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Anthony Reyes: Growing Skills (and Food) at the Homeless Garden Project

by Rootstock Radio

May 27, 2019

by Rootstock Radio

Today on Rootstock Radio, we’re talking with Anthony Reyes, Farm Manager at Homeless Garden Project in Santa Cruz, California. Anthony’s interest in food and agriculture was piqued in college, where he studied food, agriculture and social justice. But after he got a job not just thinking about agriculture, but actually working with his hands in the soil, his focus shifted from theoretical policy, to being on the ground making change in big and small ways. 

Which is—of course—part of how Anthony found himself farm manager of an urban farm and garden that employs, educates and nourishes people experiencing homelessness.

Headshot of Anthony Reyes in garden.

Tune in to hear about:

  • The wonderful (and cooperative!) way that the Homeless Garden Project began in 1990.
  • How the Homeless Garden Project employs people experiencing homelessness, teaches them life skills, and feeds them good food (and that’s not even all of it.)
  • Debunking stigmas and generalizations around homelessness.
  • A recent partnership struck between Homeless Garden Project and a nearby jail—how farming and gardening can be part of former prisoners’ reintegration.
  • How bringing everyone on the Homeless Garden Project crew into the farm’s decision-making processes changed relationships within the organization for the better.

Listen at the link below, on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Rootstock Radio Interview with Anthony Reyes

Air Date: May 27, 2019

Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.

THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I am here today with Anthony Reyes, farm manager at the Homeless Garden Project in Santa Cruz. Welcome, Anthony.

ANTHONY REYES: Thank you. Welcome.

TM: I am so excited to hear that there’s even such a thing as the Homeless Garden Project. Being a gardener myself, I see it very much as kind of therapeutic. Anthony, what got you interested in this?

AR: Yeah, so I first got interested in agriculture, studying over at the University of California–Santa Cruz, and I was a part of the Community Studies program with a focus on food, agriculture, and social justice. And I started studying food, ag, and social justice, wanting to understand more of my own history and the struggle of a lot other Chicanos in the States, within the farming system, and wanting to learn more about the farm labor. And then I got a job just working with the soil, and it shifted a lot of my focus from being more theoretical policy to being on the ground. And I started that job almost twelve years ago now.

TM: So, wow, you decided that you were interested in agriculture, and then now you find yourself back in Santa Cruz and working with a garden project for homeless. How did that project start?

AR: So that project started in 1990, and it started with a plot over on Lighthouse Field State Park, and it just started sort of as a community garden and inviting a lot of people who were experiencing homelessness from the community would be working out there. And eventually the director at the time had a meeting with all of the folks who were volunteering and asked them, what is the best use of this space. And a lot of the folks participating self-identified that employment was one of the largest barriers and something that that space could provide that would be of most benefit.

And so from that point, we’ve just been growing the employment program and growing a lot of the resources. We’re able to work alongside our participants and our crew. It’s really unique in that the start of the project was from the community members who are going to be benefiting from the resources that we’re able to provide.

TM: Well, you know, just intuitively it seems that, as I started out, for me, my garden is my grounding—no pun intended—but also my creative work. People oftentimes, when you think of the homeless, we certainly know that people are homeless for a lot of different reasons, and there’s probably some very stereotypic ideas that I hear from people: “Oh, you know, homeless people don’t want to work.” Do you hear that kind of, I don’t know, generalizations, and do you find that to be true with the homeless people that you work with?

AR: You know, I hear those generalizations almost on a daily basis, more outside of the farm and just in my everyday interactions with people. And how strong and pervasive the stigmas are is always really surprising to me, because my experience is, the facts and the reality, especially in Santa Cruz, is that the majority of our population is only one paycheck away from experiencing homelessness themselves. And so a lot of the folks who are out on the farm, they’re some of the hardest workers that I’ve ever had the pleasure of working alongside. And just the amount of passion and care that goes into every single day and every task, and the sense of purpose that’s brought with every single seed that’s in the ground or every single carrot that’s harvested. I feel like what comes out of the work is a lot more relevant, and a lot more relevance behind what something like a carrot can actually mean, and using the vegetable as a vehicle to drive the social change.

So I don’t find the stigmas to be true. And that’s one of the beautiful things about working on the farm, is it’s something that we ask when people step onto the farm, to leave all of those stigmas behind and to leave those stereotypes behind, because we try to cultivate a space and a culture of curiosity and a culture of agency.

TM: How do the…I mean, I’m assuming, although I don’t know, that there’s a lot more homeless folks in Santa Cruz as [than] there are in other cities, like in the Midwest, where we have winter. Is that true? Is there a large homeless community there in Santa Cruz?

