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New Produce Box Program Helps Refugee Growers

Abdelgabar Mohamdian shows carrots and green onions that he grows and sells.

Abdelgabar Mohamdian shows carrots and green onions that he grows and sells.

Photo: Dennis Godfrey

Abdelgabar Mohamdian is a farmer at heart. He grew crops and raised livestock in Sudan. Now, 17 years after he came to the United States, he is growing vegetables and making them available to the community through the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Phoenix’s New Roots weekly produce box program.

“This program, if it gets support, can be good for a lot of people,” Abdelgabar says. He notes the benefits for both consumers and growers.

Jillian Robinson, the New Roots program manager for the IRC in Phoenix, says the produce box program grew out of the pandemic. Pandemic safety protocols required closing the weekly farm stand at its CamelBackyard site in Phoenix and other farmer’s markets in the Valley. Immigrants, such as Abdelgabar, were still producing food and people still needed the products. A new delivery method was needed.

The immediate response was to collect the freshly grown vegetables, put them in boxes, and deliver them directly to IRC clients in need. After about a month, it became apparent that there were people in the community willing to buy produce boxes at $20 each or smaller produce bags at $10.

The result: people in the community could get fresh produce without having to brave the supermarket and the growers had an outlet that brought in revenue.

“They gave us a good opportunity during the pandemic,” Abdelgabar says. “Instead of sitting home, at least we’re doing something.” He notes that social distancing is a natural condition when working alone in a field.

Isaac, an IRC staff member, holds a Fresh Produce Box.
IRC staff and volunteers load produce boxes into customer's cars, allowing for social distancing.

The IRC is following the model established in what are known as community-supported agriculture programs. Jillian says the program at CamelBackyard is a little different, in that people do not have to make long-term subscription commitments. Rather, consumers can decide weekly if they want to participate, making them more affordable.

The process is simple. Potential customers go to www.camelbackyard.com from Saturday afternoon to Wednesday afternoon and place their orders. Growers bring in the produce on Friday and the boxes and bags are prepared.  On Saturday mornings, 9-11 AM, the customers come to CamelBackyard, 1616 W. Camelback Road, to pick up their order. IRC volunteers load the boxes and bags into the cars for customers - the driver never has to leave the vehicle.

Produce boxes provide a healthy option that also supports refugees. “It’s local. It’s fresh. It’s all organic, with no pesticides. And, all the proceeds go back to the farmers,” Jillian says.

Abdelgabar says the growers, who come from Iraq, Eritrea, and Togo, along with Sudan, are starting their summer growing season. He is producing carrots and eggplant now. Soon he will be providing okra, watermelons, cucumbers, and cantaloupe.

Produce selection for a box, including dill, greens, melons, beets, zucchini, green onions, and sugar cane.
Produce box content vary from week to week. This past box included dill, greens, melons, beets, zucchini, green onions, and sugar cane. Photo: Anna Cobb

Jillian says that the produce in each box varies from week to week and season to season. The boxes contain what is in season and at the peak of its nutritional value. “Like today, we have carrots, green onions, eggplant, basil, spring garlic, fava beans. Usually we have a green, like kale or chard or lettuce,” she says.

In addition, customers can order “add-ons” to their produce box from local refugee businesses, such as locally made hummus or baklava. As with the produce, the proceeds from the sales of these add-on items go back to the refugees who produced them.

Abdelgabar farms on a quarter-acre plot in south Phoenix, provided by the IRC in partnership with Spaces of Opportunity. Currently, he supplements his farm work with other employment, but he hopes to expand in the future, to a four-acre plot.

Abdelgabar enjoys that the New Roots program and the produce boxes allow him to continue his profession from his home country. “The program gives us a chance to practice what we love,” he says.

Story written by Dennis Godfrey, IRC in Phoenix volunteer.

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