When you’re a gardener…


The second chapter to my visit to the Free Farm Stand in San Francisco’s Mission District happened by accident, but turned out to be another inspiring and affirming story of our local food system at work. Turns out the secret garden I mentioned in my last post has a name: All in Common Garden. Guided by my instructions to find the purple painted fence, and motivated by the hope that I might meet the Free Farm Stand’s founder, Tree, I set off to find this mysterious garden. Conveniently, it is was just two blocks from the Free Farm Stand and open for visitors. So inside I went!

Upon entering the garden, I started having flashbacks to the 1993 film The Secret Garden (I know I’m dating myself). After stepping through a precarious-looking large metal gate, I meandered through a shaded tunnel of bamboo and stepped out in to a glistening sunlit sea of green with flowers blooming, birds chirping and not a human soul in sight. I stood for a second to take in the sight and then reached for my phone as is the custom these days. I snapped some photos, but truthfully it felt almost sacrilegious to pull out my image-absorbing high-tech gadget in such the pristinely humble home of Nature. Fortunately my affront wasn’t noticed when I spotted two people inside the greenhouse. I walked up to the open door and said, “Hi, are you Tree?” The white-bearded man in his soil speckled overalls replied in an almost hushed voice, “I am”.

And thus my conversation with Tree began.


Naturally, one of my first questions was how the idea of Free Farm Stand came to be. Mind you, the whole time we talked, Tree was nestling flower seeds into small starter trays. He told me he’d been involved in growing and giving out food for decades, but recently had the desire to hand out flowers to the community. A different, yet still very potent kind of medicine.

Tree’s response to my initial question still has my wheels spinning. It was so genuine and humbling that I felt it would be an injustice to paraphrase. With Tree’s permission I recorded our conversation, and have written out his reply:

“In 2008 there was a big movement. You know, Michael Pollan was writing and there was a lot of interest in ‘growing local’ and ‘sustainable agriculture’. I was in between projects and I had been gardening for a long time. I had been giving food away with different food programs or shelters or things like that, and I thought that this [movement] was something I related to and I had been doing: growing food locally. So I had the idea of combining two projects: growing food and giving it away, and encouraging neighbors to grow food as a way of addressing hunger. In other words, I thought that this would be a good way of educating people and getting people to think about growing some of their own food. So, that was the original idea…”

He trails for a second… pauses… and then shares this:

“I say that, but the original idea behind everything is that… the world is a messed up place right now in some ways. And if you care about things, what do you do about it? What I believe, is it’s a spiritual problem. We need to address bigger issues, although immediate issues of hunger and housing need be addressed as much as we can, but we won’t solve the problem unless we solve the larger problem – which is a very deep problem – of dealing with greed and capitalism, which fosters greed and a mentality of scarcity. So behind it all [the Free Farm Stand and All in Common Garden] is a shortcut way of bringing people together to think differently. I don’t want to sound like an Apple advertisement, but we need people to think differently in how they interact with each other. So the idea of giving things away for free and sharing resources is to understand that there really is an abundance in the world. You learn that when you’re a gardener, that there’s so much abundance if you do things the right way in a sustainable manner. And if you share things with people instead of trying to sell things to people, that promotes a different mindset which leads, I think, to a community of people that are behaving differently than just being robots and having jobs and surviving and… things like that. So that was behind the thinking.”

Thank you, Tree. You’ve just inherited a new lifetime fan.

Our conversation went on and Tree talked about the many community gardens that have closed around the city, a sign he believes, that the ‘real’ local food movement of growing and sharing food was just a fad. Now we see restaurants touting “Locally grown, Locally raised” and charging a hefty premium, rendering locally grown food largely inaccessible to many locals.

Shortly after that point in our conversation, we had a visitor join us in the greenhouse. A young boy, maybe 3 or 4, came up to the doorway followed by his dad who was encouraging him forward. Eli had a question about the mushrooms growing in the garden. Were they poisonous, he wanted to know. You see, just as I had stepped through the purple fence that day, so too do many passer-bys. No invitation or reservation required. There are no individual plots in this garden, no fencing or borders. Anyone is welcome to stroll through, eat a tomato, sit and watch the birds and/or pick up a shovel and participate in the fun of maintaining the garden. Eli and his dad were just stopping through to see what was new in the garden, and the funny shaped fungi sparked little Eli’s interest. Future Farmer of America, we can only hope. I also met Francesca and Sarah, two volunteers who help out at the garden. Sarah was adding mulch around a bench beneath the giant avocado tree. She said she wasn’t that interested in volunteering at the Farm Stand, but felt that by helping out in the garden, she was getting her ‘zen time’ while also giving back to her community.

‘When you’re a gardener, you learn that there is so much abundance around you.’

So true. I saw the evidence of this abundance not just in the stalks and leaves spilling out of the garden beds at All in Common, but also in the abundance of vibrant community spirit, joyful laughter and genuine camaraderie amongst all those involved. I realize that not everyone has the time or desire to grow food, however I think there are many ways to ‘garden’ and create sustainable, healthy abundance in our lives. Just as Tree was searching for a way to do something about an issue he cared about, there are lots of opportunities for us to cultivate change in our own way.