AR: Yeah, we have a very large homeless community in Santa Cruz. And a lot of folks who you might not otherwise have known are experiencing homelessness are either currently or have at one time in their life experienced homelessness. And yeah, we have a very large population of people experiencing homelessness in Santa Cruz.

TM: Well, you know, how do they hear about your program, and do you recruit people or do they just show up? Or are they interested in gardening? Or what happens to the homeless that they find you and get involved?

AR: You know, I think it’s a complete mixed bag. Like our most powerful recruitment is through word of mouth from current crew members. And we have, so it’ll be either alumni or current crew members will bring some of their friends or folks who they identify as being like a really good fit for the project. And that’s how we get a lot of the folks coming through.

We also do a lot of recruitment and are partners with other agencies that are providing homeless services. And we also, in addition to having a lot of partnerships and doing outreach, we’ll try to do a couple working interviews throughout the year, where we hire on a larger crew, to be able to provide some employment for that short time for folks but also increase the interest in our programming. And most recently, which I’m excited about, is we’ve started a partnership with one of the jails, and we’re hoping that that’s going to turn into a space for folks to be able to come after they’re coming out of jail, and just something to reintegrate and just have a stable form of employment as you’re leaving jail. And so far we’ve only been, we’ve piloted this project—two weeks ago is the first time we went into the jails—but so far it’s been really exciting and a really exciting step in our organization, our agency.

TM: You know, your project is thirty years old. That says a lot about the program. That means something’s really working there and it’s really needed. And the project also provides some job training, doesn’t it?

AR: Yeah, absolutely. That’s one of the large components of our program. As our crew is hired on, they’re paired with a social worker, and we have a team of, it floats around five to six social work interns, and then one MSW on staff. And so each crew member has weekly meetings with their social worker to go over some of the self-identified goals and try to work through some of those barriers to achieving stable housing and stable employment. But a lot of the portion of our work on the farm is teaching a lot of what is commonly referred to as the hard skills and the soft skills. So the hard skills, just showing up to work on time, working on some of that work ethic and increasing the initiative.

And also what we’ve been trying to do is increase the ownership over the farm and try to find ways to integrate the crew into more of our decision-making processes on the farm. And what we’ve been finding so far is that it’s really increasing people’s, just how much ownership they’re taking over every single task on the farm. And so it’s one of the most rewarding parts, I find, of the work is just working alongside people and teaching them about agriculture and seeing a lot of these passions start coming out, and finding where the strengths are with all of our crew, and trying to find ways and areas on the farm to plug them in.

(10:37) 

TM: And how many, at any one point in time, Anthony, how many homeless do you have there working on the variety of projects that you’re involved in?

AR: We’ll have about twenty people. We recruit for twenty and try to have a stable crew of seventeen, and then if we have a crew of twenty, that’s fantastic. If we have a crew of seventeen, that’s also fantastic.

TM: Anthony, you said that you have about seventeen to twenty people at any one point in time. But I notice that you have so many projects: you have a CSA, which is pretty exciting, and then you also have a Women’s Organic Flower Enterprise. How are those going?

AR: You know, there’s really exciting things with both of those, currently, and we’ve actually expanded a lot of our farm operations to include restaurant and wholesale sales. As of last year we piloted selling to restaurants around Santa Cruz, and as of last year we were working with eleven local restaurants, providing mostly specialty crops—tomatoes, peppers, and strawberries. And this year we’re looking to expand upon that and build the momentum that we started last year. And we’re also trying to find ways to include the crew within all processes of that wholesale marketing that we’re doing, and also trying to create more rigor around the day-to-day work on the farm in hopes that it’s going to be increasing the employment possibilities for our crew.

And our CSA, we currently have two different CSAs. Well, technically, we have three different CSAs. We have a pick-up option, which is just sort of a classic CSA model that you’ll think about. Then we also have a you-pick CSA, where community members come to the farm and have a pick list and will go out in the fields and harvest their own vegetables. And then we also have a scholarship CSA, and we work with ten different agencies within Santa Cruz and offer the equivalency of three CSA shares a week, at no cost to the agencies. And as a part of that, we partner with Hospice and two other farms to provide about thirty bouquets of flowers to Hospice a week.

We just started selling into New Seasons, which is a natural food store in Santa Cruz and San Jose, and we’re even going to be getting some of our body care products up to the Portland area. And the value-added enterprise, that started out of finding a need during the wintertime, when there’s not as much work on the farm, finding some sort of stable employment so we were able to keep people employed throughout the year. We make baking mixes and jams and different types of jellies and herb salts and salves, and just a very long list of different products that we offer.

