On Monday, volunteers and farm members will be collecting unharvested colorful leaves of Lacinato kale, Redbor kale, Bright Lights Swiss chard and purple cabbage at the Alma Backyard Farms at a local church and school location in Compton. The “gleaning party” is just part of the preparation for the first Los Angeles Feeding the 5000 event later in the week on May 4, culminating in a free feast made entirely from fresh produce and meant to highlight the global issue of food waste.
Alma Backyard Farms was started in 2013 by Richard D. Garcia and Erika L. Cuellar as a small, urban farm project. Inspired by the ideas and desires shared by juvenile offenders and prisoners, Garcia and Cuellar founded the farm as a means for these folks to transform their lives through farming. Through nature, members learn how to nurture, provide and give back to their communities — all while becoming self-sufficient. Recently I spoke with Cuellar and Garcia by phone as they tended their Compton garden location.
Where do you find the land to farm? Do you really farm in backyards?
Erika Cuellar: We started in backyards, but we’ve grown. We have a partnership with a transitional home in South L.A., and that particular home houses predominantly “lifers” — men who have served life sentences. We’ve basically transformed the outside of this home that houses 16 guys into an urban farm with a garden, chickens and about 20 fruit trees. It’s really about taking underutilized land and making it productive. We don’t farm acres of land; everything is urban, and they are small farms.
Our newest place, which is where we’re going to glean from for the Feeding the 5000 event, is in partnership with a school and church. They had a piece of land that was not utilized, and we transformed the space to grow food for people who are hungry.
It’s harvesting. It’s collecting unharvested produce from the field.
Our focus is on reconnecting people through their food and to each other. Waste stems from a lack of connectedness.
— Richard D. Garcia, executive director and co-founder, Alma Backyard Farms
Can you talk a little about food waste from the farm standpoint? When it comes to waste, we’re not just talking about the food itself, but everything that went into it — the water, energy, effort and land.
Richard Garcia: My answer would have to be partly philosophical. The way we grow food is based on relationships. You understand the relationship between not just the plant and the soil — but the relationship between the plant and its caretaker. We approach farming by way of understanding interdependence, how we all have to contribute to one another’s well-being. From that perspective, wastefulness is a result of disconnect. It’s unfortunate — waste happens because we’ve somehow given ourselves permission to be disconnected from each other. We don’t have a relationship, or even knowledge, of the soil, or even the effort it takes for someone to pick the fruit you see at the grocery store. We’re more interested in the product itself than the whole of the experience.
What surprises your members most about the farming experience?
Garcia: I think because we work primarily with people who have been incarcerated, we’re hoping to restore a sense of agency. For someone who’s been locked up for a long time, there’s a sense of powerlessness because you hold no keys. From a lengthy experience like that to a setting such as an urban farm, suddenly you’re the caretaker. You have custody of plant life, and that’s a shifting of the paradigm. And, in a sense, nothing goes to waste. When folks are able to give back to the communities that they’ve taken from, they’re contributing.
I think when we instill a sense of resourcefulness, you don’t want to be wasteful, even with your time. The thing about food waste is it’s only symptomatic of how wasteful we can be in the larger context. We want to drive home to our members that they are of value and have purpose. I know that may not sound like it has to do with food, but it’s all related.
Your website mentions that you teach families and children how to grow and cook meals. How important is the relationship between growing and cooking?
Cuellar: It goes right to the issue of waste and wasting time. Knowing how to grow, where your food is grown and doing that together is so important. We see farming and growing food as a means to unify families. Being able to do that is key with the individuals we work with, and we encourage their parents and children, even grandparents when available, to join in.
With our own team and members, we break bread together every day we work together. Sharing a meal is one of the better things we do during the day. We emphasize meals that are healthier and introduce a more nutritional aspect.
You make sure none of the food goes to waste. What restaurants or organizations do you partner with?
Cuellar: With restaurants, we work primarily with chefs who are interested in carrying out seasonal menus. Restaurants are one facet, along with organizations such as L.A. Kitchen, that transform the food into hot meals for people who are hungry. At the transitional home, the food benefits the residents as well as the surrounding community. At our Compton site, it directly impacts the community here: the schoolchildren, parishioners and church community.
Garcia: We’re also developing more and more of our own compost, so nothing ever really goes to waste. As we grow, I’d love to see us take up more food waste from restaurants and convert it to compost.
You’re looking at the whole food chain, from planting the seeds to decomposition and turning that back into nutritional soil after it has lived its life.