So grab a shovel, and get going!

Tree @ All in Common Garden


For the Community, By the Community: The Mission District’s Free Farm Stand

Because I’m a terrible Millennial and knew nothing on the art of blogging, I reached out to my dear friend Zoe Schiffer (writer extraordinaire, check her here) to show me the ropes (i.e. What exactly is a blog? How do I get one? And what do I say?? … halp!). When talking through my blog assignment, she turned me on to a farmer’s market she had seen a while back in San Francisco’s Mission District. What was unique about this market was that everything was sourced locally (some produce grown in neighbors’ back yards), offered to the market as a donation, and given out to the community entirely for free. No EBTs, IOUs, proof of income or lack thereof. Free fresh produce. For the community, by the community.

I had to know more.

So last Sunday, I pulled up to Parque Niños Unidos on the corner of 23rd and Treat Ave. Truthfully, I wasn’t expecting to see what I’m about to describe. For those who are familiar with the Mission District, you will know that it is a neighborhood brimming with the colorful sights and sounds of its Latino roots, but is also caught in the midst of tough transition as the tech industry moves in, cost of living sky rockets and the economic divide becomes all the more apparent. But here, in this tiny corner of the city, thrives a small community paradise. Fresh green grass to roll in, a colorful jungle gym with lots of little bodies squirming playfully through the tunnels and chutes, a small community garden full of healthy looking produce and flittering butterflies, and a bustling line of folks making their way down a row of canopy-covered tables stocked with all sorts of leafy greens, wholesome veggies and loaves of bread. Welcome to the Free Farm Standfree farm stand

I made my way over to the gentleman who appeared to be managing the line. Quite possibly the most pleasant person I’ve met this century, Nathan spent the next half-hour giving me the full run down of who, what, when, where and how the Free Farm Stand works, all the while overseeing the distribution of numbered tickets to newcomers, organizing them in to specific time slots in which to go through the line to collect their produce. Brilliant!

Nathan explained to me that the Free Farm Stand was started about 9 years ago by a man living in the neighborhood named Tree. Tree was growing vegetables in his backyard and saw a need in the community for access to fresh produce. So he rode his bike out to the corner of 23rd and Treat and started handing out his veggies. Over the years the project grew; other neighbors with gardens started pitching in their extra food, volunteers joined the effort and began collecting excess produce from the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market, and local urban farms like Alemany Farm set aside crates of fresh, organic vegetables specifically for the Free Farm Stand clientele. Today, a team of over 60 volunteers oversee the entire Free Farm Stand production; from the vegetable procurement and storage, to the weekly installation and management of the market. It is apparent from the camaraderie among the team, the first-name-basis relationships between the volunteers and clientele and the overall feeling of warmth and community surrounding the Stand, that this is a labor of love for everyone involved.

During the winter months, when the produce is less abundant and people aren’t out and about as much, the Free Farm Stand provides fresh food to around 80 guests. In the summer months, they can serve up to 175 guests in 3 hours. While standing there with Nathan, I saw families come by, grab a number and then head to the jungle gym until their time slot was called. Moms and dads, speaking different languages, gathered on the edges of the sand while the kids did what kids are meant to do: play together. There were two gentlemen who came by to grab a number, one in a wheelchair being pushed by the other, looking a little disheveled but laughing heartily and giving friendly regards to the volunteers. I caught a toothless grin from the man in the wheelchair and couldn’t have felt more at home.

The Free Farm Stand runs on an economy of ‘giving that which you have to give’ – whether that be produce, transportation, time, etc. – putting in to question the notion of needing money in order to be prosperous. Whether that is a feasible model to apply to our food system at large is a separate issue. Nevertheless, the Free Farm Stand is a beautiful example of a local food system providing healthy, nutritious produce by utilizing the tools and resources readily available.

Just when I thought my interview was nearing the end, Nathan asked, “Have you been to the Secret Garden?”

Secret Garden, did you say??

Just two blocks down from Parque Niños Unidos, hidden behind a tall purple wooden fence, is a small community garden. Open on Sundays to anyone who wants to plant, mulch, eat, stroll, sit or hang out in the greenhouse with Tree, as I wound up doing for a good part of the next hour. The conversation had in that greenhouse was the cherry on top of my mind-blowing Free Farm Stand experience, and the topic of my next blog post…. stay tuned!

Free Farm Stand

Open Sundays 12pm – 3pm

Parque Niños Unidos, 23rd St. and Treat Ave., San Francisco.

Teaser for the upcoming post… Secret Garden.




