Let it Grow

The Community Food Bank gets its collective hands dirty to promote gardening and the importance of fresh vegetables

Gregoria Erazo stands in the backyard of her daughter's northwest-side home on a bracing January day.

The air is chilly, a mere 50 degrees, but Erazo, 66, is warmly dressed in a pink raincoat buttoned up to her chin, and pair of billowy green slacks. The sun is slanting into the yard, and the view out here is spectacular. To the west, a blue peak at the far northern end of the Tucson Mountains juts up into the winter sky. To the north, on the other side of a plain metal fence, the wide Cañada del Oro wash slices through the desert.

More importantly, her garden patch calls. Erazo has work to do.

She sets about transplanting a passel of small vegetable plants, with the help of her grandson and Michelle Kuhns, the home-garden coordinator from the Community Food Bank.

"My friend is moving to Willcox, and she can't take all her plants," Erazo explains, her English heavily tinged with the accent of her native Peru. Erazo beams as she holds up a clutch of pale leafy seedlings embedded in a clump of dirt.

"This is lettuce," she says. "I went to Donna's yard and dug it up."

Erazo crouches down in the small fenced patch--just 6 feet by 12 feet--and gently puts the little plants into a trench she's already dug in the soil. Then she grabs fistfuls of dirt she's collected in a bucket and pats that around the fledgling lettuce for extra warmth.

Her 7-year-old grandson, Damion Pollock, has just arrived home from his second-grade class, and he's dancing around inside the fenced plot, eager to dive into the dirt.

"I have homework to do, but I'm gonna do this first," he declares. "Can I dig?"

Without waiting for an answer, he grabs a trowel and starts scooping out a hole for Donna's orphaned kale.

"He's my helper," Erazo says proudly. "He waters the plants in the morning, and he covers them in the evening when it gets cold."

Right now, in winter mode, her garden is sparse, but "last year, we had broccoli, celery, beautiful celery, for soup," Erazo says. "We really enjoy it. Frost got the tomatillos this time. They're all dried up. But the year before, it was great. I made salsa verde."

"Everybody wanted the salsa verde," Damion chimes in.

Gregoria grew up in rural Peru, where her father raised animals and grew plants, but she never did much gardening herself. She moved to New York at 21, and remained there for 30 years. (She's a U.S. citizen.) Fifteen years ago, her doctor advised her to relocate to Tucson, where the warm climate is supposed to help with the pain she suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. She's at home on disability.

It was the Food Bank's Kuhns who got Erazo into gardening. A 26-year-old from Pennsylvania who first came out to Tucson as a Mennonite volunteer, Kuhns has worked as the home-gardening coordinator for three years. Today, she's here to help with the digging and to give Gregoria some advice.

"Make sure the soil is good," Kuhns offers. "We used to walk there, so it might be packed down."

"I'm learning," Gregoria says happily. "My teacher is Michelle."

The pair first met about two years ago when Erazo went to a home-gardening presentation Kuhns gave at the Pascua Yaqui Senior Center. The idea behind the program is to get low-income clients to grow fruits and vegetables at home, making their diets healthier, and contributing in a small way to their "food security"--the buzzword term, among people worried about hunger, for a person's access to a reliable food supply.

"Our goal is to increase the availability of locally grown produce," Kuhns says. "The Food Bank tries to meet emergency needs and create long-term solutions."

The older woman signed up for the gardening workshops at the Food Bank's headquarters at 36th Street and Country Club Road. The seasonal classes, held in the 7,000-square-foot demo garden outside the Food Bank's sprawling warehouse, are open to anyone. But Erazo also qualified for the home-gardening services offered to low-income clients.

Kuhns came out to the Pollocks' house, where Erazo is living temporarily so she can care for her grandson after school, and figured out the best place to lay out the garden in the backyard.

"In the wintertime, any sun is good, but in the summer, you want lots of afternoon shade," says Kuhns, who recommended planting Gregoria's garden near the metal fence, in hopes of catching the long shadows of late day.

Erazo was also eligible for free seeds, organic fertilizer (today, she's using "earthworm casings," a delicate name for worm poop), shade cloths and bird netting. And she was entitled to multiple home visits from Kuhns.

"At the beginning, it's intensive," says Kuhns, who spends much of her time on the road, driving as far away as Amado and Three Points to visit her aspiring gardeners. "I usually come every week for the first month and a half, one or two mornings a week for the digging. After we plant, I come two weeks later, then monthly."

Inch by inch, row by row, Gregoria's garden started to grow, as the song says, and it's already weathered several seasons.

