Urban farm in downtown San Jose transforms blighted acre into vibrant food hub

communities / Article

All photos are courtesy of Garden to Table.

Zach Lewis manages a Northern California farm that produces many different vegetables – kale to spring onions – but it’s in a location where planes fly close overhead and Silicon Valley traffic whizzes by.

Lewis is executive director of Garden to Table, a San Jose-based organization that focuses on building community around a sustainable, local food system. The nonprofit has established an urban farm on San Jose’s Taylor Street – right next to a big freeway and not too far from the flight paths of nearby Mineta San Jose International Airport. The 1-acre lot – just a 5-minute bike ride from the downtown core – had been vacant for over 50 years, covered in weeds and occasional trash. A few years ago, Bay Area-based developer Barry Swenson donated a land lease to Garden to Table, which is now transforming the space into a fresh food. Knight Foundation provided $60,000 in support to the farm.

“The purpose of the farm is really to connect people together through education and through great food,” Lewis said.

About half of the available space is being used for farming.  Garden to Table has built a series of  large raised beds, totaling about 5,000 square feet, which required bringing in soil suitable for planting, Lewis said, “which is one of those funky challenges you get in urban environments.” The farm is growing vegetables that are suitable for San Jose’s climate: garlic, radishes, beets and carrots are thriving now, while summer crops like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant are being planted.

Garden to Table’s Taylor Street farm stand reopened after its winter closure at the end of April. It’ll be open every Saturday for the rest of the year, Lewis, said. In late June or early July, the farm plans to add another day for food sales.

The Garden to Table staff members are usually the ones who till the soil, plant seeds and tend to the crops. But the farm is connected to the community through events celebrating the local food economy, gardening and cooking classes, volunteer work days and field trips for youth.

Lewis said access to healthy food can often be “out of sight and out of mind,” especially in low-income neighborhoods.

“Many decades – generations even – of people have grown up completely separated from where their food comes from, and we feel that that’s a big part of why public health has kind of deteriorated,” he said.

That’s why Garden to Table wants to create an engaging space that brings people together to taste the best of local food. “People absolutely love it,” Lewis said. “Everybody’s clamoring for more. They want to come. They want to buy the food.”

Lewis said a major goal of the farm is also to focus on commercial production, so that the farm can support itself. But Lewis admits that urban farms can only produce a limited amount of food. He believes the most important thing is determining “how do we create engaging spaces that are functional, beautiful and economically viable to connect people to that great local food?”

Garden to Table is working on that question this year, while improving the farm site and boosting production. Next year, the organization will look into implementing a more intensive production system.

Lewis says he would like to see the urban farm idea spread all over San Jose, especially in low-income neighborhoods. Garden to Table is pushing for California state legislation that might help: AB551 would provide a tax incentive to turn vacant land into urban agriculture initiatives.

“We have some of the best weather in the country,” Lewis said. “We can grow anything here, and people should be connected to that.”

Garden to Table’s farm stand is open each Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The organization is hosting gardening workshops the last Saturday of every month and will soon be announcing a cooking workshop series. More information is available at garden2table.org.

Vignesh Ramachandran is a Bay Area-based freelance journalist. He can be reached via email at [email protected].

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