Talking about the homeless population of America is popular these days. And yet fixing the situation seems, to many, an impossibly overwhelming task. Others are proving it’s not. The Santa Cruz Homeless Garden Project (HGP) uses sustainable agriculture as the springboard to a safer, productive and more hopeful life for many. The agriculture and gardening training provided to the homeless of Santa Cruz County through the project has culminated in both jobs and permanent housing for its trainees.
“We find people that express much greater degrees of well being after they are with us for a year, whether it’s in their diet, in their sense of self, in their ability to set goals and achieve them, in how connected they feel to the community,” says Darrie Ganzhorn Executive Director of the Homeless Garden Project.
Established in 1990, the HGP was the brainchild of Paul Lee, a member of the Citizens Committee on Homelessness. Lee began spending nights along with other board members in the homeless shelter.
Faced with an empty lot in the Bronx, NY, Karen Washington decided to start growing.
“I had no knowledge. I took some seeds and put them in the ground. I knew that they needed water and sun – I just did it.”
That was in the 1980s. Since then, Washington has become a practiced urban and rural farmer and community activist. However, she warns, “When someone says they’re an expert in farming and gardening, they’re not. Because it’s mother nature… and you’re always learning.”
Washington points to elders as an important source of learning. By picking the brains of those who had farmed and gardened before her, she was able to make her first forays in the soil.
Then in 2008, Washington attended a six-month program with The Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
For Patricia Spence, executive director of the Urban Farming Institute of Boston (UFI), farming was always a part of family life. Her grandfather, who came from Jamaica, set up his own mini farm right in Boston where he grew everything from grapes to a wide variety of vegetables. Her father then did the same thing in their home. Now as executive director of the Urban Farming Institute, a job that requires plenty of energy and enthusiasm, she is actively pursuing the organization’s all-encompassing mission.
Patricia recalls how recently students from a local university came over to discuss business planning. At one point the students said, “So you have to decide in your mission statement, which thing you’re going to do – are you going to work on the commercial sector and create the farmers, or are you going to engage the urban communities?” Her response was unequivocal: “There is no separation. We have to do it all. Because as you’re farming, your community is walking right by you and you want to engage them, get them involved. That’s the best way to do it.”
For a long time food banks and food pantries have occupied a respected, but relatively fixed role in the food system. They are the safety net that catches food before it goes to waste and redirects it those in need. But as popular movements to combat food waste reshape the way food moves through the food system, the reactionary role of food banks is changing too. With even large-scale grocers finding ways to compost or donate their would-be waste, food bank staff are having a harder time bringing in enough quality food to keep their clients well fed.
One of the largest diocese in the nation, the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles has made food justice a top priority. In 2013, it created Seeds of Hope, a food justice ministry that “provides universal and affordable access to basic nutrition,” says Seeds of Hope Executive Director, Tim Alderson. “In the six California counties that make up the Diocese of Los Angeles, that condition does not exist. Our job is to do what we can to address these issues.”
The idea for Seeds of Hope was conceived when Bishop Jon Bruno was diagnosed with leukemia and admitted for his final treatment at City of Hope. Though not his patient, he met endocrinologist Raynald Samoa, M.D. who was covering rounds. The two men spent over two hours talking about food related illnesses, food access issues and disparities of food health in communites. Dr. Samoa also knew Alderson, who was working on a farm project for City of Hope.