Planting Food and Hope: The Inspiring Afterlife of South Central Farm

Posted by Peter Lehner

It started as an empty lot on 41st and Alameda. It became, with care and patience and the hard labor of hundreds of families, 14 acres of productive farmland, a source of fresh food and pride for an underserved community. A decade later, in 2003, the City of Los Angeles decided to sell that land in South Central, which had been transformed from urban wasteland to arguably the largest community garden in the country. And then there was shock, anger, organization, fundraising, negotiation, rejection, a zucchini in a tailpipe, and finally, the bulldozers roared.

Yet out of the demise of South Central Farm came a tremendous victory. As Tezozomoc, one of the leaders of the fight to save the farm, wrote in OnEarth:

In the politics of impossibility, you win by losing. We won by losing. And we continue to win, planting hope all along the way.

Tezo and the farmers went on to create an 85-acre, worker-owned, cooperative organic farm out of a rough, scrubby plot of land in Buttonwillow, California, about 100 miles outside the city. Farmers rent a bus to travel back and forth to the farm, and bring the produce right back to the original South Central site to sell to the community. The group also founded the South Central Farmers Health and Education Fund (SCFHEF), a grassroots nonprofit that helps bring fresh, organic produce to low-income urban areas, supports new farmers and promotes the establishment of new community gardens. NRDC honored Tezo earlier this month at the Growing Green Awards. I was inspired by Tezo’s story, and it was an honor for me and NRDC to present him the Food Justice Leader award.  

The South Central farmers’ struggle and eventual victory reminded me of a similar episode in New York City which took place just a few years earlier, when Mayor Giuliani, for reasons that are honestly hard to fathom, tried to grab back more than 500 community gardens and quickly sell them to developers. I worked on the case from the New York State Attorney General’s office, while NRDC worked with community gardeners and parks advocates.

We sued the city for trying to auction off the land without a proper environmental and land use review, as required by state and city laws. The gardens in total covered nearly 14 acres of land, and their impact on communities, here as in Los Angeles, or any urban environment, was undeniable. The court ruled for us, and stopped the sale.

Community gardens tend to spring up on empty lots in underserved communities, in neighborhoods that lack public parks as well as affordable fresh produce. In 2002, New York City’s Lower East Side, a hot spot for gardens, had only 0.6 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents; the city average was 4.6 acres—even this is about half as much as Boston. In many cases, empty lots are a neighborhood blight, filled with litter, rodents, and drug paraphernalia. The New York City Parks Department helped some gardeners with seeds and tools; but here, as in Los Angeles, it was ultimately the labor and dedication of volunteer gardeners from the community that turned these pockets of wasted land into safe, cool places to gather, relax, and grow flowers, herbs, and food.

As a sort of outdoor, grassroots community center, gardens play an invaluable role in urban life. They host everything from informal barbecues to performances to weddings. Some provide food to local schools; many donate to food banks. Green Thumb, the city office that manages community gardens, estimated that in the late 1980s, at their peak, New York City community gardens produced $1 million worth of fresh produce. A recent study in the American Journal of Public Health showed that community gardeners have a significantly lower body mass index (BMI) than non-gardeners in the community. Other studies suggest that the presence of greenery can help lower crime rates.

In the end, about 500 of the roughly 700 New York City community gardens were saved. More than 100 were purchased by two conservation groups, singer Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project, and the Trust for Public Land, in 1999. In 2002, the Bloomberg administration agreed to convert about 200 gardens into city parks, while 200 more were licensed to operate as community gardens. One hundred and fifty parcels could be developed as low-income housing, subject to review and on condition the city offered gardeners a substitute plot of land.

In 2010, the city’s remaining community gardens received a temporary extension of their license to operate, but gardeners are still seeking permanent protection from the threat of development. (The New York City Community Gardening Coalition held its annual forum, Stand for Our Land, on Saturday, April 27.)

Although the neighborhood of South Central has lost its farm, the community is now ably served by the SCFHEF, which brings organic produce to the community via low-cost farm shares and farmer’s markets. The group is also working to conserve heirloom crops, bring more organic ethnic produce to market, educate the community about healthy food choices, and expand the distribution system for agricultural cooperatives.

“Too often,” Tezo says, “the same people who work our fields during the day, planting and harvesting fresh produce, spend their evenings in line at the local food bank.”

Community gardens go a long way toward righting this injustice. As a source of fresh food, a peaceful gathering place, much-needed green space, and a symbol of pride, community gardens improve the health and well-being of urban residents. We salute the work of Tezozomoc and the SCFHEF to create a better food system, helping ensure that all communities have access to fresh, healthy food—not only producing it, but eating it as well.

Images courtesy of NRDC/The SAWYER Agency.