How to Design a Community Garden to Grow More Than Food

How to Design a Community Garden for More Than Food

At Huerta Del Valle, a community garden in Ontario, California, organizers want to see the people there grow with the food.

After nearly three years, 62 families grow organic produce in their own 10- by 20-foot plots for which they pay a mere $30 a year. The four-acre site has space to double its rented plots by next year, said Arthur Levine, technical support and projects manager for the nonprofit organization.

So, growing food – check.

To grow the people, Huerta Del Valle will pursue an ambitious plan to build a community and education center. The group raised $18,000 in one month to cover the cost of one of four structures that will make up the center – a library built from a discarded shipping container.

The campaign moves them closer to an ambitious goal of providing the community with its own organic produce, improving community health and opportunity, and teaching new skills.

“We have a lot of knowledge in our community because a lot of the people who use the garden are elders from Mexico. Their life is so different from the life we have. They grew up on a farm, growing their own food,” Levine said. “We want to put that knowledge together with the people who want to learn it. They may not have a place to share it. … It’s why we’re building and investing in the community education center.

“Right now there’s so many empty lots all over Ontario, especially after the economic crisis. There’s a lot of big empty spaces all around. Why couldn’t a few of those be a community garden?”

Huerta Del Valle started in 2010 with a community garden at a school in the city. The garden came out of a program at Pitzer College in nearby Claremont. The program, called Pitzer in Ontario, is an experiential learning opportunity for students of urban studies and community-based research. One such student wanted to start a community garden to address food access for Ontario residents.

Meanwhile, the city applied for and won a Healthy Eating Active Living grant to address childhood and adult diet- and exercise-related issues. Officials were committed to developing a community garden with the grant money. They noted Huerta Del Valle’s efforts and started negotiating with the group to manage the project. In April 2013, they started developing the site they’re on today.

“We provide the seeds, the city pays for the water, we provide the tools and the compost. People just pay for the spot to rent it and they have everything else provided,” Levine said. “You can pay in installments. We never turn anyone away. This project is about access to fresh food, not about who can pay.”

To provide seeds, tools, and other garden necessities, Huerta Del Valle (which means Garden of the Valley) keeps a working farm next to the garden. They sell to local markets and restaurants and to members of the community.

“We sell on site for about $1 per pound for pretty much anything,” Levine said. They include low- and fixed-income residents, accepting payment methods, such as SNAP (Supplemental Food Assistance Program).

“Then we sell to restaurants. So the farm component of the community garden is designed to raise funds to keep the project going,” he said.

Levine said the community members using the garden say they’re feeling better and loving the food. Growers harvest food, then take it home and add it to their meals. It’s more reminiscent of life in Mexico, where many people incorporate food from nearby farms or their own garden into their diet. It’s a practice lost in a community with poor produce selection at stores.

“People are happy,” he said.

Approaching its third anniversary, Huerta Del Valle sees a lot of ways to grow. A successful Kickstarter campaign moves the group another step closer to realizing its goals of addressing more than diet. Levine said organizers want to pursue economic development, providing food and farming jobs in a community where many residents depend on temporary warehouse positions for income. And that could mean lasting change.

“If we could put them in a better position, we could change the landscape in terms of access (and) health,” he said.

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Garden photo via Huerta Del Valle