One good green idea leads to another at Grand Lake Gardens


By Cheryl Angelina Koehler

Joe and Doris Pummill have no complaints about the quality of life at Grand Lake Gardens, a 1960s-vintage retirement community located right at the Grand Avenue/ I-580 interchange in North Oakland.

Well, actually, Joe does have one small complaint . . .

“You’re so entertained here with all the organized activities that you don’t have to get out and participate in the community,” he says.

Fortunately, Joe found an opportunity to “give back” to the larger community last spring as he was meeting with other members of the Grand Lake Gardens Greening Committee, whose focus has been to address onsite carbon footprint issues. Someone brought up an article they had read about seniors elsewhere who were growing food and donating it to a local food bank.

“Doris jumped right on it,” Joe says, as he describes the way his wife led the newly formed Gardening Committee up the hill to an underused corner of the grounds to assess the prospects for putting in an organic garden there.  It looked good, but there was one major impediment: the only way up to the new garden space is via some narrow stairways, so trucking in good soil and compost was not possible.

In looking for assistance, the Gardening Committee (the Pummills, Lester Marks, Carol Byrne, Chalice Fong, Edmund Bussey, Bill Drum, and Carole Jan Lee) learned about Rebuilding Together, a national organization that matches volunteers and donors with worthy community projects. The Oakland chapter put them in touch with Ken Li, an engineer who leads the Piedmont Community Service Crew, a co-ed group within the Piedmont Council of Boy Scouts of America.

“I cultivate youth leadership among members and invite them to plan and organize the projects with adult guidance and expertise,” Li says. “Last April, we sponsored [the Grand Lake Gardens garden] project and did the entire thing, including design, . . . over two weekends.”

On a midsummer visit to the garden, the beans and tomato vines are climbing their trellises while squash vines, heavy with fruit, cascade over the edges of some truly impressive planter boxes. “Ken Li [along with parent co-leader and contractor Frank Silver] designed those to withstand the ages,” Joe Pummill says, pointing to the boxes. “Every member of this committee will be long gone before those fall apart.”

Five members of the gardening committee describe in chorus how

Li’s Service Crew secured donations for the materials, constructed the planters and showed up 50 strong to fill them. “They hauled the soil up

in buckets, fire brigade style,” the chorus intones.

Throughout the summer, Doris Pummill maintained a hand-drawn spreadsheet charting the harvest with a weekly “weigh-in” of each vegetable type. “Can you believe that six seniors harvested 553 pounds of vegetables!” Doris exclaims.

When it came time to donate the first load of bounty, the committee made the long drive out to the Alameda County Food Bank’s facility near the Oakland Airport only to find that their produce was going to be transferred back to North Oakland for use at St. Mary’s Center. Given the Greening Committee’s vow to reduce their carbon footprint, this simply wouldn’t do. “We decided to save the mileage by taking it to St. Mary’s ourselves,” says Doris.

At St. Mary’s, the summer produce went into the hands of Sister Marilyn, who with a staff of six helps as many as 900 low-income seniors, some of whom are homeless, meet their basic needs.

“There are forty to eighty seniors who come to the center for hot meals,” says Sister Marilyn, adding that one meal each week is prepared at the center, and on other days, food is brought in by churches in her diocese and by Bay Area Community Services. Volunteers participate with serving meals and some also go out into the community to pick up food donations. “We prefer organic,” she adds.

Sister Marilyn served on the board of the Alameda County Food Bank for nine years until she was “termed out,” as she puts it. She was there when the food bank did a complete overhaul of its facilities in order to become a distribution center for fresh produce instead of simply a conduit for packaged foods. “Susan Bateson, their executive director, is doing such good work,” says Sister Marilyn. “They now have refrigerated trucks that go out [to farms] in the [Central] Valley and pick up large amounts of food.”

When asked what Edible East Bay readers could do to help, Sister Marilyn said that St. Mary’s Center is especially in need of operating funds, due to the way the state’s budgetary problems have affected help for those in need. She added that anyone interested in visiting the center is encouraged to stop by at 925 Brockhurst (near San Pablo Avenue) in Oakland.

Back at Grand Lake Gardens, Doris and her crew, pleased that they were able to contribute organic produce to 850 senior lunches, are now replanting Ken Li’s raised beds with winter crops so they can take more fresh food to St. Mary’s throughout the coming season. Doris says that they can hardly wait to resume the weekly “weigh-ins.”

More info:

Grand Lake Gardens: Piedmont Community Service Crew:

Rebuilding Together Oakland:

St. Mary’s Center:

Alameda County Community Food Bank:

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