In September 2013, California passed Assembly Bill 551 (AB551), Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones (UAIZ), which allows cities and counties within the state to incentivize land owners to donate vacant or undeveloped land for urban agriculture use over a five-year period, according to information from the Los Angeles Department of Regional Planning. Land owners who participate will receive reduced property tax assessments in exchange for this allowance.
The requirements to participate include parcels between 0.10 and 3 acres, a minimum contract of five years, complete use of the land for agriculture purposes, and no prior physical structures existing on the property. Many California communities have already passed or are in the process of approving the ordinance including San Francisco, San Diego, Long Beach, San Jose, and Sacramento; however, only a couple of contracts have been processed in those areas combined.
The ordinance has already passed through Los Angeles County, but this motion only applies to unincorporated areas. The incorporated city of Los Angeles is currently in the process of approving the ordinance, according to Iesha Siler, a policy associate for the Los Angeles Food Policy Council (LAFPC).
An urban farming project in West Sacramento, California, aims to fill the area’s food deserts with fresh produce and create new farmers in the process.
Founded in 2014, the West Sacramento Urban Farm Program is an initiative of the agricultural education nonprofit Center for Land-Based Learning, headquartered in Winters, California. The program converts vacant lots in urban West Sacramento neighborhoods to increase food access, and support production of fresh fruits and vegetables.
“We’re growing about 25,000 to 30,000 pounds of produce a month, so it’s definitely a significant amount of produce that all stays within West Sacramento for the most part,” program founder Sara Bernal says.
A mutual passion for gardening and supporting underserved communities were the motivations behind the conception of Farm LA, a Los Angeles-based non-profit organization geared toward converting dilapidated and underutilized parcels of land for urban farming.
Emily Gleicher, a freelance producer for design and animation projects, and Jason Wood, a former commercial diver who now works as an electrician and framer in construction, founded Farm LA after a non-traditional gift sparked their interests.
“For Valentine’s Day, Jay found these lima bean plants at CVS that sprout out and say ‘I Love You,’” says Gleicher. “We had already become very passionate about gardening… so the lima beans took off, and we all of a sudden had lima bean plants all over our house. That is where our love for gardening and lima beans started.”Soon after, the young couple started looking at properties around Los Angeles for fun in the event they decided to build a small house somewhere.
On Nov. 10-11 hundreds of attendees from across Southern California and beyond showed up for the inaugural Grow Local OC Conference: The Future of Urban Food Systems held Nov. 10-11 in Orange County, CA at California State University, Fullerton to learn more about the community and economic development potential of fostering local food systems in cities.
The conference attendees were treated to lectures from the foremost urban farming experts, entrepreneurs, and community advocates in the sustainable and local food system space. Topics explored by the speakers and panelists included the role that food plays in bridging the rural urban divide,
In Los Angeles, CA, community members involved in the urban farming and food justice movements are keenly aware of the food insecurity that is so prevalent in its South Los Angeles neighborhoods. It was this insufficient access to healthy, nutritious food that spurred Florence Nishida to co-found LA Green Grounds, a volunteer organization that works with residents of South L.A. to convert their front lawns and parkways into edible landscapes and urban farms.
“If you have a garden in the front yard it leads to conversation, and that’s the most important thing,” says Nishida. “The minute you start growing squash, tomatoes, or something people have never seen before, they start asking questions, and that starts the conversation. Those conversations lead to a sense of community.”
Making vegetables a visible part of the community is what has guided LA Green Grounds ever since its founding in 2010.
When it comes to Controlled Environment Agriculture [CEA], Valerie Loew wants the U.S. to catch up with Europe and China before it’s too late.
“The rest of the world is so far ahead of us, because they are so limited with their own resources,” says Loew, who is professor and horticulture department head at Fullerton College in Southern California. “They are taking advantage of this technology way before us because we have sunshine and we have water; but we really don’t. Between Europe and China, the amount of greenhouses they have is just off the charts. We need to start catching up.”
One of the largest diocese in the nation, the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles has made food justice a top priority. In 2013, it created Seeds of Hope, a food justice ministry that “provides universal and affordable access to basic nutrition,” says Seeds of Hope Executive Director, Tim Alderson. “In the six California counties that make up the Diocese of Los Angeles, that condition does not exist. Our job is to do what we can to address these issues.”
The idea for Seeds of Hope was conceived when Bishop Jon Bruno was diagnosed with leukemia and admitted for his final treatment at City of Hope. Though not his patient, he met endocrinologist Raynald Samoa, M.D. who was covering rounds. The two men spent over two hours talking about food related illnesses, food access issues and disparities of food health in communites. Dr. Samoa also knew Alderson, who was working on a farm project for City of Hope.
Marking the most recent victory in a growing nationwide movement to promote the legality of seed libraries, The Seed Exchange Democracy Act (Assembly Bill 1810) was signed into law in California on September 9, 2016. The bill amends the “seed law” chapter of the state’s Food and Agricultural Code to expressly exempt seed libraries from onerous seed testing and labeling requirements. While necessary to protect buyers and consumers of commercial seeds, the impracticality of these requirements for community seed libraries would effectively cause them to shutter. California follows Minnesota, Nebraska and Illinois as the fourth state in the last 18 months to adopt laws favorable to seed sharing libraries.
Neil Thapar, a food and farm attorney at the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) in Oakland, California who helped launch and draft the bill, explained how seed libraries work. “Seed libraries are essentially community-based initiatives where people can borrow seeds, plant them, and at the end of the season take back some seeds to replenish the seed stock at the library for other people to borrow.” He continues, “There really isn’t any ownership over those seeds. They’re held and stewarded by the library, but they’re shared freely throughout the community.”
David King grew up in Kansas where, despite being very poor, his family ate very well because they grew their own food on his grandfather’s three acres. This was where David got his first taste of seed saving.
As founder and chair of the Seed Library of Los Angeles (SLOLA), David’s been committed to teaching others how to save seeds. He says he was spurred into action to start the library in 2010, when the Obama administration approved GMO sugar beets.
“It was just too much,” he says. “I lost it.”
So on a cold, drizzly day in December of 2010, he held the first meeting of SLOLA. About 45 people showed up, more than he had expected, and 15 of the people who attended that first meeting are still active members today. As stated on their website, SLOLA was founded with the idea of enabling all who live in the Los Angeles area to have access to nutritious, pesticide-free, non-GMO food.
Only a bird’s eye view truly reveals the extent of Los Angeles’s urban sprawl; a city crossed by ribbons of highways supporting unending streams of cars, where even its river is mostly encased in concrete. It’s hard to imagine that this was once a fertile place of such abundance that its name conjured up images of vineyards, orange groves and orchards; in which neighborhoods were better known for their celery than their celebrities. A timely new book, From Cows to Concrete: the Rise and Fall of Farming in Los Angeles, by Rachel Surls and Judith Gerber explores Los Angeles’s past as the agricultural center of North America, tracing its precipitous path as it developed into a concrete metropolis. It’s a cautionary tale that also offers hope for the future in the form of the burgeoning urban farm movement and a renewed interest in community and backyard gardening.
Seedstock recently spoke to co-author, Rachel Surls, Sustainable Food Systems Advisor at the University of California where her job includes overseeing a volunteer program of 300 trained master gardeners who teach local communities sustainable gardening.