Community farms fill the Bay Area’s growing need for fresh produce — and you can help

For Cedric Williams, nurturing his garden plot at City Slicker Farms means much more than providing collard greens in winter and tomatoes in summer for his family.

The experience is also a neighborhood bonding experience, a chance to enjoy the natural environment he so loves and a fresh-air break for him, wife Apollonia and their children, son Askari and daughter Azariyah.

“I’m so blessed to have my plot there,” said Williams, a UCSF technician who grew up tending backyard gardens in Fairfield-Suisun and San Francisco, but lost the space for that when they moved to a West Oakland apartment. “We’re eating organic foods and getting into the joy of real work.”

Beyond that, he said, the garden imparts life lessons that he can pass along. “If you want change in life, it requires work. This teaches me not to give up.”

Williams is among the thousands of Bay Area residents singing the praises of community gardens. Long a presence in the Bay Area, these nonprofit ventures have expanded their farm-to-table mission during COVID-19 to bring locally grown, organic food to more and more people — whether or not the recipients themselves have time to garden.

Here’s a look at four major farms — three established ventures that are adding creative new outreach programs all the time and a new one that launched in 2020 with an unusual mission.

City Slicker Farms, Oakland

Now in its 20th year, City Slicker has evolved from a half-acre farm that empowered West Oakland residents to grow organic food to a program with much wider reach. To date, more than 500 City Slicker backyard gardens have been built in this neighborhood, where fresh produce historically had been too expensive or out of reach; three community farms have opened to the public, and more than 300,000 pounds of produce has been raised.

Cedric Williams harvests green onions from his grow box at City Slicker Farms on Sunday, Feb. 14, 2021, in Oakland, Calif. City Slicker Farms is a community garden, where local residents can grow vegetables and fruit. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) 

Of course, the pandemic has created new challenges for the farm’s food justice and food access work.

“A lot of work is based on relationships and community — digging in the dirt together, one-on-one mentor visits with new gardeners, having volunteers help us keep the farm running, for example,” executive director Kelly ErnstFriedman said. “So we’ve had to get creative in how we can continue to do this work.”

City Slicker’s goals for 2021 include growing more food at its home base, Farm Park, to give away, building at least 10 more gardens and expanding educational opportunities.

How you can help: An operation like this always needs the skills not just of farm volunteers (building gardens, weeding, irrigation) but also of web- and marketing-savvy individuals. Check the website for needs. There’s also a wish list of appliances and supplies.

Details, donations: 2847 Peralta St., Oakland; www.cityslickerfarms.org

Veggielution Community Farm, San Jose

When Emma Prusch deeded her family’s dairy farm to the city of San Jose back in 1962, she requested that part of the land be used to educate future citizens about the valley’s agricultural past and inspire them.

Green onions rise from the soil at San Jose’s Veggielution community farm on Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group) 

The nonprofit now located on the property does that — and more. Since 2008, Veggielution has operated with a much broader mission of “connecting people from diverse backgrounds through food and farming to build community in East San Jose.”

Those programs include a 6-acre community garden overseen by farm manager Luis Hernandez, a youth garden, a cocina with recipe demonstrations, a farm stand and fresh-air sessions on organic farming for thousands of students, from elementary age to college interns.

In the last year, a new priority has involved partnering with other local farms to put together produce boxes for 200 local families who have been affected by COVID-19.

“Starting in April, we will be partnering with the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition to begin delivering these boxes by bikes,” said Emily Schwing, the farm’s marketing and impact manager. “We are hoping that expanding the visibility of this program will allow us to make deeper connections with other communities who are not aware of our work at Veggielution.”

And when pandemic protocols permit, the farm’s children’s activities and food truck will be back on the schedule.

How you can help: Volunteers — individual and corporate — are needed to pack farm boxes for the San Jose COVID Food Relief Program, help the Eastside Grown commercial kitchen and lend a hand with farm chores. You can also shop at the farm stand from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays.

Details, donations: Emma Prusch Farm Regional Park, 647 S. King Road, San Jose; www.veggielution.org

Muir Trust: Family Harvest Farm, Pittsburg

Last summer, a 3.5-acre urban parcel in downtown Pittsburg — in a neighborhood categorized by the USDA as a “food desert” — was transformed into an organic garden with a dual mission of growing community and growing food.

While doing so, the Family Harvest Farm, part of the John Muir Land Trust, is fulfilling another unique mission: providing jobs and training to young adults who are transitioning out of the foster care system.

Apprentice Jerome Brown works at Family Harvest Farm in Pittsburg. (Courtesy of Adam Weidenbach) 

“We just want to help them find a place in the world, give them a sense that they can make a positive contribution,” said Muir board member and master gardener Jack Cortis, who came up with the idea. “We are just trying to give them a foundation.”

Future plans include donating food to community members in need, selling produce at farmers markets and to local restaurants and school cafeterias and launching subscriptions for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes.

How you can help: Volunteers are sought to help grow organic produce and assist with daily farm tasks, all done alongside apprentices. Check the farm’s information page on the John Muir Land Trust website for information.

Details, donations: 1300 Power Ave., Pittsburg; https://jmlt.org/our-places/farms-gardens/family-harvest-farm/

Collective Roots, East Palo Alto

The Collective Roots nonprofit is deeply rooted in this Peninsula community. Founded 20 years ago to improve access to healthy food, the group started with gardens at Belle Haven Elementary School, a school garden that has since expanded to community gardens, and in 2007 founded the East Palo Alto Community Farmers Market.

A merger with Cal Fresh, which is part of the Pacific Coast Farmers Market Association, allows those core programs to continue while adding free Veggie Rx cooking classes (now virtual), a community compost hub, a mobile farmers market and — new for this COVID-19 era — a produce box program for those who need it most.

“We’ve partnered with farms within a 100-mile radius to create Farm Fresh food relief boxes, because a lot of people were having problems going out and going to the store,” garden manager Najiha Al Asmar said.

The network of community-based gardens is thriving and growing. Eight community gardens offer plots to dozens of families, and more than 120 home garden boxes and other garden spaces have been created. Residents of East Palo Alto and the Belle Haven neighborhood of Menlo Park who want to join the growing organic movement may sign up for a free plot or box. Those come with access to seeds, seedlings, tools and compost — and lots of advice.

How you can help: Volunteers are always in demand for planting, pruning, composting and other garden needs. You can also shop at the farmers market, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesdays at 2555 Pulgas Ave., East Palo Alto.

Details, donations: 1785 Woodland Ave., East Palo Alto; www.freshapproach.org/collectiveroots

Bay Area News Group reporter Judith Prieve contributed to this story.

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