SAN JOSE — Dario Lerma peered over a front fence in his neighborhood at verdant garden beds bursting with tomatoes, squash and sunflowers.
The retired Santa Clara County worker has lived in this pocket of central San Jose for a quarter of a century. So when San Jose State teamed with the city to offer residents a hand in improving the onetime gang haven, Lerma was on board.
Since 2005, thousands of students have added their intellectual and physical muscle to the city’s resources — improving life in a cluster of predominantly immigrant neighborhoods while nurturing community leaders.
The project that brought the lush harvest to this particular frontyard is one that aims to create a local food supply where hunger is prevalent and fresh foods are not.
Started two years ago, Garden to Table so far has spawned seven shared gardens, a gleaning program that yields nearly 2,000 pounds of fruit per month and nutrition classes that emphasize healthy, locally sourced meals.
“That’s the Espinozas’; they live in an apartment,” said Lerma, 66, pointing to a raised bed. “That one’s Jose Ramos’, from the trailer park.”
With a standing invitation to share in the yield, he dashed through the gate to snatch a few fat zucchini.
Silicon Valley once was so fertile that it was dubbed the Valley of Heart’s Desire. Garden to Table is putting that history to work in an area bypassed by the region’s tech-industry prosperity.
Although many town-gown efforts dispatch students to neighborhoods to volunteer or do research, Garden to Table’s parent organization, CommUniverCity, launches only projects that residents have chosen to foster.
“So often what happens with these service learning projects is you come in and then you’re gone,” said Hilary Nixon, an associate professor of urban and regional planning and Garden to Table’s faculty advisor. “The goal here is to really focus on the needs of the neighborhood, to empower the neighbors.”
Currently expanding to all of central San Jose, CommUniverCity has until now focused on Five Wounds/Brookwood Terrace, a 11/2 square-mile community that for nearly a century has been the heart of Portuguese life in the valley. More-recent arrivals have come predominantly from Mexico. The area’s median household income is about half that of the county’s, and three-fourths of its residents speak a language other than English in their homes.
While the city has worked to improve street lighting and clean up graffiti, more than 11,000 university students have teamed with residents on about 200 projects to improve education, the environment, health and more.
“We’d focus on getting neighborhoods clean and safe, and San Jose State was able to then come in and say: ‘Your basic needs are being met, how can we make your lives better?'” said Paul Pereira, an aide to Councilman Sam Liccardo, a key CommUniverCity backer.
Justice studies students have worked to expunge residents’ criminal records. Business students have honed merchant marketing plans, and urban planning students have helped residents draft their dream for a planned regional transit station: a mixed-use village with a town square connected to a network of trails on abandoned railroad rights-of-way. The vision, incorporated into San Jose’s general plan, is expected to receive formal approval this fall.
“It’s about the present and the future,” said Lerma, who in addition to picking fruit for Garden to Table has helped plan CommUniverCity’s annual Halloween festival, educating residents about sustainability and helping parents craft costumes from recycled materials. “We do it because there’s pride. It’s our neighborhood. We see the outcome, which is the most beautiful part.”
Garden to Table grew from the same seed.
The raised garden beds that Lerma recently admired are in the frontyard of Sami Monsur, 48, multilingual resource analyst at San Jose State.
When a few residents came to her, in her capacity as president of the neighborhood association, Monsur recalled, “I said, ‘You know, I’ve been wanting to get rid of my front lawn. Why don’t we find two other families?'”
At the first planning meeting in 2011, Imelda Rodriguez — CommUniverCity’s no-nonsense community director — walked in with Graham Stitchman, a lanky electrician who had been picking fruit from his own trees, along with his neighbors’, and donating the bounty to the Olinder Food Program down the street.
“The gleaning program was his dream,” said Stitchman’s wife, Sandra.
He teamed up with Zach Lewis, 29, an urban farming devotee and San Jose State grad student in urban planning who turned Garden to Table into his master’s project.
At first, he and Stitchman walked the neighborhoods once a week, jotting down the location of each loquat and persimmon tree. Soon, sociology students were helping. Sunnyvale-based Trimble Navigation donated some hand-held GPS devices. A new crop of students entered mounds of data and followed up with residents, securing picking agreements.
Ruperto Garza, 47, who had been homeless for several years, joined the effort, becoming Stitchman’s right-hand man and translator. (Until that point, he’d been trying to get by on less-than-fluent Spanish.) Garza now orchestrates twice-weekly fruit giveaways at the Olinder program’s small community hall.
Once a month, the glean’s delights also are included in a local food bank’s bigger giveaway.
Ramona Ramirez showed up on a recent Monday morning pushing a double stroller — one seat occupied by the 10-month-old baby girl she cares for, the other reserved for the bounty she was about to receive.
Her husband works maintenance at a San Jose cemetery, she said, but times are tight in their household, which includes a 15-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son.
“I was going to buy a watermelon this week but I couldn’t afford it. The corn either,” said Ramirez, 52, whose stroller soon bulged with both, along with plums and lemons recently plucked from local trees.
On previous visits, the native of Mexico’s state of Zacatecas watched nutrition students with Garden to Table’s “green chef” program demonstrate a quick and healthy dish of carrots and potatoes cooked on portable burners. They omitted the lard Ramirez is accustomed to using.
In the last two years, the communal gardens have grown in number.
Urban planning students perusing GoogleMaps for locations zoomed in on one weedy lot with good sun exposure that was part of a complex of beige stucco bungalows half a mile from Monsur’s yard. When they visited, they found an eager participant.
A gardener for a county park, Jose Calderon grew up in a small village in Michoacan, Mexico, where his family farmed their own food. He had had his eye on the lot before Garden to Table got the landlord’s approval and brought in volunteer muscle to transform the space.
“They helped haul new soil in wheelbarrows,” said Calderon, 39, who now oversees the composting system. Around him were chilis, carrots and onions in raised beds cultivated by six families.
His own children, ages 5 and 12, sometimes spend so much time working the family plot that he has to drag them in after dark, he said. And the gang members who used to frequent the block have moved on.
Garden to Table now is poised to break off from CommUniverCity as a nonprofit, with Lewis at the helm, and in September will launch a commercial farm on a vacant lot. The goal: to raise enough money through the sale of market-rate herbs, heirloom produce, honey and eggs to wean the charitable portion of the organization off its grant funding. (CommUniverCity will continue with a complementary nutrition project.)
During a recent sustainability fair, Garden To Table’s team of residents and students spread the word.
“Do you have a fruit tree at your house?” sociology senior Samuel Barba asked a couple in Spanish. When the answer was yes, a cherry, Barba inquired whether it was ready for picking.
Barba handed the pair a form so they could add their tree to a list of 2,300 others close to campus. Nearby, a resident invited visitors to sniff some freshly picked oregano, romero (rosemary) andestafiate (sage).
Barba, who at 47 is looking to switch careers from maintenance to social service, had helped with gleaning, mapping and the making of marmalade. The experience, he said, was “an eye opener. Why are you picking it? You’re picking it for the people who need it.”