TM: What an excellent way to learn about business. I’m really curious, when you sell into the New Leaf and the New Seasons markets, what’s the identity? Like if I wanted to go into there and shop, and I went to look for your products, what would they be called?

AR: It’ll just have a label on it that says Homeless Garden Project, and whatever that specific product is, and then it’ll have a little sign that says “Hand-crafted in Santa Cruz” on the label as well.

TM: Nice!

AR: And it’s all in line in the health care section and some of the value-added food areas.

TM: And also the Women’s Organic Flower Enterprise, do you just do dried or do you do fresh flowers as well?

AR: We mostly do dried flowers for that. The fresh flowers, those will be going a lot for our bouquets for our CSAs. A lot of dried-flower wreaths, which is a big draw for our—we have a retail site in downtown Santa Cruz, and so that’s a big draw for the holiday times, is coming by and grabbing a dried-flower wreath.

TM: Well, you know, I think a big question is, do you find that, or have you seen and witnessed a transformation with the Homeless Project and with the people who get involved?

AR: Absolutely. I think every single day there’s a new, exciting transformation or a new… I love working alongside people and just seeing this massive shift. There’s so many things that contribute to it, but one of the largest things is just how supportive of an environment and how inclusive of a community we try to create there. And we try to create a space that’s conducive for people to learn and grow. And we celebrate—one of the things that I like to say that we practice is radical inclusivity, which is trying to create a farm and a space where, as much as we can, we try to break down a lot of those hierarchical systems or those systems of oppression that will be present outside. And while it’s impossible for us to separate those out, and the power is showing up in the farm in different ways, and we do our best to make sure that we’re creating a culture of agency and a culture where people feel safe to be vulnerable and find strength in that vulnerability to make self-identified, positive changes in their own lives.

(16:30) 

TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio, and I’m Theresa Marquez. And I’m here today with Anthony Reyes, farm manager at Homeless Garden Project, and we are talking about farming and gardening with homeless people in Santa Cruz, California.

I guess the other couple questions I can’t help, I have to ask. One, of course, is, can the homeless folks eat out of the garden?

AR: Yeah, absolutely. And every single day we try to have a large lunch as a part of it. And we separate out these different posts, and one of the posts for crew members is the kitchen post, so they’ll be helping cook a large meal for the crew on the farm but also any community members that are coming through, or community members who are at the site at the time. It’s a really lovely time to just take a breath and sit down and eat alongside your community members.

And we absolutely encourage people to take produce from the farm. And even as we’re working, if folks get hungry, I always encourage them to, you know, if you see a spinach and you just want to try it out, it’s important for us to understand the flavors and how a lot of the produce that we’re selling tastes. And so I not only see it as something that’s providing sustenance, but it’s also a teaching opportunity when we’re going into selling more things for restaurant and wholesale and CSA, over what that quality is and what is the best-tasting produce, and what stage are we harvesting those at. But yeah, we absolutely encourage everybody to take as much produce as they would like.

TM: Well, it sounds to me like they’re going to be eating pretty darn good there. So of course, the next thing I’m wondering about, what do you have out there that you’re either harvesting, planting… Do you start things from seed in greenhouses? Just how extensive is both the selection and the kinds of things you’re planting?

AR: Sure. So we’re on three and a half acres of in-ground production right now. And we’re not behind where we should be, but all of the plants’ development is a lot slower because we’ve had…we’ve been kept out by a pretty long winter, and so the soil is just now starting to dry down enough for us to get in and really start cultivating land and start getting plants in the ground. So right now we have, our strawberries just started producing, and so we have a couple more weeks to a month before they’re starting to reach that peak of production. We’re looking at potentially mid-May to June when they’re going to be really pumping out crops. We also have lettuce, onions, kale, chard, collards, carrots, beets, radishes, arugula, a spicy salad mix. And we’re on the cusp of a lot of our first wave of brassica crops coming in, because our CSA is three weeks away, and so everything is sort of planned to be starting to come into production at that point. But today we were prepping the beds for our second wave of cucumbers going in, and we are going to be prepping the beds for our winter squash in the next couple weeks, as well as our tomatoes are going to be going in in the next couple weeks, and peppers and all of our solanums. So it’s really just everything’s starting to move right now.

TM: Well, certainly your description has just, I’m sure, made a lot of us here itchy to get our hands in the soil and start to work on our gardens as well. What a variety that you grow there! I know Santa Cruz, and your weather is really great, and of course we know that you’re really close to the garlic capital of the world and the artichoke capital of the world, and so on. But it looks like it’s a lot of planning and management just to figure out what you’re going to grow when, and so on. How does that all come together?