The Blog Assignment

While the idea of starting a ‘food systems’ blog has been percolating in my brain for a while, the impetus to sit down and get the project going came in the form of a class mid-term assignment: divine academic intervention. The class, mentioned previously, is called Sociology and Political Ecology of AgroFood Systems, taught by Kathy De Master. It’s focus is on exploring the nexus of agriculture, society and the environment and implores us, the students, to question how might societies create ecologically, socially and economically regenerative agricultural systems in ways that foster justice, equity and respect for diverse cultures and farming practices. Hello heaven, I have arrived!!

The assignment is as follows: visit different farmer’s markets, urban farms, grocery stores and food pantries in the Bay Area and engage with the workers, vendors, customers and ambience of the place. Describe your experience and observations of each place, draw comparisons and reflect on how these places represent different facets of our food system.

Challenge: accepted!

So, the next handful of posts will recap my journalistic endeavor to highlight some of these food-source sites from the Bay Area; a literal journey through the local food system. Welcome aboard!

The bigger picture

It dawned on me over 10 years ago while in a rural village in Guatemala. I got into a conversation with a local woman regarding food. She told me that her family eats primarily beans with a few herbs she finds growing wild around her home. Although her husband worked at the nearby corn plantation, all the food produced there was bound for the US and never made it back home to feed the hungry bellies of their children.  That’s when I knew.

Our food system is flawed.

As time went on, I started thinking more and more about how is it we can have such sophisticated systems of food production and distribution, yet have so many people without enough to eat? I began asking questions and that’s when I discovered permaculture, an agricultural design practice that uses principles based upon mimicking what is seen in nature. It’s a whole-system approach to growing food and reconnecting people to the land that is both sustainable and regenerative. I visited different permaculture farms, took workshops and was blown away by the abundant and beautiful food that was coming from these farms. Why can’t we feed the world this way?

This is the question that has led me to graduate school.

I am now half-way through my first year of a Master’s in Public Health Nutrition at UC Berkeley. I toyed with many different paths and approaches to go about seeking answers to my question, and landed on Public Health as a way to examine food systems as the bridge that connects human health and agriculture. Only six months in to my studies and I’ve discovered a mountain of information, research and ideas dealing with ways to improve our food system; and this is only the tip of the ice berg. I’ve also discovered there are many mind-boggling complex systemic, political and economic structures at play which have led to and perpetuate our current state of food system obscurity.  This should be fun… heh.

Truth be told, I can’t get enough. I find myself shouting at the articles I’m reading (sometimes profanities, sometimes in exaltation) and scribbling in the margins of books “WTF?!? Why don’t we fix this?” or “OMG! Yes! Yes! Yes!”. My heart breaks when I learn about the food being served to our children in schools, which is undoubtedly contributing to the rise in childhood obesity (nearly 19% in the US). And then it swells to the point of bursting when I hear about communities coming together to reclaim, regrow and remember their traditional foodways. One such reading assignment from my class on ‘Sociology and Political Ecology of AgroFood Systems’ led me to discover Freedom Farmer’s Market here in Oakland, Ca.

“The Freedom Farmers Market is a niche market that connects African American agricultural producers together with African Americans and other consumers lacking access to culturally relevant, locally grown fresh & healthy food. In addition to a chance to meet some of California’s Black farmers we have activities like; the Crowder pea shell off, sweet potato pie tasting, watermelon eating, and poetry contest, healthy soul food demos, nutrition workshops, live music by local artist, dancing and chess. The Freedom Farmers’ Market supports the idea of freedom to choose affordable local food and freedom to access legacy food grown by Black farmers.”

I learned from the readings and from the guest lecture by one of The Freedom Farmers Market founders, Gail Meyers, that this market was inspired from the work of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer.

Fannie Lou Hamer

I was familiar with her name, but it wasn’t until taking this class that I learned her story and what an incredible human being she was.

There is so much to be said about the work she did for the civil rights movement, but one of her efforts really struck me: The Freedom Farm Cooperative, founded in 1968. Against tremendous adversity, Fannie Lou Hamer set out to establish an agricultural cooperative built on 680-acres in Mississippi. Freedom Farms included a pig bank, Head Start program, community gardens, commercial kitchen, a garment factory, sewing cooperative, tool bank, and low-income, affordable housing to support the needs of African Americans who were fired and evicted for exercising the right to vote. Freedom Farms offered these sharecroppers and tenant farmers educational and retraining opportunities including health care and disaster relief for those who wanted to stay in the Mississippi Delta.

(Insert: “OMG! Yes! Yes! Yes!”)

As I go through this journey of discovering the stories and truths behind our food system, I find there is so much I feel obligated to share – like the often untold story of Fannie Lou Hamer and the Freedom Farm Cooperative. Information is power and so I hope to share with you my discoveries through this academic journey and invite you to share your thoughts as well.

With that, I bring you ‘Beyond the Plate’. Dedicated to the Fannie Lou Hamers of the world. May we all eat well and be happy.

“Sometimes it seems like to tell the the truth today is to run the risk of being killed. But if I fall, I’ll fall five feet four inches in the fight for freedom. I’m not backing off.”

Fannie Lou Hamer