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Jimmy Ukegawa
Carlsbad farmer Jimmy Ukegawa, right, and his daughter, Robyn, share a hug at his warehouse. The family owns the Carlsbad Strawberry Co. and Aviara Farms, which, along with their tenants, have donated more than 500,000 pounds of food since March. Photo by Steve Puterski
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Carlsbad farmers’ food donations top 500K pounds

CARLSBAD — Food insecurity has been one of the many consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But one Carlsbad farmer, and his staff, are doing more than their part in helping children, seniors and families eat a little healthier, along with providing free food donations to local nonprofits.

Jimmy Ukegawa, who owns the Carlsbad Strawberry Co. and Aviara Farms, has donated more than 500,000 pounds of food with assistance from Hollandia Dairy and several other tenants at his 40,000-square foot warehouse on Aviara Parkway and Palomar Airport Road.

The effort began modestly in March when the pandemic first reached the U.S. as he partnered with the Boys & Girls Club of Carlsbad and Carlsbad Senior Center.

Ukegawa, along with Tracy Carmichael, president of the Carlsbad Christmas Bureau, approached the city about helping with food deliveries for seniors.

From there, it has grown to include Head Start programs, North County Lifeline, schools and affordable living residences.

Through the other organizations, the food also reaches residents in Oceanside and Vista, Ukegawa said.

Not one to seek credit or the limelight, Ukegawa said he prefers the anonymity and is just thankful he can be a resource for those who’ve hit hard times.

Robyn Ukegawa
Robyn Ukegawa rings up a customer on Dec. 18 at the Aviara Farms’ market in Carlsbad. The Ukegawa family, along with their tenants, have donated more than 500,000 pounds of food to those in need during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Steve Puterski

“We had all kinds of fruits and vegetables, which made it easy to donate to all kinds of organizations,” he said of the seniors. “We’ve really kept it under the radar. It’s just not our style. We don’t ask who it’s going to or for names. We just want to drop it off and no questions asked.”

Additionally, his annual pumpkin patch, which doubles as a fundraiser for the Agua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation, raised $135,000 to donate to the nonprofit.

It was his best season by far, Ukegawa said, for the patch and corn mazes.

This year dwarfed his average take and donation of $25,000.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Ukegawa said he was averaging about 10 to 20 boxes of fruit and produce per week. Now, the average is up to 720 boxes. Additionally, his staff does some deliveries while others come to the warehouse to pick up food.

The city of Carlsbad serves meals to seniors five days per week. But with the pandemic, the weekends were a struggle, so Ukegawa filled the gap with his boxes.

According to Mike Pacheco, Carlsbad’s recreation services manager, the senior center was delivering to 400 people per week at its height. Now, it’s down to 200, but he said the quality of produce and fruits provide many seniors with some of the healthiest food they’ve had in a long time.

“I explained how we’d normally be serving meals in the Senior Center … but now we were doing tons of deliveries,” Pacheco said. “He came in and showed us the best way to store the fruit and properly pack it. We get so much positive feedback and they’re amazed at the quality of the produce. He’ll call every week and get feedback, he’s printed out all these recipes and he really takes it seriously.”

In August, friend Annie Luckett, a stay-at-home mom of 9-year-old twins, was recruited by Ukegawa to help coordinate and cultivate new contacts. Luckett called principals and the Head Start programs in the city.

The message was simple, she and Ukegawa wanted to know if there was a need to assist individuals, families or children who were food insecure.

No names or addresses, just if those organizations would want to distribute the boxes from Ukegawa.

“They’re extremely grateful and it’s rewarding to help,” Luckett said. “The Head Start’s, I’ll get thank you letters, texts and everybody is so grateful because I think it relieves the pressure.”

As the pandemic has carried on, Ukegawa also pivoted to create an open-air market at his warehouse, where shoppers can buy fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, bread, jam, pie crusts, Bitchin’ Sauce and numerous other products.

The market has steadily increased in popularity, which he said he will eventually transition over the strawberry farm off Cannon Road and Interstate 5.

Additionally, his famous “U-pick” had its best season ever as the strawberry fields incorporated all the acreage to be picked at once to manage social distancing guidelines.

Typically, Ukegawa would limit the U-pick to just an acre or two and rotate between plots to allow time for the strawberries to grow at a staggered pace.

But now, the activity has been so popular, he opened up the entire 25 acres for picking, which has helped supplement the donations.