When Zach Lewis moved to the Bay Area in 2008, someone gave him a broccoli plant that he promptly killed.
Lewis got really “pissed” about it, so he did the next logical thing. He started a garden.
Turned out, he knew what he was doing.
As a student at San Jose State University, where he obtained a Master’s in Urban Planning, Lewis started a CommUniverCity project with other students, SJSU faculty, and numerous community members to address food access in central San Jose. His Master’s thesis accompanied that effort, focusing on the economic potential of transforming vacant lots into urban farms.
It was a no-brainer for Lewis, who had a lot of experience dealing with food having worked at a restaurant and grocery store in his native Florida.
“I was already involved with food a lot,” he said, “and my dad also happens to be an agricultural expert and manages a 500-acre greenhouse nursery that does ornamental production in south central Florida.”
In 2011, Lewis found himself as the project coordinator at Garden to Table, a nonprofit organization in San Jose that strives to create a sustainable local food system by building community, improving access to healthy food, and teaching residents to cultivate their own fruits and vegetables.
Garden to Table is able to accomplish this by “harvesting and distributing fruit from neglected trees, working on policies to facilitate urban agriculture, and operating a 1-acre urban farm to inspire, educate, and generate revenue for the organization.”
Through the Neighborhood Harvest Program, which averages 10 volunteers a week, Garden to Table has harvested about 72,000 pounds of food since its inception in 2011. Last year it harvested 17,000 pounds. This year the goal is set at 25,000, which would help further Garden to Table’s vision of making urban agriculture economically viable.
“The farm is generating more engagement, so the program is growing,” said Lewis, who has been serving as the executive director since 2013. “We do anticipate the yearly total to grow as well.”
And Lewis knows the organization wouldn’t be where it’s at today without the help of its volunteers and The Health Trust, a foundation for funding nonprofit health prevention services and programs within the Santa Clara Valley.
“Thanks to the support of The Health Trust,” Lewis said. “They have funded all of our work on policy and supported the growth of all of our programs since day one. They continue to fund our harvest program and policy work.”
That includes the farm.
Once a vacant lot, the farm serves as an educational gathering place for community members to learn about and interact with food through the process of gardening, cooking, and nutritional classes. The goals of the farm are to inspire, educate, and generate revenue.
Since the farm’s completion in 2014, Lewis said the organization has probably grown and distributed over 5,000 pounds from the farm.
By selling the produce it grows at the farm, Garden to Table plans to create stable funding so that its staff can offer more classes, pick more fruit trees, and build more gardens throughout the neighborhood. It’s a business model that Lewis and everyone involved believes can act as the foundation of a self-sustaining local food system that can be replicated throughout San Jose.
“We’re trying to engage and connect people through great local food, and our farm produces that,” Lewis said. “We want to bring people on the farm and kind of have their minds blown that there’s this beautiful little oasis in the middle of the city.”
Lewis and his staff create many opportunities for engagements through tastings, workshops for adults, field trips for urban youth, and more.
“We’re trying to create a model that can be applied anywhere,” said Lewis, pictured to the left. “We can only handle so many people at the farm, so we want to take that inspiration that we generate from the farm and take it back out to the neighborhoods around it or any other community garden.”
The organization’s actual nonprofit name is Garden to Table Silicon Valley, so long term Lewis would love this to grow. He just doesn’t know how realistic it is.
“We’ve been doing this three years and I thought we’d be farther ahead,” Lewis said. “It’s hard work. People work long hours and it’s enough of a challenge just to get San Jose dialed in. I don’t know any sort of timeline to go beyond the immediate boundaries, but we’re constantly looking. Really it’s just a function of funding. If we got more funding we could grow.”
Eventually, Lewis wants aquaponics and hydroponics so that the farm at some point can be an economic engine and hopefully a template for other organizations to follow.
But, as Lewis found out while studying his Master’s thesis in the urban agriculture scene, growing and selling food in the city is a huge challenge due to state laws. In fact, when Garden to Table got its farm, it was illegal to grow on the site.
Through provided research and advocating with community members, the organization helped influence AB 234, a bill passed by the California State Legislature that allows community food producers to sell and/or donate fresh fruits and vegetables to people in the state. The law took effect Jan. 1, 2016.
The big issue Lewis and his staff are working on now is the Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones, or AB 551. This is a law that provides a property tax incentive to turn a vacant lot into an urban agriculture project. Sacramento, San Diego, and San Francisco have all passed it so far. San Jose and Los Angeles are in the process of passing it, and Garden to Table has been at the forefront of getting it done in San Jose.
Lewis is hoping San Jose will pass the law sometime in the next few months. The challenge, however, is the housing crisis in the city.
“It’s weighing heavily on our planning, so it’s kind of a challenge to compete with the other priorities,” Lewis said.
Essentially what Garden to Table is trying to do is make it easier across the board in San Jose – and hopefully nationally as well – to grow and sell food in the city.
“I think that urban agriculture can be a great way to engage the public and have healthy communities and happier people,” Lewis said. “Do it in a strategic way, though. You can’t grow all the food in the city, the real estate is too valuable, but do it in a way that’s smart and hopefully can build up the local food economy so everybody can eat better.”
In association with the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Silicon Valley Gives is raising money for local nonprofits through a 24-hour online donation platform.
The event, which takes place May 3, will offer thousands of nonprofits the chance to raise millions of dollars and provide “a simple way to connect donors to the charitable causes they care about most and encourage them to take action.”
Lewis and his staff will put on a planting day of some sorts to promote Garden to Table.
Much like Garden to Table, Budget Dumpster is also in the business of creating a sustainable environment and lifestyle. If you need a dumpster rental in San Jose, give us a call at 1-866-284-6164!