East Bay urban farm helps foster youths find purpose, community

Transitioning foster youths work in new John Muir Land Trust farm in western Pittsburg

Yahel Moreno didn’t consider himself an outdoors type of person.

But last week, there he was picking Napa cabbages at a small urban farm in Pittsburg and, along with several other youths, happily making kimchi, a traditional Korean side dish.

Having spent most of his high school years living inside a car with his mother and sister and one year in foster care, Moreno never had the opportunity to plant a garden. So when a therapist referred him to the new Pittsburg John Muir Land Trust Family Harvest Farm for a job, he jumped at the chance.

“This was completely out of my comfort zone — I’m not an outside person — but I wanted to try something new.”

The field was barren last spring when he joined a small group of farm apprentices and began the hard labor of preparing vegetable beds in the 3.5-acre organic farm, situated beneath PG&E transmission lines and between residential subdivisions.

“I wasn’t used to it at the time and I was super sore and tired, but it felt good and I enjoyed working here,” he said Thursday. “Then yesterday we were picking cabbage where last year nothing was growing and it was a kind of surreal moment. It was ‘wow, we did this.’ It was satisfying to see these huge cabbages that we grew and see that all the hard work paid off.”

Moreno is one of seven apprentices who harvest vegetables and herbs in the John Muir Land Trust’s urban farm. which employs transitional-aged foster youths 18 to 24 years and teaches them about farming, nutrition, work and life skills while nurturing the environment.

The farm was the brainchild of master gardener and John Muir Land Trust board member Jack Cortis, whose daughter was fostering infants at the time, including one who became his granddaughter. He and fellow master gardener Kim Overaa would go on to co-found the farm.

“I didn’t know much about the foster system, but I started researching and I saw this gap when these young people age out and we kind of just drop them,” he said. “Many of them have no support system at all.”

Cortis said foster youths often have difficulty integrating into society.

“They are adults, but we just want to help them find a place in the world, give them a sense that they can make a positive contribution,” he said. “We are just trying to give them a foundation.”

Cortis and Overaa floated the idea several years ago to Linus Eukel, John Muir Land Trust’s executive director, and he was immediately sold on it. Though the nonprofit is mostly known for preserving wildlife habitat and rural land, the directors also wanted to expand into some urban areas to reach a different population, he said.

Partners include PG&E, which donated the license agreement on an unusable but flat plot of land off Power Avenue near Highway 4, and John Muir Community Health Fund, which provided money, supplies and consultant help.

Launching the farm program cost more than $1 million, Cortis said. Of that, an estimated $130,000 was spent on connection fees and laying pipes to bring water to the site.

The Lamorinda Sunrise Rotary also helped, providing two shipping containers for storage and a greenhouse, while the Kiwanis Club of Moraga Valley helped build the fence. Added last week was a pole building, or “family room,” which the Lafayette Suburban Junior Women’s Club donated to serve as a kitchen, classroom and shelter for the apprentices, staff and volunteers.

Other collaborators included Uplift Family Services and First Place For Youth, both of Concord; Foster; Contra Costa County Children and Family Services Independent Living Skills Program; and Youth Homes Inc. of Pleasant Hill, all of which provide referrals for apprenticeships.

The apprentices, who are paid between $14 and $15.50 an hour, commit to six months and sometimes can extend that to a year, Cortis said. They, along with some volunteers, prepare the soil, build the beds, plant and harvest vegetables, all while learning about horticulture, nutrition and other related subjects during weekly on-site classes.

Mary Cherry, the farm manager and herself once a foster youth, said garden work “provides therapy for everyone.”

Cherry got her first taste of horticulture at age 23 when she took a job with a Santa Cruz homeless garden project.

“I knew nothing about gardening but I found it so healing and empowering, the idea of being able to grow my own food and take power over it and what I eat,” she said.

Working with others in the garden also helped build community, she said. “It was my chosen family for the first time in my life.”

“It gives me so much joy,” she said. “Some of them don’t have community outside of this.”

The group is utilizing regenerative farming practices that reduce carbon emissions while increasing biodiversity. Instead of tilling the soil, they add compost nutrients and cover crops, Cherry said.

The novice farmers are still testing crops, but so far they’ve grown corn, carrots, Romanesco and regular broccoli, beats, onions, shallots, two kinds of cabbage, garlic and collards greens. Herbs are planted in an “herbal spiral,” allowing them to grow a wide range in a small area with different moisture and light levels. Flowers will be added in the spring and a chicken coop is also planned.

And since the garden is located in a USDA-designated food desert — a neighborhood that lacks healthy food sources — Cherry hopes to grow enough in the future to provide some food to the community.

For now, the apprentices make salads from their produce for lunch while Loaves and Fishes provides additional foods.

Gabriel Vasquez, 22, of Concord, said he loves the program so much he makes the 90-minute commute by BART and bus from Concord or sometimes take Uber to work the farm.

In and out of foster care since he was 3 years old, the apprentice said it’s been satisfying to see the farm built and to learn about new foods.

“Since the beginning, I have converted a lot to healthy eating,” Vasquez said, noting the students are sometimes allowed to take leftover produce home. “Before, I ate mostly heavy meats and fattening foods.”

Sequoia Foster, 24, of Richmond, is one of the few participants who already had some gardening experience.

“I enjoy the outdoors and nature and am pretty used to hard labor,” the psychology student and former foster youth said.

“… To me, it’s important while I am on this Earth to do things that are very effective and that the generation afterward can enjoy.” she said. “Everything here is done in a very beneficial way to the environment and that is the way it should be done.”

For Moreno, the benefits are more basic.

“It’s exercise,” he said. “It gets me out of the house, and all of the stressful stuff in my life just goes away while I’m here.”

More about Family Harvest Farm