Since April, organizations like the nonprofit Feeding America have been warning of the potentially dire consequences of systemic food insecurity, noting that: “While changes taking place are disrupting the lives of nearly everyone in some way, food-insecure individuals—who numbered over 37 million (11.5%), including over 11 million children, in 2018—will face particular challenges … as closures and social distancing orders meant to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) extend across the country, the impact is being felt in communities large and small.”
Among the challenges, they note (with detailed reports available online at FeedingAmerica.org) are interruptions in the logistics of getting produce out of the fields and to the tables. Especially to the homes of people struggling to make previously routine shopping trips or dealing with local shortages. Against that backdrop it was a refreshing ray of hope last week—well, the last week of June—to find an email inquiring about doing an old standby of the local tabloid press, a new business feature.
Shelby Bernard, of the recently founded Armor Farms in Arroyo Grande, has turned a rather unique set of talents towards the timely launch of a venture which helps address some of the obstacles people face getting access to fresh fruits and vegetables. After months of research and lining up suppliers for her idea to start a produce box service (akin to several other delivery options which have cropped up as popular conveniences in recent years), she “pulled the trigger” in what would have been one of the most frightening business climates since 2009.
“The time was right,” the mother of four explained on the phone over noises of impact, clatter, and muffled shouts in the background. “A lot of the farms in our area had arrangements with restaurants which were suddenly unable to buy from them any longer. And there are so many people not getting what they need at the store either.”
The imagination of a bachelor writer being decidedly lackluster as to what might be in the silo for a fresh-from-the-farm supply drop, Bernard listed off a cornucopia quicker than a pen could move. After spending eight years managing logistics in the U.S. Air Force, she did not leave critical data transmission to chance. She later forwarded, among other notable highlights of her CV, some favorite examples of what the boxes contain including broccoli, cauliflower, romaine lettuce, spinach, green onion, artichoke, corn-on-the-cob, pears, oranges, carrots, celery, cilantro, parsley, and both red and yellow onions. Feedback so far, she said, has been that if anything, they overpack the boxes with as much as supplies allow. “But you know, I encourage people to pass it on if it’s more than they can use. I don’t want anybody going hungry when it’s available to us.”
Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes, says Ephesians 6:10-20. Despite adopting an altruistic attitude which she hopes is reflected in the name she drew from scripture, Armor Farms is not strictly a charity. It’s a membership, subscription-based company with the boxes ranging in price from $29 to $49 depending on the size and delivery method. Or as Bernard describes it, “a female, veteran-owned, Central Coast produce delivery company representing a collaboration of family farms.”
The fruits and vegetables are cold packed and delivered via their van locally or shipped privately across California and seven other states. While they had intended to go national at some point, she said, the U.S. Postal Service wasn’t able to guarantee shipping slots during COVID, so they partnered with a company that traditionally deals with distributing wines. Hence the abridged roster.
After being in business for four months now, Bernard said they’ve managed a break-even point. For every box sold, Armor Farms has been able to donate a like amount of produce to those in need locally through New Life Church, Woods Humane Society, Five Cities Vineyard Church, House of Prayer and the Community Action Partnership of SLO. Selection and meal planning for what goes into the boxes each week is a big part of the service provided. Bernard said, “I’m a housewife. I’m a Mom; we’re eat- ing this at home. I know what they’re thinking about and what [foods] we need to go together, and in what proportions.”
While some subscribers have expressed a desire for more customizable selections, others are just as happy to have that chore managed while so much vies for one’s attention.
Community giving had always been part of the business plan, Bernard said, but she hadn’t been expecting it to take the form of immediate crisis relief.
Working a civilian career with medical device sales, Bernard settled down nine years ago to start a family. Before that, she’d been responsible for up to 300 people under her command while running engine maintenance for iconic aircraft like the F-16 Fighting Falcon and the A-10 Warthog.
Other resume highlights include managing the logistics operations for Operation Deep Freeze, a National Science Foundation operation in Antarctica to ensure safe launch of aircraft carrying cargo and personnel between New Zealand and Antarctica. She wrapped up her Air Force service as an ROTC instructor at San Diego State University after support operations for the most recent war in Iraq. “I’m very passionate about mental health services for veterans,” she added.
“I still care about those issues very deeply, so once we’re established, we’ll be putting aside a percentage,” she said. “Right now, nothing beats the look on someone’s face when they see one of our bushels.”
To take a look, go online to: armorfarms.com.
Camas Frank has been a San Luis Obispo County print journalist for over a decade. First drawn to the Central Coast for a stint at Cal Poly, he’s focused on community affairs, people and technology.