ROCHESTER, Minnesota. — Christopher Brenna, executive director and founder of Revolutionary Earth Farm, said the impetus to start the nonprofit came after watching his father attempt to gather leftover bread one day from local bakeries to give to shelters.
"All the bakeries in town had a really good day I guess, and sold all of their bread," said Brenna, who was bothered by the fact a good day for some bakeries meant some people would go without bread for that week.
"I knew food insecurity in Rochester was a problem, but I hadn't seen personally how fragile the food charity system was, because it relies on a food system that's driven by profit," he said.
Brenna, who started Revolutionary Earth Farm in 2019, was a recent guest on the Agweek Podcast. He said that a system and society driven by profit makes food insecurity an invisible problem, even in cities with the resources to solve it.
"Even in a very prosperous city like Rochester, 40% of the kids in the school system are on free-or-reduced school lunch plans," said Brenna. "It's very much a problem here and affects children disproportionately."
Brenna said he wanted to create a model that provided a "supplement" to what many food charities were already doing, but also be "an implicit challenge to the food system."
"Especially how we conceive of food insecure people and what they deserve," he said.
The nonprofit started with four active gardens and served just two families. They increased to serving 14 families by the end of the year, distributing a few hundred pounds of produce, said Brenna.
The concept is now in its third season, and Brenna said they farmed 10 different locations in Rochester this year, totaling about a third of an acre.
"We distributed to about 45 families, and about 200 people total," he said, with about 150 of them being children.
Brenna said they focused on improving efficiency in 2021, and increasing the amount of food they provided to each family. They went from distributing about 2,000 pounds of produce in 2020 to distributing over 9,000 pounds this year. He said some weeks they had surpluses, which they distributed to other food charities in the area.
"The increase in volume this year meant that we could increase the amount of produce in each box by about 150%," said Brenna. "So we're really proud of that, that we basically improved the quality of our service instead of extending to more people."
Think Bank, Altra Federal Credit Union, Minnwest Bank, Rochester Area Foundation and Mayo Foundation were some of the financial partners for Revolutionary Earth Farm this past year.
But Brenna said they also rely on area growers including Pearson Organics, Earth Dance Farm, Middle Fork Farm, Featherston Farm, Easy Yoke Farm and Firefly Berries.
Revolutionary Earth Farm has a different kind of relationship with area growers than typical food charities, said Brenna.
"We supplement our farm's production with crops that we actually specify and ask our partner organic farms to grow for us, that we buy wholesale from them," said Brenna. "Instead of being a potential drain on the farmer, we're helping them and we're helping stimulate the local food economy."
No experience needed
Brenna said Revolutionary Earth Farm had over 100 volunteers this year, 15 of whom were considered "lead farmers." They'd like to double that for next year, he said, and they'll accept just about anyone.
"Don't let a lack of a green thumb dissuade you, because we are learning together as an organization how to garden and what works and what doesn't," said Brenna. "We actually try and do as much training as we can on the job, working with the Olmsted County Extension Master Gardener program which offers free training to our farmers."
They also offer a workshare similar to what many CSAs have. In exchange for 85 hours in a season, you can get a share of the produce.
He said Revolutionary Earth Farm accepts people with skill sets other than gardening, too.
"We have a position for everybody," he said. "If you're good at finance, or marketing or whatever it is, we have a place for you in our organization. We really pride ourselves on bringing anybody who wants to help to the table, and then just asking what they can be good at."