La Mesa Verde Gardeners Growing Community

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Debbie Cullati Meza

Like a flourishing vine extending outward, Debbie Cullati Meza’s tender loving care for two raised beds full of delicious and healthy vegetables goes beyond her back yard into her surrounding San Jose neighborhood.

Meza, a.k.a. the “Urban Garden Diva”, is a volunteer for La Mesa Verde, an urban gardening program at Sacred Heart Community Services, located in the Washington-Alma area. When she signed up to plant and tend the beds in her own yard, she jumped in to help grow the program for the entire neighborhood.

She writes a blog at urbangardendiva.blogspot.com, chronicling her experience tending the beds in her yard, has a Facebook page, and helps La Mesa Verde Program Manager Malin Ramirez in numerous other ways.

“It’s been incredible,” Meza said.  “This gardening has been a really important way for me to reconnect with people and for healing…it’s therapeutic and satisfying, plus now I’ve connected with a bunch of people.”

On Spring Planting Day back in April, after Meza received all the materials to create her new garden, she volunteered herself and her husband and son to help with more deliveries. They dropped off supplies and met with 14 other families that same day.

After a successful season with her own beds, she was excited for Fall Planting Day on Saturday, Sept. 29. And just as she had in spring, Meza was busy volunteering again, this time in the kitchen at Sacred Heart’s headquarters making coffee for more than 100 people.

The festive event included planting demonstrations in English and Spanish, testimonials from participants, and a time for families to pick up seedlings of broccoli, lettuce, peas, and other cool season crops to take home to their backyard gardens.

Greening Food Deserts

Three years ago Sacred Heart launched La Mesa Verde, investing in the notion that helping low income families grow their own healthy food would help overcome problems of hunger, food insecurity, “food deserts”, a term for urban areas where residents do not have access to fresh food from local markets, and “junk food swamps,” meaning neighborhoods overrun by fast food eateries, and not much else.

“A lot of the families have health issues, that’s the reason they come into this program, they want their kids to eat healthier, (to avoid) obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure,” Ramirez said. “People come here because they want to change, they know they have to change, but they need the support, they know they can’t do it by themselves, and La Mesa Verde provides the support for transitioning to a healthy lifestyle.”

The idea was enthusiastically embraced by many in San Jose, including the Master Gardener program of the University of California Extension, which stepped in as mentors to guide families in setting up and growing the gardens.

Poncho Guevara, Sacred Heart’s executive director, said the organization launched La Mesa Verde in part to, “bring people together, people that have skills, like the Master Gardeners, people who want to contribute in helping some of the families to be able to develop some of the skills sets, so they can provide this healthy organic food for themselves, and then produce enough they can share with their neighbors and their families.”

In the last three years, more than 300 families from throughout San Jose have participated, receiving materials to build one or two wood raised beds and a drip mist system, along with soil, and seedlings. They also attend gardening classes taught by the Master Gardeners.

Ramirez said many families have seen encouraging results in improving the health of family members since growing their own gardens. She has seen people lose weight, and “do a total 180 in their health.”

Filling in Holes

Although the program has enjoyed success, La Mesa Verde had some “holes” that Ramirez, who took over as program manager in

La Mesa Verde Program Director Malin Ramirez

February, is working to fill.

On big hole was a language and cultural gap between volunteer mentors and the participating families. The program serves a diverse population, but a majority of the families speak Spanish, a skill lacking in most mentors. Ramirez estimated that only about 30 percent of the families have one-on-one mentorship.

Ramirez is looking for bilingual and bicultural volunteers to join the program, however she is also working on building up the leadership skills of some of the original La Mesa Verde families, so that they can in turn become mentors to new participants.

Calling them “Promotores Verdes”, or “Green Promoters”, the graduates of the program will lead workshops in nutrition and gardening, as well as actively recruit and perform outreach for La Mesa Verde.

Who better to promote the program than “a family that got the garden, was transformed and changed? It’s so much more powerful,” Ramirez said.

Shifting Focus to Grow Community

La Mesa Verde is also shifting its focus from reaching out to all of San Jose as a service-oriented program, to concentrating on building a strong and sustainable community within the neighborhoods directly surrounding Sacred Heart, Ramirez said.

“I think we did a really good job first two years of focusing on being sustainable gardeners, now I want them to become sustainable communities,” she said.

In addition to encouraging neighbors to help each other with gardening, she envisions neighbors working together on things like water recycling, raising chickens, and bee keeping.

Both Guevara and Ramirez said that as the families become more involved in growing their own food, they are raising larger questions about food availability in the community.

“Families are starting to ask, ‘why don’t we have healthy food in our neighborhood?'”, Guevara said. The two expect more La Mesa Verde families will become increasingly involved in advocacy and policy issues.

In the meantime, they see a flourishing community growing from the family gardeners themselves.

“It’s the families themselves that are actually working together, coming together and supporting each other, so its growing in ways that we never thought,” Guevara said. “It’s planting the seeds of change in our community, its becoming a really vibrant, growing network of families.”

La Mesa Verde is always looking for skilled volunteers, especially those who speak Spanish. Donations are also welcomed to keep the program growing. Visit the Sacred Heart Community Services website to learn more.

Master Gardener Connie Cavanaugh shows families how to plant fall vegetables during a demonstration at Sacred Heart Community Services.

Marta Barahona shows off the tomato she grew in her garden.

Harvest decorations surround an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe at the Fall Planting Day festivities.