by Cat Johnson
SC Weekly Jun 20, 2012
To visit the Homeless Garden Project’s Natural Bridges Farm is to step into a simpler world. Just blocks away from the unending flow of traffic on Mission Street and the chaos of downtown Santa Cruz, the farm sits away from it all. Bursting with life, it’s a collage of colors, scents and sounds. Dogs are sunbathing in the dirt; the farm staff and volunteers are bustling around harvesting and weeding, two people are putting together flower bouquets and the wind is coming off the bay at a steady 40 mph. The rows of vegetables, herbs, fruits and flowers seem unaffected by the wind. The humans look windblown, sun-kissed and happy.
I’m at the farm to meet Zac, a lanky 19-year-old with a shy smile and a thoughtful disposition. Part of the Independent Living Program (ILP), a local project that helps young people transition out of foster care into self-sufficiency, Zac is at the farm to pick up the boxes of freshly harvested food that ILP receives on a weekly basis. This week’s share contains fava beans, green garlic, strawberries, red and green leaf lettuce, winter bore kale, atomic red carrots and fresh rosemary. Some of the food will be prepared at the ILP Resource Center. The rest will be given to the young people to take home.
“I’ve never been too much on the organic side until I came here and saw what they were doing,” says Zac, who has also volunteered at the farm. “When you go to other farms you don’t see people walking around and you don’t see the variety of plants. It’s beautiful here.”
Susan Paradise, program manager of the Transition Age Youth Programs, of which ILP is a part, says that when the outfit first started receiving and preparing food from the farm, a lot of the kids didn’t know what the various vegetables even were. But the staff kept serving it, and the kids grew to love it.
“Growing up in foster care, they have so little control over what ends up on their plate,” Paradise says, noting that rates of malnutrition are high in the foster care community. “More often than not, it’s not fresh organic produce. But we have a lot of kids eating kale now. I think that our youth sense that this is special food,” she continues. “There’s a really positive energy around this whole process.”
A Healthy Change
ILP is one of four local nonprofits that receive donated Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares from the Homeless Garden Project. The others are the Beach Flats Community Center, Women’s Crisis Support and the Santa Cruz AIDS Project. The flowers from each share are donated to Hospice of Santa Cruz County.
The Homeless Garden Project offers transitional employment and job training through its trainee program. An important part of the program is then distributing the food grown by the trainees to underserved community members. Darrie Ganzhorn, executive director of the Homeless Garden Project, calls it feeding two birds with one worm. (She also calls it feeding two birds with one seed, but admits that dividing one seed sounds a bit like malnourishment.)
Ganzhorn emphasizes the importance of the relationship between CSA members, the farm and the farmers. “It isn’t just a connection to the food,” she says. “It’s a connection to the garden.”
A CSA share, which costs $650, comes out to approximately $20 per week. For boxes of fresh organic fruits and vegetables, this is a good price, but for someone who has to choose between rent and food, it may be out of reach.
For many low-income families, high-calorie, low-cost, low-nutritional-value foods become dietary staples, which contributes to our current national health crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 35.7 percent of American adults and 17 percent of American children are obese.
For Ganzhorn, the solution-oriented way of addressing this crisis is to make fresh foods accessible and help people find ways to incorporate them into their diet. Through its donation program, the Homeless Garden Project gets healthy food into communities that may not have access to it otherwise.
But that costs money, so the Homeless Garden Project relies on donations from the community. From $5 to $1,000 and up, donations go directly to support the trainee and CSA donation programs. A U-Pick farm stand, open every day from 10am to 4pm at the Natural Bridges Farm, also benefits the programs.
With a goal of 15 donated shares this year, the Homeless Garden Project staff would eventually like to have the majority of the farm’s CSA shares going to community organizations.
“Fresh food shouldn’t just be for the wealthy,” says farm supervisor David Stockhausen. “The more the community at large continues to support us, the more we can do for the community. We’re recycling good.”
Before he leaves, Zac points out how much the farm does for everyone involved with it. “I’m just another person who’s affected by it, like so many others,” he says. “You’ve got to give thanks for that.”