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Monday, Dec 5, 2022

Healthy-Food Trend Sparks Small-Business Growth

Orange County businesses are bringing locally grown fruits and vegetables to consumers who are showing growing desire to eat healthier food.

Ventures include restaurants and caterers that buy produce, a home-delivered meals service, new farms, and suppliers of equipment that growers need to extend the trend.

Laguna Beach-based Sourced Conscious Cuisine started 11 weeks ago to deliver ready-to-make vegan meals to local homes.

Jessica McLeish, who cofounded the venture with chef Jonathan Pflueger, said that so far, 25 to 30 clients each pay $145 a week for a box of 10 items—two raw desserts, two soups, and six entrees, side dishes and snacks.

“We source [most] ingredients from [local] farms,” McLeish said, citing growers that include Orange County Produce LLC, Manassero Farms, Smith’s Farms, and Alegria Farm, all in Irvine.

Paul Chamberlin founded Boldo Bol last year in Santa Ana a few storefronts down from the new 4th Street Market in the city’s downtown area. It serves rice and vegetable bowls topped with chicken or fish.

Chamberlin estimated he gets 98% of his produce from local sources and most of his fish and chicken from within 100 miles of the restaurant.

Small Farms

A handwritten note on a white board at Alegria Farm, a half-acre of vegetables growing vertically at Great Park, reads, “Plant kale,” followed by, “Put up rabbit fences in raised beds.”

“When was the last time you picked a piece of food off a plant and ate it?” said Erik Cutter, who’s growing more than a dozen kinds of vegetables and herbs, like chard, mustard and beets. He also is using the farm to test types of growing material, including worm bins for composting, coconut shell fiber, and small sacks of soil called “pythons.”

Cutter sells produce by the box to individuals and to restaurants that include Tender Greens in Irvine and several restaurants in Laguna Beach. He said Alegria quadruples food production by farming upward instead of outward.

He said it brings in $100,000 in annual revenue and has three employees; his goal is $300,000 an acre—and several more such farms.

Civitas Organics Inc. is farming a tenth of an acre a mile north of Disneyland Resort that used to be a parking lot.

Founder Edgar Hercila, who said his father was a bracero—a Mexican field hand who worked U.S. farms in the mid-20th century—paid two homeless residents of the lot to move and built a greenhouse to produce basil, spinach, kale and bok choy.

He plans to add other crops after the initial testing.

“I’m kinda seeing what I can push out.”

Hercila said his clients include Five Crowns restaurant in Corona del Mar.

Growing Interest

Other businesses are basing efforts on locally farmed produce:

• Baltimore-based Terra’s Kitchen LLC said last week that it would begin delivering “clean meals” along the West Coast, including fresh produce, with 10 servings for $160.

• Catering company Choice-N-Habits plans to launch in August in Irvine, and founder Aaron Le also plans to open a restaurant. “People are seeking out this product,” he said.

• Urban Produce told the Business Journal last fall that it had about $10 million in orders for produce from a 5,800-square-foot “high-density vertical growing” area it has in Irvine and that it planned to expand to six other states.

Charity Efforts

The nature of the efforts—urban, low-cost and grass roots—has several charities getting into the act.

The MaxLove Project in Santa Ana is a nonprofit group that takes in produce and provides broths and nutrition for pediatric cancer patients, mainly via doctor referrals from Children’s Hospital of Orange County in Orange.

The Heritage Museum of Orange County in Santa Ana has begun hydroponic farming of cabbage, green onions and peppers on a half-acre “as a resource for the community,” said Kevin Cabrera, interim executive director.

Placentia-based nonprofit organization Living Justly Industries Inc. offers equipment and training for aquaponic or hydroponic farming—water-based growing environments that use less space.

The work of cofounders Tim Uvalle, Paul Sheets and Mark Weyant has helped start nine farms with about $49,000 in grants.

“We’re making food to give away,” Uvalle said, referring to local charities. “We want to feed the poor.”

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