"Sometimes, I get a lot, sometimes none," she says philosophically. "We have to pray for them to grow."

Today's project is a bit of a gamble. Both women wanted to save Donna's plants before she moved, but they're not sure how well the delicate greens will take to the insult of changing homes during the winter.

"These carrots look stressed," Kuhns frowns, inspecting the shriveled orange veggies. "Usually, you don't transplant this stuff. We're experimenting."

Gregoria's not worried whether Donna's carrots will take a shine to the Pollock yard. Gardening is more important to her than one success or failure.

She likes the relationship gardening gives her to nature. She's collecting rainwater for her plants, and with the help of the Food Bank's organic earthworm casings, and soap spray and chile spray to ward off pests, "I'm doing my best for my earth, my environment."

Best of all, she has work that gets her outside in the good, green earth. The five or six meds she takes daily make her sleepy. If she didn't have to keep up with her garden, she--and Damion--would likely be inside the dark house instead of outside on this stunning winter day. And while she's digging among her greens, she doesn't think about her aches and pains.

"I really want to do gardening as part of my therapy," she says. "This is my cure. Now I don't sleep during the day. I sleep better at night. I'm helping my grandson. I'm sharing.

"It's making me happy."

The home-gardening program that has so energized Gregoria Erazo is just one item on the Community Food Bank plate.

For the last 31 years, the nonprofit has enjoyed a sterling reputation for feeding Tucson's hungry. Food pours into its southside warehouse from community food drives, church groups, grocery-store donations, government programs and outright purchases, and goes right out again to the poor, mostly in the form of food boxes.

Operating with a budget of about $25 million last year, the Food Bank estimates it distributed 14 million pounds of food all over Pima County, with the help of various nonprofit partners.

"We distribute 10,000 to 30,000 food boxes a month, depending on the unemployment rate," says Todd West, purchasing manager for the Food Bank's own Value Foods discount grocery store. "It gets boxed up here and sent out."

But fresh fruits and vegetables like those Erazo enjoys are rarely on the menu; packaged and processed foods are the staple fare. In the warehouse one day last week, cans of chicken-noodle soup, boxes of instant oatmeal and macaroni and cheese, and bags of dried beans were stacked up, awaiting transfer to the small emergency food boxes. Fresh produce simply wouldn't hold up through the rigors of storage and distribution.

Yet "fruits and vegetables are the healthiest food we can eat," says Dr. Varga Garland, vice president of the Food Bank's community food security center, echoing every food writer from Michael Pollan to Barbara Kingsolver.

To address the problem, the Food Bank has long had a "gleaning" program that sends out volunteers to pick oranges, grapefruits and lemons from citrus trees around town, and even vegetables from small farms.

"We glean fruit from people's backyards," Garland says.

Called in by homeowners or businesses, the gleaners harvest fruit that might otherwise rot on the branch or on the ground. An abandoned orange becomes a healthy treat for a poor kid.

But that child's "food security" shouldn't have to depend on whether a homeowner in Sam Hughes happens to have some spare oranges, or whether the kid's mom can scare up a ride to an emergency food center. The principle insists that everyone has a right to know where the next meal is coming from--and that it is coming. So the Food Bank in recent years has developed a smorgasbord of programs aimed at making fresh foods reliably available. Meshing nicely with the local-foods movement, the Food Bank has gone into the farming biz right here in the desert.

Nuestra Tierra ("our earth"), the demo garden, is a one-sixth-acre oasis of greenery outside the Food Bank headquarters. Right now, it's loaded with rich green winter vegetables, from broccoli to chard to spinach, all raised organically. Ten fat hens, most of them egg-layers, cluck away contentedly in a chicken coop in a corner.

"The idea is to have a market production and demo garden to demonstrate to people who think they can't do that in the desert, (that) it's completely possible to grow anything here," Garland says.

The garden has been around in one form or another for 10 years, but last year, the Food Bank did the garden one better by going into small-scale agriculture. Staffers broke ground on its own Marana Farm, making this the only food bank in the country with its own farm, according to Kuhns.

"It will be 12 acres," Garland says. "Right now we have 6 1/2 acres irrigated," a huge jump up from Nuestra Tierra. Located inside a heritage park near Tangerine Road, the farm is a partnership with the city of Marana, designed in part to preserve traditional farmland in a region fast being paved over.

"We're producing farm products," Garland says. "Right now, the winter crops are in: kale, chard, mustard, broccoli, turnips and radishes."

