Homeless Garden Project: Learning a thing or two about life

our beautiful big farm                 (Photo credit:  Neil Simmons)

What do the words “urban agriculture” mean to you? I can’t help myself but often think of urban farmers as millennial, organic farmers, cobbling together a handful of backyards around a city and forming viable businesses. With a little elbow grease and some cut-offs, they grow amazing arrays of veggies that border on art: kales, eggplants, potatoes, carrots, beets, tomatoes and more, all in a dizzying array of colors. Their clients are university professors, doctors, and people like me: office workers and administrators who long for more time to put their hands in the soil and cultivate life. To people like us, the urban farmer represents the life we coulda, shoulda, woulda pursued, if not for all of those other material desires and our life obligations.

beautiful flower bedsI recently visited a non-profit where the urban farmers are not the college-educated, successful hipsters of my mind, but rather individuals from all backgrounds who are facing homelessness, substance abuse, domestic violence, and mental illness. The Homeless Garden Project in Santa Cruz, California is a magical place where everyone from retired business people wanting to volunteer in a meaningful way to folks living in their vehicles to social work interns from the local university to an extremely dedicated and capable staff, work together each day to raise tons of fresh food on a three acre farm. 
community arts fetival group photoI was enamored from the moment I arrived, harried from driving over an hour in Bay Area traffic to the weekly circle exercise, but quickly mellowed as we all shared what commitment means to us. As we went around the circle, sharing pretty intimate things with one another, I couldn’t help but start to feel connected to everyone in the group.

One of the trainees was named Cassandra, and she gave us a tour of the farm after the circle exercise. She has been involved in the program for several months and her favorite post so far (there are six posts around the farm and each trainees spends roughly two months at each post) was helping to prepare lunch each day and learning to cook. She said she hated cooking before coming here, but now loves the satisfaction of making something delicious and healthy out of foods she has helped to grow. Our lunch that day was a veggie chili with kale, chard, zucchini, onion, and garlic with a fresh green salad with cucumbers. I waited as long as I could before going back for seconds, knowing that I had plenty of opportunities for great food at every corner, so didn’t want to take more than my share in a crowd that had fewer opportunities – and perhaps much less food – than I have.
a bunch of squash nanda photo cropped                  (Photo credit:  Nanda Currant)

I got to spend the day at this wonderful place because Wasatch Community Gardens is launching a new program to work with homeless women in Salt Lake City on a garden-based job training program, and it’s modeled on what I saw at the Homeless Garden Project. Like any new big and audacious endeavor, we’re going to stumble and make some mistakes along the way. However, it’s hard to ignore the healing power of growing and eating healthy food with people from all backgrounds.

andrew david dennis photo                  (Photo credit: David Dennis)

I firmly believe that urban agriculture can offer something for all us, urban hipsters, immigrants, refugees, the homeless, office workers, lawyers, academics, planners, etc. It’s a big tent and I’m excited for WCG to extend our hand to a new group of women who can teach us a thing or two about life while we teach them about growing and eating healthy food. In the end, we’ll all grow more appreciation for each other and this fabulous community.


Our mission is to empower people of all ages and incomes to grow and eat healthy, local, organic food. Become a blog contributor and share creative organic gardening tips, frustrating challenges/exciting successes in the garden, and information about local food! To learn more or sign up, send us an email to felecia@wasatchgardens.org. And make sure to check all our programs and events on our website wasatchgardens.org - You can sign up for our e-newsletter, learn how to join our gardening community, be one of our 1300 volunteers who make our events, programs and gardens possible, attend any of our 50 sustainable food and gardening classes, and support an organization that has served the community for more than 25 years. Sign up for our newsletter by going here: www.wasatchgardens.org/connect/newsletter-signup

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