North Richmond garden project nourishes bodies and spirits

Workers and volunteers build a garden in North Richmond

Photos by Robert Rogers

Hope and life are springing up in North Richmond with an ambitious plan to create a host of community gardens.

Organizers hope to use grant funding to create about 10 community gardens over the next two years.

They say producing fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs in a neighborhood where both whole foods and natural spaces are scarce could be a powerful force for improvement.

Iyalode Kinney at the North Richmond garden she helped create.

Iyalode Kinney, 62, is the director of the community garden project.

“This is a community of color, one that has had poverty and neglect weighing on its collective conscience for decades,” said Iyalode Kinney, a director for Communities United Restoring Mother Earth and the project manager for the North Richmond Lot of Crops project. “This lifts the community in so many ways.”

CURME is a nonprofit urban gardening project based in Richmond, and the North Richmond effort has been underway for several months.

On Third Street just north of Grove Avenue last week, about a dozen administrators, volunteers and local workers tilled several hundred pounds of fresh soil. They used the soil to enrich the wooden planters that contain a variety of crops, including kale, collard and mustard greens, cabbage, turnips, peppers and a number of healthful herbs and edible flowers.

Kinney said the garden can provide both low-cost produce in an area largely without and opportunities for education and healthy living.

“We will soon begin holding little community classes out here in the gardens,” Kinney said. “To open people up to the health benefits of the natural plants growing out here and cooking ideas.”

Unincorporated North Richmond is the poorest community per capita community in Contra Costa County. The roughly one-mile square area has no grocery stores or restaurants.

Residents who wish to buy fresh produce and other groceries must travel to San Pablo or Richmond proper.

Organizers say the community garden project, which relies on private property owners who essentially lend the use of their vacant lots lands for the gardens, is a key step toward building community pride in an area long maligned by violent crime.

“The way North Richmond has been depicted has served to drag the people here down,” said Saleem Bey, co-director of the project. “This is really building a sense of pride and excitement. People drive by and cheer us on.”

The Lot of Crops project was given life in part with money from a much less healthy enterprise. The nearby West Contra Costa County landfill pays annually into a mitigation fund, which is to be used in the community to offset the effects of the landfill’s pollution.

The community garden project was awarded $56,000 in 2010 and $100,000 from the mitigation fund this year, Kinney said, money that pays for materials, transportation, administration and, perhaps most importantly, jobs for young workers in a community that has for decades had virtually no labor market.

Ervin Coley washes his hands after working on the North Richmond community garden.

Ervin Coley, 21, is one of five young locals employed as a garden worker.

Five young adults were hired Jan. 10 on five-month-long contracts to build and maintain the gardens, Kinney said. Work is also occurring on a vacant lot on Vernon Street, and the hope is that as many as 10 gardens may be in some stage of development by the end of the year.

One of those employed with the grant money is Ervin Coley, 21, a soft-spoken man who sheepishly admits he loves to smell the different leaves and flowers.

“My father loves that I am learning and helping on this project,” Coley said. “In his eyes, it’s amazing that I have a job in my own community.”

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