Homeless people cultivate food, better health while gardening in Alameda County

Apr 4, 2024

Homeless people cultivate food, better health while gardening in Alameda County

Apr 4, 2024

Fresh fruits and vegetables are essential to a healthful diet, but it's hard to keep perishable foods on hand if one doesn't have a refrigerator or a home. To enhance the health of homeless people, the CalFresh Healthy Living, UC Cooperative Extension team in Alameda County has partnered with the South County Homeless Project to grow fresh produce for people staying at the emergency housing in Hayward.

For the past seven years, CalFresh Healthy Living, UCCE Alameda has been delivering nutrition lessons to residents of the South County Homeless Project, part of Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency. The classes include Rethink Your Drink, Food Safety, Making Every Dollar Count, Eat Healthy Be Active Community Workshops, and Fresh from the Garden.

The South County Homeless Project facility houses 24 people for up to a year. With the help of the CalFresh Healthy Living, UC Cooperative Extension team, its existing garden was refurbished and redesigned. The large outdoor garden behind the facility offers therapeutic gardening opportunities to residents and provides food for their meals. 

"I love the garden and when the cook cooks the vegetables, they taste amazing,” said one resident. “I am thankful for this garden and for having the CalFresh Healthy Living team.”

At one time, South County Homeless Project's backyard featured a flower garden. After years of neglect, weeds overtook the garden.

In 2022, CalFresh Healthy Living, UCCE Alameda proposed getting residents involved in growing food by resurrecting the garden with edible plants.

“Not only could we continue to engage residents in nutrition education classes, but we could also work together to reinvigorate their neglected garden,” said MaxFairbee, nutrition educator withCalFresh Healthy Living team,UCCE Alameda.

More than 15 varieties of herbs and vegetables planted

Residents and staff set out to replace the weedy beds with a vegetable and herb garden.

“We worked with South County staff and residents on the design, clean up, planting, harvesting and ultimately incorporating food from the garden into the kitchen for residents to enjoy the fruits of their labor,” Fairbee said.

For gardening expertise and support, Fairbee enlisted the UC Master Gardeners of Alameda County's Community Garden Team to help. While the CalFresh Healthy Living, UCCE staff continued providing nutrition classes, the UC Master Gardener volunteers trained the residents on the basics of gardening.

In April, after heavy rains, the group planted 50 seedlings, half donated by the UC Master Gardeners. They planted two varieties of lettuce,arugula, four varieties of tomatoes, zucchini, kale, onions, cucumbers, green beans, Swiss chard, kale, basil, cilantro, tarragon, thyme, parsley, rosemary, oregano and mint.

From garden to table

“In May, we harvested lettuce and in June, we harvested green beans, cucumbers, kale and onions,” Fairbee said.

The fresh vegetables and herbs were used to prepare salads, sandwiches and pasta dishes for the residents. Fairbee and the other educators have also used the fresh produce for cooking demonstrations and tastings as part of their Fresh from the Garden class.

"We have been able to use many of the veggies as sides or to go in the salad," said one of the South County Homeless Project cooks.

"One of the chefs used the zucchini in the pasta sauce, it was so good! I didn't really know you could use it that way!" said a resident.

After tasting summer squash andgazpacho made with tomatoes from the garden, a South County resident namedSelina said, "I was surprised how good the raw summer squash tasted and how the flavor was different after it was cooked. I'll definitely be adding more zucchini to my plate."

Challenges to keeping the garden going

To keep the garden healthy, they faced competition with plant-chewing snails, slugs and aphids and cats digging in the soil. Because the water source is over 200 feet from the garden, they run a long hose across the main path, along the parking lot to water the plants, then unhook the hose and stash it indoors after each use so that it won't get stolen.

Another challenge of maintaining the garden is getting enough residents and staff to volunteer to work on it.

“Although staff are supportive of the garden, none actually have time to work in the garden,” Fairbee said.

The residents harvest, wash and store the produce in the kitchen. Only four to six of the 24 residents are typically interested in working in the garden, pulling weeds and protecting the plants from pests – most are focused on getting a new job and a home. South County residents usually leave the temporary housing within a few months.

For more consistent garden maintenance, Fairbee is looking to other community groups for volunteers. He is also hoping to persuade the county government to install a water spigot close to the garden so they can install drip irrigation to water the garden.

“We'd like to work with the UC Master Food Preservers to teach residents how to preserve herbs and vegetables,” Fairbee said.

He hopes South County Homeless Project residents will continue gardening in their new homes to grow fresh vegetables so they can enjoy a more nutritious diet and better health.

Beyond the fresh food, the South County Homeless Project residents and staff enjoy the ambience of the garden.

"It's really nice to go back there and just sit, it's really peaceful," said one staff member.

A resident added, "(The garden) relaxes me from stress. I love the garden."