutrient-rich snacks throughout the week. 

“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,” Andrea Morey, program coordinator for Riverside University Health System – Public Health’s Nutrition and Health Promotion Branch, said. 

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.”

Nathaniel Arviso, left, and Andy Silvas deliver U.S. Department of Agriculture Farmers to Families Food Box Program produce to vehicles of tribal members. Valley News/Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians photo

Soboba Foundation board members serve at 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 they had about 60 boxes left over June 3, the boxes were shared with tribal employees and residents of the Santa Rosa Band of Cahuilla Indians and the Cahuilla Band of Indians reservations.

Scott Berndt of the Riverside Unified School District and its Riverside Food Hub program 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 an 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.”