Features & Columns

FRUITS OF LABOR: Homeless workers employed by San Jose's Downtown Streets Team pick fruit to donate to local food banks in exchange for housing vouchers. Photograph by Colin Quirt

Taking Root

Urban agriculture became a grassroots-led social cause in the wake of the massive economic downturn, spawning community gardens in communities hardest-hit by the housing crisis, from Central Valley suburbs to New York City rooftops and Detroit brownfields. Years later, those organizations, including Silicon Valley's inner-city farms like Garden to Table, have grown out of their experimental phase and emerged as viable fixtures in their communities. An ascendant subculture largely led by young, first-generation farmers that once fought for public attention has affected political change, resulting in new municipal land-use policies and a state law that, by creating urban ag zones, could eventually reward property owners who lease land to food-growers.

While San Jose offers space at 19 community gardens on 35 collective acres across town to 900 residents, another 500 sit on years-long waiting lists. Surrounding cities see similar trends. Though several private nonprofits throughout Santa Clara County have attempted to keep up with that demand—La Mesa Verde, Valley Verde, Veggielution, Yummy Tummy Farms and Village Harvest, to name a small sample—it appears interest in local food outpaces supply.

The Health Trust of Silicon Valley supports urban farms as part of a broader initiative to improve access to healthful foods in what federal regulators call "food deserts," areas populated by corner stores that offer little in the way of fresh produce. In a 2013 report, the coalition found that only 15 percent of food sellers in San Jose offer healthy options and that more than half of all adults in the county are obese or overweight. Beginning this spring, the nonprofit plans to bring new options to these food deserts by giving some residents pushcarts to sell locally grown produce. Another program, also launching this month, would encourage corner stores to sell fresh fruit and vegetables.

"The food produced by our industrial agriculture system, while incredibly cheap due in part to government subsidies, has alienated us from what we we eat," says Kris Jensen, head of Collective Roots, a 12-year-old nonprofit that runs school gardens and community markets in East Palo Alto. "And the real costs of this system are playing out in the increasing rates of diet related diseases like obesity, diabetes and heart disease. The widening income gap, especially here in Silicon Valley, is just making matters worse."

One way to address this, he says, is to help families take the "radical step" of growing a portion of their own food.

"There's this outside perception that this is the richest area in the world, so I was astonished to see how many underserved communities existed here," says Raffaella Cerruti, who moved stateside from Italy as a food policy grad student. "I was astonished that so many families experienced food insecurity [not knowing where their next meal would come from] a few days of the month, so close to Facebook and Google and other rich tech companies. I felt like I needed to work for a nonprofit that addressed this problem."

She discovered Valley Verde two years ago and became its operations manager. Community organizer Raul Lozano started the nonprofit to set up needy families throughout the valley with their own gardens so they could feed themselves and maybe start a cottage business.

"In the middle of a region with perfect weather for growing, it's shocking to see so many people without immediate access to healthy food," Cerruti says.

While Americans historically tend to rely more on community gardens in times of economic recession—as during WWII, when 44 percent of the nation's produce came from government-sponsored "Victory Gardens"—this is the first time urban agriculture has branded itself to this extent as a multifaceted social issue to address poverty, hunger, environmental problems and even neighborhood crime. Despite soaring land prices and decades of sprawl that displaced thousands of acres of farmland in Silicon Valley, hundreds of growers have carved out a niche in the cityscape, whether in front yards or industrial brownfields, to reclaim some of the region's heritage as an agricultural hub.

"I certainly hope that this emphasis on locally grown and getting urban communities involved in growing their own food continuesÉto gain momentum politically and culturally," says Hilary Nixon, who teaches urban and regional planning at SJSU and helped kickstart Garden to Table when it was still Lewis' master's project.

The next step is to figure out how to make projects like Garden to Table and Valley Verde economically sustainable while supporting that social mission, particularly in one of the nation's most expensive cluster of zip codes.

"That's the tricky part," Lewis says. "I think we're all trying to crack that one."

Park to Farm

Amie Frisch points to the southern perimeter of Emma Prusch Park, a 46-acre parcel of farmland flanked by freeways and working class homes in San Jose's East Side.

"You can't see them from here, but that's where we planted our first orchard trees last year," she says, pulling her hand back to shield her eyes from the sun.

Dozens of volunteers planted the citrus and stone fruit seedlings last spring after San Jose signed a nine-year lease with Veggielution, the community farm nonprofit Frisch founded in 2008 to take advantage of the largely unused stretch of land left to the city 60 years ago by lifelong valley resident Emma Prusch.

"We took that as a metaphor, that we're really setting down roots in this space," Frisch says. "Orchards are considered a long-term investment and here we are planning to plant some more."

It's an about-face from the early days. Six years ago, when Frisch first asked the city to farm the park, she was an aspirational environmental studies undergrad who spent most of her free time tending backyard gardens in downtown San Jose with a group of eight classmates.

"We went door to door asking people if we could use their garden," she recalls. "We just wanted to grow food, drink beer and have parties and celebrate all the time. We really wanted to get other people excited for growing food because we were excited about it."

But the city wouldn't consider her without the backing of a nonprofit. Frisch managed to secure that through the Prusch Park Farm Foundation, the private fundraising arm of the public park.

"Then they took a chance on us and gave us one-sixth of an acre," she says.

Today, Veggielution farms seven acres of the park, which divides into several sections of gardens, dining patios, washing stations, tool sheds and livestock pens—all overrun by an assortment of free-range hens, peacocks and guinea fowl. In 2013, volunteers harvested more than 56,000 pounds of vegetables from the lot. Nearly every Saturday, 200 volunteers work the land and share the harvest in a meal washed, prepped and cooked a few strides from where the food grew. On weekdays, community members farm their little plots or bring their kids to gawk at the roaming livestock.

If the farm sold its produce at marked-up rates to triple-dollar-signed restaurants or at farmers markets to locavores with disposable income, they'd actually turn a profit. But the bulk of the bounty is given away or sold at marked-down rates to poor families. Frisch relies on grants and donations to make up the difference. Thanks to the city's support, she says, Veggielution doesn't have to worry about relocating. That stability gives people more incentive to invest in the organization.

"The city never had a project like this," says Frisch. "We broke a lot of ground and really proved our staying power. I think people are used to the idea—I think they appreciate the idea—of urban farms having that charitable element, so it's something they want to support."

When Veggielution first got started, Frisch looked to Full Circle Farm for guidance. The 11-acre counterpart in Sunnyvale established itself as an educational farm park a year earlier, and aligned with Frisch's vision for what she wanted from Veggielution. Unlike Valley Verde, Collective Roots and Garden to Table, which propagate gardens in backyards and on vacant parcels, Full Circle and Veggielution remain on static sites, secured by long-term leases.

Paul McNamara, Full Circle's executive director, has an orchard lining his farm but hopes to develop kitchens in the interior for picnics and demonstrations. "I'm excited," he says, surveying the property, which lies across the street from a quiet neighborhood and elementary school. "There's a lot we want to do with this to make it more like a park, with walking paths and benches and dining areas."

Part of the reason volunteers enjoy coming to Hollyhill Hummingbird Farm, a 10-acre homestead in the western hills of Cupertino, is because they can eat close to where the food is grown. David West turned his parents' backyard hill into a community farm after getting fed up making "weapons of war" as an engineer for Lockheed-Martin. Originally, he tried to grow enough food for family and friends, but soon realized that he wanted to turn the farm into a community haven.

"There's something innate in people that makes them want to work the land and grow their own food," says West, offering a piece of bread he made from garden-grown hops leftover from his home-brewed beer. "We enjoy giving them a place to do that."

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