Close your eyes and picture this: You hear the sound of children laughing and shrieking with wonder; adults nearby talk joyfully. Some of the conversations around you are in Spanish, some in English, and some a mixture of both. You feel the delicate roots of a seedling in your hands, and the soil beneath you as you carve out a home for the seedling. It smells like fresh soil, with a tinge of manure compost, and morning coffee being poured. These are the sensations I was experiencing at a community garden workday on a recent Saturday morning in Healdsburg.
Farm to Pantry, the organization that I am with for my GrizzlyCorps fellowship, is a gleaning non-profit in Sonoma County. Since its founding in 2008, Farm to Pantry has been harvesting excess fruits and vegetables from farms as well as people’s personal properties around Sonoma County, primarily in the cities of Healdsburg, Santa Rosa, and Sebastopol. In the last few years, however, we have begun growing some produce and assisting others who grow produce in various ways. This year, Farm to Pantry has been working on a community garden in Healdsburg, called Jardín de Brillo, in collaboration with two other organizations: Corazon and Farm to Fight Hunger. Corazon is a human-rights organization with the mission to build a compassionate and just community by empowering and dignifying people, advocating against injustices, and uniting people to celebrate diversity. Corazon offers academic support, workforce development, life skills and wellbeing training, and serves as a strong voice for the Latin-American community in Sonoma County. Farm to Fight Hunger is a farm in Healdsburg, that uses sustainable farming techniques to grow nutritious produce and pasture-raised eggs, and donates 100% of its bounty to organizations helping to fight food insecurity.
Jardín de Brillo, which means sparkle garden, was named by a young girl who suggested the name at our first community gathering to plan the garden. When Farm to Pantry was offered this garden space, in Fall of 2021, the soil was dry and covered in weeds, so at one of the first garden workdays, our main task was to cover the area with a giant tarp to suffocate the weeds. At our most recent workday, a team of about 15 people lifted the giant tarp, revealing beautiful, moist, and weed-free soil underneath. We set to work planting seedlings and seeds in the rows of this fresh soil; as we planted we found worms, rolly pollys, spiders, and even a small snake in the soil, eliciting shrieks of excitement from the participants. These creatures are evidence that our soil is healthy and provides habitat for life to thrive. After about an hour of work, we had planted all but two rows of our garden space.
The transformation over the course of the workday was amazing. When the hands of 30 community members come together there’s no limit to what can be accomplished.
Although Jardín de Brillo has not produced anything harvestable yet, once that food is produced, members of the community who participate in workdays will get the first opportunity to harvest what they want; after that, Farm to Pantry will harvest anything left and leave it on a produce stand in front of the garden for the rest of the community to take. Jardín de Brillo was not designed to give individuals or families their own plots of land, but rather to utilize the space as a whole, that is entirely maintained by the community, with leadership from Bruce of Farm to Fight Hunger.
Bayer Farm, another local community garden that Farm to Pantry works with, is located in Roseland, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Santa Rosa, with a population that is 55.2% Latine as of 2019 (City-Data.com, 2019). Bayer Farm has 101 plots that are each farmed by a different family, almost all of whom are immigrants representing a total of 14 different countries, including many from Mexico and Central and South America. The farm also hosts food distributions every Wednesday, as well as a farm stand that is frequently stocked with fruits and vegetables for community members to take. Farm to Pantry frequently supplements the garden’s own bounty with deliveries of gleaned produce that we leave on the farmstand.
Jonathan, the manager of Bayer Farm, told me that when he opened a waitlist for plots at Bayer, over 200 people signed up within a few days. He pointed out that so many people don’t have access to land, and without access to land, one can lack a sense of belonging. The desire to garden, especially in places like Roseland where not many people have large enough yards, is immense. And even for those who do have plots at Bayer, those plots are relatively small; Bayer Farm has a total of two acres, divided among 101 families. Imagine if each family had a half acre to themselves - Jonathan dreams of creating more community gardens, and has been talking to our local politicians in hopes of securing additional land.
As of 2018, about one in three residents of Sonoma County face food insecurity (Annual Sonoma County Poverty Index, 2020). In places generally regarded as more wealthy and white, like Sonoma County, I think it can be easy to overlook the large portion of our community that is struggling to make ends meet. Creating better access to land and farming/garden education is a huge step in the direction of eliminating food insecurity.
Jonathan shared with me the following quote: “la tierra está en las manos de la gente que adía tenerla en las uñas,” which roughly translates to “the earth is in the hands of people who don’t like to have it under their nails.”
Even though the garden plots at Bayer Farm are small, everyone is so generous with the food they produce, frequently offering it to friends and neighbors. If there were more places like Bayer Farm and Jardín de Brillo - more efforts to transition land back to the hands of those who are eager to work with it and metaphorically or literally get it under their nails - the amount of food that could be produced by and shared with those who are food insecure would be vast.
Community gardens can create a unique form of healing, both for the earth, as healthy farming techniques are used and carbon is sequestered, and for the people, for body, mind, and soul. People’s bodies benefit from the nutrient rich food that the gardens provide in exchange for the time and energy they put into the gardens. Minds can be elevated by learning how to farm and creating more food sovereignty. And particularly for Black and Brown folks, gardening can bring soul healing by deepening connections with ancestors, as well as living friends, family, and community. Community gardens can bring people together, to connect with the land and each other.
“Annual Sonoma County Hunger Index.” County of Sonoma, Economic Assistance Division Human Services Department, February 2020, https://sonomacounty.ca.gov/Human-Services/Press-Releases/Hunger-Index-2019/.
“Roseland, California.” City-Data.com, 2019, https://www.city-data.com/city/Roseland-California.html.