Vallejo People’s Garden founder Vilma Aquino harvests grape leaves to use for dolmas. Aquino welcomes volunteers who want to help out with garden chores.

What’s been happening around the East Bay?

By Rachel Trachten | Photos by Rachel Stanich

 

In March when everything shut down, school and community gardens were in full spring swing. Neighbors walking past the gardens noticed pea vines curling up behind locked gates and wondered what would become of the food, and what would become of garden-based education. Here’s what we learned from some organizations we spoke with.

Edible Schoolyard

It’s been 25 years since Alice Waters launched the idea of garden- and kitchen-based education. In response to school closures, staff at Berkeley’s Edible Schoolyard made a quick transition to supporting parents as educators. Each Monday through the spring season, they emailed free weekly lessons as home kitchens and gardens became places to learn about math, art, science, and humanities as well as cooking and gardening.

Angela McKee-Brown, deputy executive director for the Edible Schoolyard Project, describes the lessons: “We try to get kids offline as quickly as possible doing project-based learning and learning with their hands and engaging with food and nature to not only learn academic subjects but also to connect and build community.”

A springtime lesson on seeds showed children how to read a seed packet and plant seeds outdoors or in a container. The lesson progressed to creating a planter box and doing an art project about the wide variety of seeds that we eat. A lesson on strawberries featured tasting, drawing, writing poetry, and learning about pesticides. In addition to the weekly lessons, kids have been tackling a series of challenges by making Instagram videos as they master new skills. Two popular challenges: learning to flip food in a sauté pan and creating a dish using five ingredients you find in your kitchen.

These lessons have been shared all across the country, with 13,000 families receiving their Monday dose of garden ed. McKee-Brown says that the lessons were designed for kids who may already have a garden at home as well as those with limited access to nature. Even something as simple as observing a flower on the sidewalk, she notes, can become part of a science lesson.

As summer arrived, the Edible Schoolyard team shifted its focus to supporting educators. They launched a free program of online training and professional development sessions, all related to the field of edible education. Meanwhile, the garden and kitchen teams have been harvesting produce from the garden and donating it to the Berkeley Food Network for use in the community.

Berkeley Unified School District

Jezra Thompson, supervisor of the gardening and cooking programs at BUSD, says their team is running the food pantry at Berkeley Technology Academy every second and fourth Tuesday of the month in partnership with Berkeley Food Network. They’ve been donating about 50 pounds of harvested produce from school gardens each pantry day, and the food is free to the public.

In addition, Thompson says they’ve created distance learning tools for preschool through middle school students, including websites, blogs, and YouTube channels featuring garden and cooking instructors and activities for students. Find information and activities here.

Oakland Unified School District

Some Oakland school gardens are at rest for the summer, while others are being maintained, harvested, and planted. Produce is available to families who request it.

Kat Romo of OUSD says that members of the FoodCorps team have been bagging and distributing food for families at the District’s food distribution sites. They’ve developed a YouTube channel with videos on nutrition, cooking, gardening, and mindfulness, and team members have been teaching cooking and gardening classes on Zoom for their students. They’ve also partnered with UC Cooperative Extension and UC Master Gardeners to provide vegetable plants, compost, and activity packets for families at the food distribution sites.

“I think now more than ever the importance of being able to grow our own food and to see the tangible rewards of that daily endeavor is not only fundamental to our physical health, but also our mental well-being,” says Romo. “The ability to dig your hands in the dirt and taste a vegetable that you’ve just picked off the vine provides calm, solace, and joy in this unprecedented time.”

 

Plants get their start in the greenhouse at O2 Artisans Aggregate. From there, the starts are either planted in raised beds, put into the aquaponic system, or taken to the greenhouse storefront in the yard.

 

O2 Artisans Aggregate

“One business’s trash is another business’s treasure” is a guiding principle at West Oakland’s O2 Artisans Aggregate, an eco-industrial yard that provides affordable workspace resources, including tools and machinery for crafters and makers. Among the onsite initiatives is the O2 Urban Farm, which went from raising produce for two Japanese restaurants to providing a weekly affordable vegetable box for West Oakland neighbors when the stay-at-home order started. They also sell vegetable starts for purchase in the o2aa.com shop.

One development in the O2 Urban Farm has been a collaboration with Slow Food East Bay, which created the Sister Farms Project to make connections with marginalized farmers among immigrant and refugee groups in the Central Valley, specifically those who have experienced significant decreases in customers and are seeking new ways to sell their produce. The O2 Urban Farm has been supplementing their produce boxes with items from the Asian Business Institute & Resource Center in Fresno, which represents Hmong farmers, and the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, which is working with Latinx farmers in the Salinas area. Slow Foods East Bay is also subsidizing 10 boxes of produce weekly as donations to groups in the NorCal Resilience Network that feed vulnerable people.

 

O2 Artisans Aggregate's apiary

 

Gill Tract Community Farm

As the stay-at-home order began, this volunteer-run farm on UC Berkeley land at the corner of Buchanan and San Pablo in Albany closed its gates to the public and put its pay-what-you-can produce stand on hiatus as attention turned to Covid-19 safety concerns. With community food security already central to the organization’s mission, they launched a new fundraising campaign to increase those efforts. When the protests began after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on May 25, the focus turned toward assisting Black Earth Farms—the Black and Indigenous agroecology collective–led farm on site—with mutual aid in support of the protestors and food for Black families.

LEAF

The LEAF (Local Ecology and Agriculture Fremont) Center is Fremont’s only public community garden. Tri-City residents can rent state-of-the-art planters there, and some volunteers are working  in the C.R. Stone Garden, where they are using regenerative agriculture techniques. In May, volunteers started ramping up food production, and were able to donate fava beans, summer squash, chard, and more to meet increasing needs at the Tri-City Volunteers Food Bank.

 

Gabriel and Luna White (above) are frequent volunteers, along with their mom, Sandra, at the Vallejo People’s Garden

 

Vallejo People’s Garden

Gabriel White was harvesting calendula flowers for his mom, who infuses them into oil to make medicinal salves and lotions. The petals are also used in salads.

When we gave photographer Rachel Stanich an assignment to go out and find some community garden activity to photograph, she discovered the Vallejo People’s Garden, a unique spot on Mare Island where resident Vilma Aquino started cultivating an empty lot in her neighborhood after being laid off during the Great Recession in 2009.

“It was an epiphany for me,” says Aquino, referring to a YouTube video she’d seen of people planting together while their kids ran around and played. Wanting to replicate the happy mood she’d seen in that video, Aquino went to work securing permission to use the empty lot. The garden came about with sponsorship from the Vallejo nonprofit Global Center for Success and a $25,000 design and build grant from Nature’s Path Foods. Since 2011, she and other volunteers have grown 2,000 pounds of seasonal produce each year and donated it to local agencies helping unhoused and underserved people. In addition to running the garden, Aquino works full time at Lowe’s as a plant specialist, where she says that since the pandemic, people are coming by in droves to buy vegetables and soil for their own gardens.

When Covid first struck, Aquino had no garden volunteers for weeks, leading to a problem with weeds and aphids. “I brought in ladybugs and made organic concoctions,” she says. What finally worked was a cultural practice from her own Filipino heritage of smoking out the aphids. Since that time, some volunteers have returned, but more are welcome. Contact Aquino at info@vallejopeoplesgarden.org for more information. ´

 

Associate editor Rachel Trachten writes about food and gardening in connection to social justice, education, business, and the environment. View her stories at racheltrachten.contently.com.

Fine-art photographer Rachel Stanich is intrigued by the stories of others. She explores cultural texture and landscape in her work. rachelstanich.com