Veggielution: Flourishing Urban Agriculture

By Kate Daly | March 01, 2014
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A surprising sight is tucked in next to Interstate 680 just beyond the entrance to Emma Prusch Farm Park in East San Jose: a six-acre community farm teeming with activity. Now dotted with multiple structures, chickens, a fruit orchard and rows and rows of vegetables, the plot is the newly expanded home of Veggielution, a nonprofit on a mission.

“It’s about getting food into the ground and back out into the community,” explains Diego Ortiz, one of six AmeriCorps members assigned to work there for a year.

“It’s good for a community to work together and eat together,” echoes co-founder and Farm Director Mark Medeiros. He grew up in San Martin, attended San Jose State and started the farm in 2008 on a couple of acres owned by the city parks department. Veggielution recently secured a new agreement to use a total of six acres for nine years. The increase in acreage coupled with a generous gift from a Santa Clara–based tech company is making for a boom time at the farm in 2013.

Instead of throwing a holiday party each year, visual computing pioneer NVIDIA sponsors the Project Inspire program, in which the company donates about $300,000 worth of materials and services to a cause, and organizes employees to donate their time and energy. Last December, more than 1,500 employees, their families and friends volunteered to work one weekend at Veggielution to help build a new greenhouse; sheds for washing, packing and cooling produce; a demonstration kitchen area, farm stand, fences and picnic tables. They also painted murals and planted hedgerows of native plants to attract beneficial animals and insects. In February smaller groups returned to install pavers and plant some citrus trees.

NVIDIA Director of Global Citizenship Tonie Hansen organized the work days. “The feedback is this is one of the best events we’ve done so far,” she says, because employees recognized their efforts “would have a lasting impact” on promoting health and education in the area.

Veggielution Board President Cody Kraatz says thanks to NVIDIA’s help, they “built out the infrastructure … and we’re now at a point to expand all our programs.” Predictions are the farm will more than double its output of vegetables to 75,000 pounds this year, and will surpass the number of people it served last year and reach out to several thousand more community members.

In 2012, during the prime growing season from June to October, the farm sold 30 boxes full of fresh, organic produce every week. The goal this year is to sell 60. A regular subscription costs $30 per box per week, but local families can qualify to pay a discounted price of $15 per box if they live in the two ZIP codes closest to the farm and/or rely on food stamps.

Every Saturday from 10am to 2pm, a farm stand is set up to sell produce for “below the value of organic vegetables” and food stamps are accepted, according to Medeiros. He estimates about 60% of the farm’s food is distributed free or at low cost; to defray expenses, the rest is sold to San Jose restaurants Vegetarian House and Good Karma Vegan Café and also at the farmers market in downtown San Jose.

Veggielution has a strong educational focus. Youth Education Coordinator Nina Vuoso recently spent weeks teaching fifth graders at a local elementary school about the science behind gardening. Students planted kale, and at harvest time many admitted liking it after they tried eating it for the first time. The farm has a dedicated Youth Garden in one section and runs a teen educational program called Dig Crew that focuses on sustainable agriculture.

“It’s important young people get the experience of growing up in this wonderful agricultural valley,” Medeiros says. Overall he says he strives “to foster a sense of stewardship about the environment … and teach people about gardening so, if they have to be, they could be self-sufficient.”

Weekday workdays are open to the public Tuesday through Friday from 8:30am to 12:30pm. The Saturday sessions are the most popular: 10am to 12:30pm, followed by a potluck meal. Volunteers are invited to take home free vegetables or a plant, unless they are students receiving community service hours.

Free cooking and nutrition classes are periodically offered at the farm to benefit the community. Called Cooking Matters, the six-week course is taught by peers in Spanish. Kraatz has helped translate on occasion, and says it’s exciting to see a group of a dozen or so women come learn how to shop on a budget, read labels, prepare a nutritious dish, and then go home with practical recipes on how to cook their bags full of fresh produce.

He has been volunteering at the farm since 2009 and notices a lot of repeat volunteers and customers coming back with their families and friends to enjoy the activities and produce. He feels the benefits of gardening and spending time at the farm are infectious:

“People start to eat more healthy foods and eat a more vegetable-centric diet when they understand where their food comes from.”

647 S. King Road, San Jose

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