Cathie Anderson

Bank of America awards $200,000 grant to Soil Born Farms

Soil Born Farms workers Jared Clark, left, and Jessica Sharkey pack beets and turnips for market in 2009. Soil Born Farms has a $250,000 USDA grant to get a distribution network for local food from dozens of small local farms.
Soil Born Farms workers Jared Clark, left, and Jessica Sharkey pack beets and turnips for market in 2009. Soil Born Farms has a $250,000 USDA grant to get a distribution network for local food from dozens of small local farms.

Bank of America officials surprised the leaders of Sacramento’s Soil Born Farms Wednesday evening with a $200,000 Neighborhood Builders Award, a grant that local nonprofits view as something of a rainmaker because it seeds new projects or catapults existing ones to the next level.

“Soil Born Farms is really at a very critical juncture in our maturity,” said Sara Minnehan, a Soil Born board member. “Not only are we feeding food-insecure populations in our region with fresh, organic, nutritious food, but we are also making huge inroads in combating significant health problems in our nation.”

Soil Born Farms, which operates two urban farms on 55 acres in Sacramento and Rancho Cordova, runs a variety of programs. They include gleaning fruit from trees on local properties, educating schoolchildren about how to grow and prepare healthy food and bringing community gardens to the region’s food deserts. The nonprofit also sells its produce to individuals and restaurants, in grocery stores and at farm stands.

The Bank of America funding will allow the nonprofit to raise its impact in the region, said Minnehan, who is the community engagement manager for Aerojet Rocketdyne. She said the money could go toward stepping up Soil Born’s work in local schools or launching a program that introduces military veterans to farming. Researchers have found that farming holds a therapeutic benefit for veterans uncomfortable with the restricted space and strict schedule of office jobs.

The Neighborhood Builders Award is what nonprofit industry veterans call a capacity-building grant, said Tricia Rosenbaum, executive director of the Nonprofit Resource Center, because it allows organizations to expand services or improve their quality. Many nonprofit leaders are consumed with just making payroll, Rosenbaum said, and they don’t have time to think strategically, brainstorm new approaches or mine additional sources of revenue.

A capacity-building grant can allow an executive director to hire operational staff to run day-to-day operations, freeing up the executive director to identify and implement new strategies. That’s how Roberts Family Development Center is using the Neighborhood Builders grant it won last year. The nonprofit partners with families who live in some of Sacramento’s poorest neighborhoods, teaching children the skills they need to improve their academic performance.

At Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services, executive director Blake Young wanted to reinvent both the type of food that his clients could expect and how it would be delivered. A Neighborhood Builders grant, awarded in 2009, allowed him to begin the transformation by buying two mobile food trucks to set up farmers market-style events, where clients choose fresh produce and dietitians show them how to prepare healthy recipes.

Gone were the long lines and processed foods that had become synonymous with food banks. The nonprofit’s fresh approach was so innovative that it received national coverage in media ranging from The Washington Post to NBC’s “Today” show.

Soon, Sacramento’s homeless population also will benefit from a Neighborhood Builders Award. Loaves & Fishes used the grant over the last two years to demolish a building and make way for an expanded Friendship Park, a daily gathering place for roughly 700 homeless guests. Sister Libby Fernandez, the nonprofit’s executive director, said she expects to begin construction of the new 4.1-acre park in early 2015. The project initially met resistance from nearby businesses, but Fernandez met with business owners and agreed on ways to ensure that the new park worked for everyone.

“We’ll have gazebos where guests can sit and get out of the rain and the heat,” Fernandez said, “and it will be wheelchair-accessible. Our guests can park their bikes here, lock up their personal items for the day and access services … to help them get off the street and into resources or housing.”

The new park, designed by architect Jon Westphal, will be disabled-accessible, something that the current 1.7-acre space lacks. Fernandez said she soon will embark on a capital campaign to fund the park’s construction, and she feels better able to accomplish that goal because the Bank of America grant also provides training for nonprofit leaders.

Roughly 20 regional nonprofits are invited to apply each year for the Neighborhood Builders grant, said Lori Rianda, the Sacramento market manager for Bank of America. The awardee is selected by a committee composed of two bank employees and seven community leaders. The same process occurs in all the bank’s U.S. markets, and the program has so far invested $160 million in 800 nonprofits.

The award is paid in increments of $100,000 over two years. That might not sound like much, but only nine of 21 local companies made donations totaling more than $100,000 in 2013, according to Sacramento Business Journal’s ranking of the top annual cash contributions to nonprofits. In total, Bank of America gave $1.4 million to Sacramento-area charities last year.

Call The Bee’s Cathie Anderson, (916) 321-1193. Follow her on Twitter @CathieA_SacBee.