March 16, 2021 – The truth is ironic, and not in a good way. It’s also something all too familiar to local anti-hunger advocates and something that bears repeating for the rest of us: Here, in the Salad Bowl of the World, many of the workers responsible for harvesting the greens and produce that fill that bowl struggle to feed their families fruits and vegetables.
It’s not a challenge that can be solved with a simple cure.
Fortunately grassroots group Local Urban Gardeners—who celebrate a special fifth anniversary this coming Monday, March 22—is sowing a range of solutions to contribute to a cure. Many of them are growing from a modest patch of soil in the heart of Salinas.
Natividad Creek Park Community Garden first sprouted on Earth Day, April 22, 2016 after LUG, which first coalesced around a group of family and friends in 2013, developed plans, designs and a network of resources, and was granted a go-ahead from city officials to start the project.
Digging began in earnest. Planter boxes were constructed, irrigation was installed, and a free library was popped in place.
Leticia Hernandez, LUG’s volunteer director, calls that work “a labor of love.” When asked what about the garden makes her smile, she offers three moments: When she’s out in the garden and people pause on their way by (“One time an older gentleman stopped and helped me water—he showed me how to water with a bucket in a way that didn’t drown the plants”); when families visit (“Just seeing young parents out with their kids is special…they look a little shy, or timid, but I let them know it’s their garden too”); and moments of gratitude when she’s away (“I like just knowing the garden is being used by so many different types of people”).
But she knows much more can be done with a space that’s been created entirely by donated grit and elbow grease. The main driver for that will be a part-time paid garden coordinator, the central part of the garden’s onrushing evolution.
“Up until this point it’s been volunteer power that’s generated the garden and managed it,” she says. “Having a main point of contact organizing work days and managing emails and just being able to connect community members to the garden can expand our calendar and multiply the impact.
“During COVID times, outdoor space is even more important,” she continues. “We want the community to come out in a safe place and learn about gardening and growing food.”
A funding proposal for Natividad Creek Park Community Garden expansion went before the Salinas Library and Community Services Commission late last week.
The proposal describes a vision of success that includes educational programming for neighborhood residents, organic gardening work days for 100-plus youngsters and creation of an outdoor classroom. Construction of a tool shed is also part of the plan, as is a compost box, a mushroom grove tucked in the shade of oak trees and a cold frame—basically a small greenhouse built out of bioplastics and repurposed materials to shepherd seedlings in the winter.
Stated strategies to realize that vision range from collaborating with local biology researchers, schools, colleges, NGOs and libraries to providing 10 qualifying families with their own gardening boxes. Expanding programming on nutrition, composting, native plants and STEAM subjects represent another priority, as does growing a demonstration garden and assembling an outdoor classroom with tree-stump seats.
The involvement of four local superpower nonprofits—Communities for a Sustainable Monterey County, bio-tech education experts Xinampa, The Blue Zones Project Monterey County and model education garden space MEarth Carmel—will prove vital.
A partial list of desired outcomes by the end of 2021: 500 pounds of produce grown; recruitment and engagement of 40 new volunteers contributing 1,000 hours of service; four intergenerational events; four half-day workshops in concert with community partners; and the successful planting out of 25 varieties of vegetables and 25 more of native and pollinator plants.
The Salinas Library and Community Services Commission recommended the proposal, with a $30,375 budget, move forward. While the Salinas Parks Department prepares the garden for the new infrastructure—like the cold frame, mushroom grove, and an artistic bike rack-planter box—programming can start in earnest. Curriculum launches later this spring with youth classes in community science.
The proposal came a day after a request for donations went live on GoFundMe.
“Join us as we plant seeds growing the garden and our community,” the GoFundMe announces. “The Natividad Creek Park Community Garden will nurture connections, creativity, and a range of garden and biology learning drawing upon ancestral knowledge, existing community science knowledge, and new sustainable science innovation.”
While the value of community gardens is self-evident to many, studies back that up. They advance healthier lifestyles, education and even entrepreneurship. They up life satisfaction and bolster social networks, particularly among older demographics. They boost housing prices, attract small businesses and provide a retreat from urban environments. They limit soil erosion and runoff.
But for Salinas’ Joey Martinez, it comes back to the painfully ironic reality that despite its location, the 2020 Census found Salinas zip codes are among some of the most food insecure in the country. Martinez is a Library and Community Service Commissioner who recommended the plan, and he’s also the local artist and philanthropist who created the eye-catching bike rack.
“The garden is a hub local for families to come and experience gardening, a prime learning-based location, especially the way the Local Urban Gardeners have laid it out and planned it out for people to farm for themselves,” Martinez says. “Even though we’re in an agricultural area—right in the middle of it—a lot of people don’t experience gardening on their own, and it can allow sustenance for those who are in need. They work the fields, but that food isn’t going to their table. Especially with health concerns like diabetes that affect a group like the Latino demographic, if there are families who can learn to garden, they can enjoy this healthy activity outside, take the product home, and put it on their own table.”