Silicon Valley is going back to its roots as the “Valley of the Heart’s Delight.”
Veggielution, a nonprofit founded in 2007, is part of a growing movement to use public spaces to grow fresh, healthy food for underprivileged communities. Food, after all, is what brings people together.
“The idea is that food is the ultimate connector between people,” said Emily Schwing, Veggielution’s development communications manager. “Everyone has some story that relates them to food, which then relates them to other people.”
But Veggielution is more than an urban farm.
The nonprofit offers environmental programs that help residents learn about agricultural life, grow their business skills and cook new foods all in the back of the six-acre Emma Prusch Farm Park. On the first Saturday of every month, hundreds flock to the once-abandoned East San Jose site to explore the garden, stretch during yoga, plant in the fields, join art classes and enjoy the freshly-picked produce from the Veggielution Cocina kitchen.
“This is the perfect place to bring your family and enjoy some fresh crops,” Brenda Zendejas, an East Side parent who ran for the Alum Rock Union Board of Trustees, said in a public post about Veggielution. “You feel like a big family and get to eat healthy, nothing beats that.”
The nonprofit’s leaders say utilizing public spaces to foster community and family engagement, especially in low-income, immigrant communities, is critical to San Jose.
“I think public spaces are going to be essential for balancing the housing crisis that we’re experiencing,” said Executive Director Cayce Hill. “If we’re going to continue to densify San Jose and ask people to live closely together, then we have to support incredibly vibrant, accessible public spaces.”
Veggielution’s vibrancy comes to life in the form of programs like Farmer 4 a Day or East Side Grown. The Farmer 4 a Day program lets volunteers get their hands dirty by pruning or helping out in the fruit orchards. East Side Grown, however, takes more of an entrepreneurial approach.
Schwing said the program focuses on providing local food entrepreneurs with business skills training and job-like opportunities. This past winter, Veggielution worked with seven entrepreneurs on a food cart venture to spread new recipes and ideas throughout the city. Some of the carts appeared downtown during the annual Christmas in the Park festival.
“Having your own personal culinary farm is usually reserved for Michelin star chefs,” Schwing said of the farm’s accessibility. “To be able to offer that opportunity first to our community here (is) super valuable.”
The farm also caters to San Jose’s youngest residents by transforming into a classroom for East Side students. They learn about topics like composting and sustainable agriculture through what Schwing calls, “a lens on STEM and open spaces.”
Building a community
Although Veggielution has worked to build an inclusive community with everyone from ages 8 to 88, Hill said the nonprofit is looking to expand.
While they’ve traditionally worked with immediate neighbors in the Mayfair area, Hill said she wants to include other communities with deep agricultural roots, including Vietnamese-American and Japanese-American residents. The goal is to connect people from diverse backgrounds through food and farming to build community in East San Jose.
“I love the commitment that not only the staff (has), but the volunteers and the members who come on our First Saturdays to buy produce (have),” said Jazmin Barba, the nonprofit’s special events coordinator. “(It’s) the commitment that they have to the open space, to the community.”
“A great community gem in San Jose,” said San Jose resident Luz Estrella Longoria Howse on Facebook. “My kids and I love the youth garden. We always learn something new at each visit.”
But while Veggielution harnesses the force of neighbors, volunteers and a small staff to accomplish what they do, Hill said it’s not enough. The city needs to play a role, too.
“We’re one example of a place that requires some significant infrastructure investment and that is true for many of our most important public spaces, often those that are found in more underserved communities,” Hill said.
The installation of electricity on Veggielution’s plot of land is currently in the city’s budget, Hill said, but they haven’t delivered electricity yet.
“It’s a morale killer to have to leave at 5 because you actually have no lights to turn on,” she said. “As we think about all the amazing programming that can happen in these public spaces, the non-sexy infrastructure part is a question.”
Contact Grace Hase at email@example.com or follow @grace_hase on Twitter.