San Jose’s Community Gardens Fight Food Insecurity, Build Connections

Silicon Valley’s roots run deep. This highly fertile and agricultural region—once called the Valley of Heart’s Delight—was one of the largest fruit-producing regions in the world.

Today, it’s highly urbanized, with Santa Clara County claiming nearly two million residents for its 1,300 square miles of land. But the region’s agricultural history still flourishes, often out of sight, in backyards, public parks, neighborhood plots and in the dreams of local activists.

San Jose resident Jose Posadas remembers as a child his family’s garden plot at Watson Park was a source of pride for his father.

“It was also something I'm sure helped with our young family finances—growing was much cheaper than buying at the local supermarket,” Posadas said.

Nuestra Tierra Garden has grown since it opened in 1976: More than 1,000 residents across San Jose use the city’s 19 community gardens to grow their own food. Countless others grow herbs on porches and harvest fruits and vegetables from raised garden beds in their yards, or in gardens among other spaces like the Change Garden at Grace Baptist Church.

In a region where more than 12 percent of residents don’t know where their next meal is coming from, Silicon Valley’s community gardens provide a sense of self reliance and give families the means to remain food secure, in addition to an educational tool and source of community connection.

The San Jose’s community gardens program, “provides many benefits to residents, such as an opportunity to provide families, especially in low-income areas, access to cultivate their own healthy foods at an affordable cost,” said Daniel Lazo, a spokesman for the city’s Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services Department. “(Community gardens) support and reinforce healthy diet choices and food security beyond what is ordinarily available in the nearby commercial market (and) educates children and youth of households about the benefits of healthy food and open spaces.”

A 2016 study published in California Agriculture found San Jose residents who grew their own vegetables on average doubled their vegetable intake to a level meeting national dietary guidelines.

The benefits aren’t solely physical. Lazo said toiling the land promotes mental health and community engagement through development of social relations and mutual support among community gardeners, especially when different ethnic groups are able to maintain cultural roots and practices by growing otherwise expensive or unavailable produce integral to their culture.

Future of Urban Ag

Earlier this month, Santa Clara County housing activists and politicians celebrated the groundbreaking of Agrihood, a mixed income housing and urban farming development near Westfield Valley Fair Mall in Santa Clara. The vacant dirt lot will require at least $60 million in subsidies from county tax Measure A funds and the City of Santa Clara to meet its $85 million projected cost.

The lot will host 160 mixed-income apartments, 165 homes for low-income seniors and veterans and 36 townhomes—and a nearly two-acre farm. In addition to their own gardens, residents will have access to agricultural experts for help with everything from irrigation to soil conditions, to advice on what fruits and vegetables to grow during each season.

“It has been said that people who grow things have hope for the future,” said Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez, at the Agrihood groundbreaking. “We here in our community have great hope for Santa Clara County and the affordable housing future.”

In the eyes of activist Kirk Vartan, founder of A Slice of New York pizzeria, urban farming provides an educational opportunity, connecting history, science and creative thinking.

“Most people just think apples grow in supermarkets and they never get to see where food comes from or how far it has to travel,” Vartan said. “It’s not going to solve all our problems and get people to stop going to supermarkets, but if we can show that fresh produce and see the difference in having locally grown, easily accessible and fresh stuff… it can start to change people’s thinking and behavior.”

Reaping Opportunities

Other gardening projects have also taken off in the past decade in a push for independence from factory farming.

The first seeds for the garden at San Jose’s Grace Baptist church were planted by volunteers with the Change (Community Horticulture and Nutritional Growth Exchange) Garden Project, guided by the goal of providing food insecure communities with the means to feed themselves through gardening and open access to fresh organic food.

Meanwhile, across the city, La Mesa Verde, a program of Sacred Heart Community Services, provides about 50 low-income families a year with free raised garden beds, seeds and seedlings, organic soil and compost, drip irrigation and gardening classes.

San Jose’s city-managed community gardens are sprinkled throughout the region, from Berryessa to downtown, Alum Rock to the La Colina neighborhood. All San Jose residents are able to rent one plot for $150.00 per year. Registration includes water and administrative fees, as well as access to the garden and anything users grow.

The city’s gardens are organic, meaning pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, and other substances aren’t allowed.

Many of the city’s gardens have been in operation for more than 40 years, but there have been recent additions, too: The Rusty Areias Community Garden opened in March this year on an acre of land in South San Jose. There are currently 46 plots and an additional 100 plots planned for future construction.

Lazo said the city works to provide at least 20 garden plots at each community site—roughly 0.5 acres—since these sites are particularly helpful to residents of dense residential neighborhoods with multi-family homes and apartment complexes.

That’s one of the reasons Vartan hopes the future of urban farming involves helping people become independent from a disparate, international food system connected by highways, trucks and corporations.

“If you can start to show how easy it is for people to grow in their own spaces, then you can actually take some of the pressures off of our food system, especially in an emergency,” Vartan said. “If Covid had its way differently and disrupted our food system, within a week the whole state would have gone hungry ... because nothing is grown locally anymore.”

If a community member has an idea for a location for new community garden space, residents can notify the community garden team via email at [email protected]

2 Comments

  1. Thank you for the article, Madelyn. It has some good facts I did not know.

    I have been growing food and fruits and nuts in the front yard of our tiny 1800-square-foot lot since 1988. So I laughed when I read “If you can start to show how easy it is for people to grow in their own spaces…”.

    I wonder how much “actual” experience Kirk Vartan has. Has Vartan ever dealt with squirrels, gophers, clogged drippers, purslane, birdweed, verticillium wilt, peach leaf curl, aphids, earwigs, blossom end rot, peach leaf curl, codling moths, cockroaches, aphids, shade, heat waves, tied up tomato plants, shelled beans, figured out what to do with 5 cucumbers a day for 2 weeks, misplaced his pruning shears, rearranged stuff in a packed refrigerator, dug up and washed tiny potatoes, sliced and dehydrated hundreds of pounds of apples, pears, peaches, and cherry tomatoes (which are great deyhdrated) or hauled 200 lbs. of his best Hosui pears in a bicycle trailer down to the Second Harvest warehouse on a hot August day? Indeed these things are all do-able, and I continue to do them. But that word “easy” … I don’t think so.

    I don’t like a lot of what is done by large scale commercial growers, but their ability to consistently deliver huge heads of lettuce to Safeway for $2.29 is amazing – something I often contemplate as I’m trimming by hand one of my puny lettuces or cutting off dirty fingernails.

  2. Yes Jerry Krinock Everything’s “easy” to liberals. You just wave the magic government wand and presto! seniors shake off their dementia, go outside and grow vegetables! Racists are identified and rooted out!
    Poor people suddenly become self sufficient! Anything we want! Just tax the rich and wave the wand! Look around San Jose. You’ll see how great it’s been working!
    But I digress. Gardening.
    The one thing backyard gardens consistently do better than commercial farms and supermarkets- TOMATOES!

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