This summer will be the first hot-season harvest. Cultivated by staffers and volunteers, the Food Bank's own farm should yield up "melons, native crops like corn and tepary beans, tomatoes, chiles and cucumbers."

All this fresh food--from the farm and the demo garden--is already being sold at the Food Bank's Value Foods Store. The produce also goes out on the road in the Good Groceries Mobile Market, which drives to poor communities without grocery stores.

A farmers' market at the Food Bank on Tuesday mornings sells the group's own produce, along with the wares of other regional farmers. (A few enterprising graduates of the home-gardening program are making a little money, selling basil, chard and eggplants on consignment.) A second farmers' market operates seasonally at the Santa Cruz River; it re-opens in March. Both accept food stamps as well as vouchers from an Arizona farmers' market program for low-income residents.

"The idea is to improve people's health," Garland says. "Fruits and vegetables overall is a way to do it. It's a little mini-food system."

At Nuestra Tierra, garden coordinator Amanda Morse is focused on her work in the greenhouse.

After the cold days of the middle of January, the sun is warm again, and the greenhouse magnifies the heat. Morse, a 29-year-old native of suburban Washington, D.C., has just finished supervising a class of students from Civano Middle School, one of the many volunteer groups she relies on to cultivate her garden. Now she's inside, painstakingly burying seeds in dirt flats. Later, the seeds should sprout into seedlings, which she'll distribute to enterprising home gardeners.

"We get a lot of donated seeds--I do send requests to the companies," Morse says. "We do give them out year-round, subject to availability."

Gardening can be expensive, as anyone who peruses the glossy Smith and Hawken catalog knows, and hobbyists can spend a small fortune to produce a single tomato. A University of Washington study recently found that "calorie for calorie," fresh produce is far more expensive than junk food, according to The New York Times.

Even so, the home-gardening program, now 4 years old, "make(s) it possible for people without much money to grow their own food," says Garland.

The Food Bank lends tools to its low-income clients, and hands out free seeds, compost, literature and other supplies. Even middle-class gardening students can get the free seeds and compost, and buy the covering cloths at low prices.

As an added bonus, the Food Bank's low-cost methods are also earth-friendly.

"Folks without money don't have the money to spend on chemicals," Garland says. "We teach a natural system of permaculture. No Roundup!"

Forget the expensive fertilizers. Morse has a compost pile going along the garden's back fence; everything from chicken waste and food scraps to dead plant leaves goes into making the rich black soil. Home gardeners can easily duplicate her recipe.

Water is not cheap in the desert, either, so the gardeners are taught how to use it sparingly. In the classes taught by Morse and Kuhns, they learn to create sunken plant beds by furrowing out the earth a bit below the surface.

"We plant in that depression, and it holds the moisture," Morse says.

Mulch holds in water too, Kuhns adds.

"Water deeply and less often to develop healthy root systems," she advises, going into teacher mode. "Try to connect with water-harvesting ideas--pay attention to the slope of the land so water will run in."

Other thrifty gardeners collect rainwater in their yards; Erazo does so by positioning a couple of buckets under her back-porch gutters.

No one expects the home-gardening project to germinate self-sufficient farmers who can feed their families entirely with the fruits of their own labors. Even the enthusiastic Erazo acknowledges that she puts her delectable home-grown vegetables on the family table only some of the time, mostly at the height of the seasons.

"We're still buying vegetables, but in a couple of months, I won't have to," Gregoria predicts confidently. "I'll have at least a three-week supply here."

Instead, Kuhns' more modest goal is to ratchet up the healthiness of participants' diets.

"My hope is that it increases their vegetable consumption," Kuhns says. "Self-sufficiency would be ideal but not realistic. Some people start with no vegetable consumption. This gets them interested. They try something new. They eat something they haven't tried before."

Up at the Pollock home, perched on its bluff over the wash, that's exactly what's happening.

Damion likes gardening ("I remember when we first digged this garden," he exclaims. "It was awesome!"), and he likes vegetables even more.

"Mostly, I like all of them," he says, pondering his favorites. "But I love broccoli."

If Damion's fondness for green veggies is miraculous, so is the simple phenomenon of food growing out of the earth, his grandmother says.

"Gardening for me is like a miracle," Gregoria says. "You plant, then one comes out."

Damion wants at least one plant out immediately.

"Where's my onion?" he demands, pawing through the soil. "I love onion. Can I pull it out?"

Kuhns pauses. Time for Damion to learn that for everything, there is a season. She answers gently.

"Let it grow," she says.