AR: So I do a lot of that initial planning behind the overall crop plan and some of the varieties and figuring out a lot of the markets. But what we’ve been trying to do this past year is make that entire process a lot more transparent and bring everybody to the table on that to make those decisions, and provide everybody with the resources and the opportunity to have their voice be heard with everything that’s going in the ground. Because my perspective on our farm and our field is that it doesn’t really make sense that, for me, if I’m the one coming up with the plans and putting them in the ground, when I feel like it’s just as much any one of my crew members’ farms as it is mine. And so I want to be able to bring everybody to the table around those decision-making processes.

So this year we’ve done crop-planning workshops with the crew early in the season, and some of those we were able to incorporate into our crop plan, and so some of those varieties are going in the ground. And we also try to find areas of the farm where some of our crew can take initiative and start realizing some of their own ideas. You know, in that, we want to be bringing everybody to the table and have everybody’s voices heard and valued. It doesn’t necessarily create the most efficient farming system, but I feel like the relevance and it plays upon the strengths of our farming system and exactly what we’re trying to accomplish.

(22:29) 

TM: Well, for those of you who want more information, www.HomelessGardenProject.org. Www.HomelessGardenProject.org is their website, and I think you can probably learn a lot more about it. Listening to you, Anthony, talk about how you’re planning your garden, you certainly are, radical inclusiveness would be part of that too, isn’t it? And sometimes the way you do things is just as important as the things that you do. So I applaud you for that. I’m sure that’s a tremendous learning experience.

If you don’t mind, I’d like to just back up just a little bit and just ask you a little bit more about the jail project, or getting more people who are incarcerated as part of your project. I’m assuming—what happens, do they just get let out for short periods of time and they’re involved with you, and then they go back to the jail?

AR: So at this time we’ve been installing a garden over at one of the jails in Santa Cruz and using that as an opportunity to interact with folks and just start building relationships there. Yeah, one of the ideas is, upon release they can get in contact with us and we’ll have a lot of resources out there. And just the act of having us, myself and our training and education supervisor, out there creates an easier transition into the program. We’re also working with two of our alumni who are going to the jail alongside us, and so we’re trying to create a system where they’re then going to be taking that on, and then we’re going to be more supportive of how those processes go, and come in maybe once a month, and just pass the reins off over to some of our alumni. And the two folks who we have working alongside us in the jail are, I can’t think of two better people to have in that position.

TM: That’s fantastic. I guess I have to ask you, Anthony, what do you see as the future for this project and for yourself, and how would you like to grow with regards to this project and in other such wonderful, meaningful work?

AR: Sure, yeah. So for our project, we are, the future is actually really exciting for us because we are working towards a permanent site for our project, and we’re looking to be expanding to a nine-and-a-half-acre site. So we’re just trying to get everything situated with that and make sure that we have everything planned out to make the move as successful as possible for us.

So with those nine and a half acres, it adds on orchard lands and vines, and our perennial section will be a lot larger. And it increases our capability to work with the community members, but also to work with more community members who are experiencing homelessness. And the area where our farm is going is also very close to some of the other homeless service centers in town, so it creates sort of a nice little hub in that zone for services. So we’re really excited about that transition.

And we are also about to be—we’re doing the interviews now for it, but we’re going to be hiring a two-crew lead [26:00]  from within our program. And that, I think, I’m really, really excited to be implementing that because it’s establishing leadership tracks within our program. And for one, in terms of going out and finding a job, being able to show that you’re having progression within your workplace goes a long way on a resume. It also creates an environment within our farm and within our program that’s really more towards a participant-led farm, and what it means to have a farming system that’s more inclusive of everybody’s opinion and everybody’s input. And so I’m really excited to start moving towards that.

And then personally, for me, I feel like I ask myself this question so much, because it’s like I love doing this work so much, and working at the intersection of agriculture and social justice, and specifically in trying to create farming systems that are inclusive of everybody’s voices and that are creating a culture of agency and a culture of belonging. And so I’m just really excited to be pursuing that and continuing to pursue that, and finding more meaning, and really continuing the work that I’m doing.

Yeah, and something that I actually work sort of on the side doing is—and I’ve slowed down that a little bit just as the farming season comes up, I get more into the farming—and then as the farming season wanes I try to do more work around equity in the food system, and just trying to be involved in more organizations and more projects that are really looking at equity in the food system in general, and how to create liberated spaces, and the power that’s found from these liberated spaces.

TM: Well, Anthony, thank you so much for the work you’re doing. And so many of we older folks are always thinking and looking at the youth and finding inspiration there. And so please keep inspiring us—we need it. And those of you who are listening out there, www.HomelessGardenProject.org. And once again, Anthony, thank you, thank you so much for all the great work you’re doing.

AR: Yeah, thank you.

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