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Growing Community 

Local collaborative promotes gardening for nutrition, empowerment and food security

During the recent near-collapse of our economic system we were told: Get out there and buy, buy, buy! But there was a time when our country offered a more holistic remedy to looming scarcity: Get out there and grow. During World War I and World War II, the federal government, along with businesses, civic groups and schools, encouraged citizens to keep "victory gardens" in backyards, on apartment-building rooftops and in vacant lots. They were every family's way to help win the war while putting fresh veggies on the table.

Today in Humboldt County, a network of individuals and organizations is working to revive community gardening. Since it was established in 2009, the North Coast Community Gardening Collaborative has nurtured these public plots countywide. The collaborative hopes to explode the myth that community gardening is merely a quaint agrarian hobby.

"We want to envision a food system that can be extracted from the economic system," said Helen L'Annunziata, a community coordinator who's been involved with the collaborative from the beginning. She said the recent buzz about sustainability and organics has tended to focus on what's being sold at grocery stores, and she advocates gardening as a way to cut out the middle man. "This is hands-on, community control over food," L'Annunziata said.

The significance of that control extends beyond health and nutrition to a more fundamental concern: hunger. In Humboldt County, nearly 10 percent of residents experience episodes of hunger because they can't afford enough food, according to a recent survey by the California Center for Rural Policy. The collaborative believes it can help alleviate that distress. "Organic food is really expensive, so it's not accessible to a lot of low-income families," L'Annunziata said. "Community gardening gives them a chance to grow their own food and grow it in the most healthy of ways."

There are currently between 20 and 30 gardens involved in the collaborative, spanning from Orick to Hoopa to Rio Dell. Some resemble small farms more than backyard produce plots. Others, like the Henderson Community Garden, have profound cultural significance. Located behind the Eureka Mall (home to WinCo), this garden is tended entirely by members of the local Hmong community, and it's been producing food for more than 20 years. Hmong families grow edible, medicinal and ceremonial herbs and veggies, some of which, like the gourd chayote, are unavailable in local stores. And the 20-odd plots serve as a meeting space where children learn cultural practices from their elders.

The collaborative also helps establish new gardens, including the McKinleyville Community Garden in Pierson Park, which is about to enter its second growing season. "We started it last spring [and] it went really, really well," said McKinleyville Parks and Recreation Director Jason Sehon. The McKinleyville Community Services District installed a water meter and graded a plot behind the bocce ball courts; then volunteers from the collaborative, including a couple of master gardeners, constructed the beds using donated lumber. They also built community interest through educational meetings.

The town got 21 applications for the 20 available plots -- rather than refuse an applicant they just built one more. Sehon said he expects greater interest this year. There's a $20 fee per plot per year, which pays for maintenance, office costs and water usage. Working with the state Department of Fish & Game, McKinleyville Parks and Rec recently cleared out invasive species near the garden, and Sehon said that's created more room. "Depending on the numbers and the feedback, we may expand the garden this year," he said. Applications for plots in the McKinleyville Community Garden are being accepted through Friday, Feb. 25. "But if it's beyond that deadline, please still contact Parks and Recreation," Sehon urged.

The collaborative is set to launch a new campaign highlighting yet another challenge for community gardening in the 21st century. Most places, Humboldt County included, have no land use zone explicitly designed to allow gardening. Consequently, community gardens often face the threat of eviction, especially when located on publicly owned property, as several local gardens are. The collaborative is hoping to prevent such a trend locally by pursuing zoning changes or "other creative solutions," according to a campaign announcement. L'Annunziata said other regions have become more accommodating in recent years. "If you look at cities like Seattle or Portland, they have a city garden department," she said. "That's a model we could explore."

SIDEBAR: The North Coast Community Gardening Collaborative is a network of gardens and community partners including the Redwood Community Action Agency, First 5 Humboldt, Humboldt Area Foundation, St. Joseph Health Care System, Food for People, University of California Cooperative Extension, Humboldt Community for Activity and Nutrition, Democracy Unlimited, elected officials and community members.

The collaborative will participate in the Sustainable Agriculture Expo at Redwood Acres Fairgrounds Saturday from noon to 4 p.m. Later that evening they'll screen The Garden, a 2008 documentary about a 14-acre community garden in South Central Los Angeles that was threatened by a developer looking to build warehouses on the site. The event will include food and discussion, with proceeds benefiting the West Side Community Improvement Association. It starts at 5:30 p.m. at the Unity Church, 1619 California St. in Eureka.

For more information about community gardening, including contact information for individual gardens in Humboldt County and how-to guides to help you start your own, visit, or call 269.2064.

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About The Author

Ryan Burns

Ryan Burns

Ryan Burns worked for the Journal from 2008 to 2013, covering a diverse mix of North Coast subjects, from education, politics and marijuana to human suspension, sex parties and amateur fight contests. He won awards for investigative reporting, feature stories and news coverage.

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