What drew me to food was how its physiological and emotional aspects intersected beautifully to draw people together. To unite people around one table—enjoying each other’s company and conversation while simultaneously respecting, celebrating, and learning from one another’s differences—is indeed something that in today’s climate seems increasingly difficult to accomplish.
I was driving down Delaware Road in Santa Cruz on my way to the Seymour Center when I noticed an unassuming sign announcing a u-pick farm. Enticed, I decided to turn right on Shaffer Road, passed a sign that read “Planting Seeds, Transforming Lives” and dead-ended into a 3.5 acre farm, marked by a small farm stand and another sign welcoming me to the Homeless Garden Project. Little did I know that on this organic farm I would witness firsthand the myriad of positive ways in which a food system can touch lives and foster a physically and emotionally healthier community.
The Homeless Garden Project, as its name suggests, provides a space for individuals experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity to transition back into employment and find housing. True to its mission—In the soil of our urban farm and garden, people find the tools they need to build a home in the world—HGP volunteers perform multiple services to this community, including job training and transitional employment to develop and augment skills for future employment, providing a wage, and providing a safe space to talk about their lives and be accepted. The Project began in 1990 and has been expanding its impact ever since.
This is no small feat and many trainee lives have been changed through their work with the project. In 2016, more than 90 percent of program graduates found housing and stable income. If you spend time on the farm, in the store, or at the workshop, you will surely meet both past and present trainees, and I have only heard positive things from them of their time there. Undoubtedly, this is cause for celebration! However, what struck me even more about the Project were the services it performs beyond providing a transitional space and community for those experiencing housing security—services that its name might not immediately convey.
The Project operates an organic farm, using sustainable practices to grow over 70 types of vegetables, fruit, and flowers. Living in the ‘Salad Bowl’ of the United States, we Californians are spoiled by our nearly year-long selection of fresh produce. Yet many farm workers and those in close proximity to conventional farms cope with the detrimental effects of pesticides on their health and that of their families. Also, runoff from farms with non-sustainable practices has a host of negative consequences.
The Homeless Garden Project partners with Ivy Young of Santa Cruz Compost Company, who collects food waste from local homes on her bike and builds compost piles on the farm. Composting, no tillage-farming, and stewardship of the land help sequester carbon and prevent decomposing food waste from generating greenhouse gases in landfills. Thus, through its sustainable farming practices the Homeless Garden Project promotes the health of our community and environment, even combating climate change.
The farm also provides healthful, seasonal, local produce to members of the community. Lunch is provided to those on the farm on weekdays, and as people gather around the table sometimes the barriers that different housing and financial situations can create may become apparent. However, these barriers dissipate with the understanding that conversation and time together bring, and everyone is simply a person, with his or her unique story to share. Additionally, the Feed 2 Birds program serves to combat inequitable access to healthful food by supplying vulnerable populations and local nonprofits with farm-fresh produce.
Walking through the farm, the buzz of happy pollinators in the lavender and cornflower patches is dotted with conversations between friends and family. Members of the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program come with their families and harvest the week’s goodies together. Unlike many children who grow up thinking tomatoes come from the grocery store or not knowing what a carrot plant looks like, children who come here with their families are likely to surprise you by knowing more than you do. As they run around pointing out the edible flowers and proclaiming their love of fennel as they nibble on the leaves, I’m reminded of how many children may not like the taste of fennel and also how many kids—and adults—don’t even know what it is. Parents have proudly told me on more than one occasion that their kids make the salads they will share at the dinner table. Surely, such children who grow up knowing their farmer and witnessing stewardship of the earth and community will provide the fodder for growing healthier individuals and healing the flaws in our food system.
The Homeless Garden Project is a magical space made possible by the same tenets it promotes, for the very community whose importance it espouses is what allows this place to thrive. As a certified Service Enterprise, the Project leverages the skill sets of volunteers to successfully achieve its mission. Groups of students, companies, families, and people from all different backgrounds volunteer on the farm, weeding, pruning, drying flowers for the value-added products made by the trainees to sell in the store, and assuming key roles in events run by the Project.
Twice a year, the Homeless Garden Project hosts a Sustain Supper, a farm-to-table fundraiser dinner that provides guests the chance to further connect with the Project and support its mission. For the Sustain Supper held in September 2017, I had the privilege to be the chef liaison, working with inspirational professional chefs who volunteered their time to prepare dishes highlighting the farm’s bounty. After sharing a family-style meal, guests listen to a trainee tell about the healing the Project has brought. This September, Justin Wright poignantly reminded us that, “The seeds we plant do not discriminate and the flowers blossom for everyone, regardless of their age, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background.” We all deserve to be reminded of our worth as human beings, and for Justin, “This garden is a true place of acceptance.”
The roots of this organization are deep and far-reaching, from integrating trainees back into the workplace, to dismantling the stereotypes people may have brought with them to the farm, to fostering a deeper sense of community, and to helping raise children rooted in the earth. Places like the Homeless Garden Project serve as beacons of hope, showing us that the fight for a more sustainable, accessible, integrative food system has impacts that ripple further than we could ever imagine—putting a roof over someone’s head, reversing climate change, reminding us that our differences should be celebrated as ways to learn from one another, witnessing a person’s wonder the first time picking fresh carrots, building stronger, connected, healthier communities, and watching our children learn how they can steward our earth in the future.
Indeed, the Homeless Garden Project—like good food—magnetic, drawing people from all walks of life together to admire its beauty and rejoice in the taste it leaves in your mouth.
Want to Get Involved?
- Visit or volunteer at HGP’s Holiday Store this season at 110 Cooper Street, Suite 100G in the Cooperhouse Breezeway (adjacent to Abbott Square)
- Open daily through December 24, 10 AM – 8 PM (closed Thanksgiving).
- Visit or volunteer on the farm.
- Join HGP’s CSA program, with 23 weeks of freshly harvested organic produce.
- Attend any of HGP’s many events on the farm or in the store, including Farm Suppers, Volunteer Work Days, and First Fridays.