Monday, December 21, 2009

Be the change you wish to see

I'd first heard about the Noyo Food Forest at the food security conference in Des Moines this past October, but I didn't manage to chase down the NFF folks in the midst of the hundreds of people I encountered while I was volunteering there. As it happened that Ollie and I would be passing right through the NFF headquarters on our way down the California coast, however, I realized I would have a second chance. I was excited for an opportunity to meet with the grass roots gardeners and community activists so I got in touch with the program's founder, Susan, who warmly invited me to check out the program. A few weeks later I found myself staying at the Grey Whale Inn -- a beautiful bed & breakfast in Fort Bragg and site of one of the Noyo Food Forest edible gardens. (Thank *you*, Katrina, for setting me up at officially the nicest place I've stayed along the way. Though there have been some comfy futons.) The innkeeper, Michael, and I feasted on local duck and a load of fresh veggies from the garden my first night there, and after an amazing raw food meal at a restaurant run by a Mormon Korean lady across town my second night, I was surprised with some of the best food of the trip. For a sleepy little town, Ft. Bragg could be a destination in itself. But back to the reason I came to visit....

The Noyo Food Forest was started a few years ago by a small group of dynamic women who had looked around themselves and been frustrated by a general lack of access to fresh local food while unused green spaces abounded. (It's not that there was nothing, but there wasn't much: a modest food co-op, one CSA, one small school garden.) Further, the decline of industry in this former mill town meant that many folks were disconnected from each other and the land. Morale was low in this isolated area. Taking Gandhi's mantra to heart, these gardening activists became the change they wished to see in the world: they began to build community gardens.

The first was the Learning Garden, which cultivates a plot of land behind the local public high school, utilizes buildings donated by the Mendocino County Office of Education, and is run by a small crew of devoted garden educators on the shoestring budget Susan cobbles together from sales and donations each year. Winding down its third growing season -- I learned from Sakina, the garden coordinator, as she showed me around -- the space has grown considerably from its humble beginnings, slowly expanding each year. It offers learning opportunities for adolescents and adults, supplies fresh produce to the school cafeteria and the farmers' market, and has been a point of pride for a number of high schoolers in the gardening class -- a well-attended elective -- who nurture the green oasis.

From the high school, Katrina, Susan, and I zipped over to the Head Start garden, where lunch and snacks are grown for the low-income-based preschool education program and an NFF staffmember runs weekly activities for youngsters and their parents. (Unfortunately, the timing of my visit didn't coincide with a lesson, but it sounds like a great program from what I can tell. Incidentally, improving child nutrition continues to be one of the strongest elements of Head Start programs across the country. It seems fitting that the tots and their parents learn how to grow and eat fresh, healthy veggies here.) Next it was over to the Come-Unity Garden, where we checked out 11 community plots and nibbled on apples as we admired the orchard under development. Then, after a brief walk around the town's only CSA (not an NFF project, but, really, it's all connected on some level and it was pretty impressive), we hotfooted it back to the Learning Garden to harvest fresh veggies and make a big salad for lunch. I needed my energy for the talk I was giving to the high school gardeners at 2pm.... They were a nice bunch, and asked lots of questions (mostly about the biking, though the adults sitting in prompted more questions about the farming and sustainable food pieces of my project).

Something that really impressed me during my time learning about the Noyo Food Forest was its amazing success with partnerships. This is partly because the need for pooled resources (money and land) brings NFF to the table with local groups -- schools, the Head Start program, the senior center (which I didn't have a chance to see), the Grey Whale Inn, Thanksgiving Coffee (site of the Come-Unity garden) -- but it is also because there are natural connections between gardening and so many aspects of community development. The gardens are sowing seeds of hope and awareness in Ft. Bragg: during one of our cooking sessions in the Inn's kitchen, Michael described the building of the garden at the Grey Whale as transformative, how neighbors had begun to stop by and admire the garden, complimenting the innkeeper -- who, until the garden, felt that he was considered an outsider here -- on its progress. He admitted to experiencing a quiet joy when immersing himself in the green space from time to time, sometimes incorporating the garden goodies into the Inn's offerings.

The Noyo Food Forest is working to empower folks to feed themselves, but the gardens are, in the process, fostering healthy communities as well. And not just here in Ft. Bragg. They have links to groups in places as nearby as Willits (30 hilly miles east) and as far away as Kenya (where a sister garden was started). It's the kind of program that could be replicated in many other places, adapted for different communities while maintaining its core philosophy. Gandhi would be proud.

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry


  1. The title of this post has been one of my favorite quotes for a long time now - oddly enough, I first saw it as a teenager on a postcard in Medora, ND, which is just a little cowboy-themed tourist trap, but the message is so true. Have a lovely holiday!

  2. PS - thanks so much for the note and final choc. cake recipe! So thoughtful.


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