Richmond farms such as AdamsCrest provide nourishment for bodies and minds

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Rudy Lozito walks the perimeter of AdamsCrest farm and surveys his work. As the site’s project manager, he can explain each square foot, from the fennel taking over the hillside to the herbs and flowers planted at the end of each crop row, which produce scents that deter parasitic insects and attract beneficial ones.

This East Richmond Heights land was adopted in 2008 by Urban Tilth, a local agricultural nonprofit, and when the adjacent Adams Middle School closed a year later, Urban Tilth started working to expand the farm to its current size, now a considerably large 40,000 square feet.

Lozito circles the tract and reflects on each plant’s progress: The tomatoes didn’t do as well as expected, the kale and collard greens weren’t ready for the excessive Labor Day weekend heat, and he calls the fruitless olive trees “decorative.”

“It’s pretty stressful,” Lozito said of caring for an entire farm. He knew almost nothing about farming when Urban Tilth hired him as an apprentice nearly five years ago. “Everything is a learning experience.”

Each third Saturday, Lozito and the Urban Tilth team at AdamsCrest invite the community to work on the farm. The events are fun exercise for some. For others, they are a key source of healthy food in a city that only has six full service grocers for more than 100,000 residents. And for many dedicated volunteers and staff, these days are a source of mental and emotional health, as well.

As Lozito continues his tour, Bruno Lara, his second-in-command, is snacking on a tangerine he plucked from a nearby tree. The peel’s citrus-y zest is fragrant even from several feet away. Despite the bounty surrounding Lara, Lozito, and Diana Leal, the AdamsCrest farm apprentice, access to healthy food is a major obstacle for many in Richmond.

Approximately a third of the city’s residents reside in “critical food access areas.” This is a term the nonprofit Social Compact used in its research on food access in Richmond to describe areas that are underserved in terms of proximity to healthy, affordable food, compared to the rest of the community.

Growing an abundance of fresh, local, healthy food is just one piece of the puzzle to solving Richmond’s food problems. The next step is the row of stacked gray plastic boxes, which sit on the edge of the AdamsCrest lot, waiting to be filled with fresh fruit and vegetables, which will be delivered to members of Urban Tilth’s year-old community-supported agriculture (CSA) program.

Through the CSA program, Urban Tilth partners with other local farms to package boxes of produce for Richmond residents who want access to produce. Revenue from the boxes helps the nonprofit continue producing them and reinvest in education and employment.

Since its beginnings in 2005, Urban Tilth has always held small farm stands, according to executive director Doria Robinson. But early on, the organization encountered problems getting healthy food to the community.

They tried giving it away to soup kitchens, food banks, and senior centers. But they found that those organizations would often just compost the food if it wasn’t on their menu, Robinson said.

“It wasn’t a question of demand, it was a question of distribution,” she said. “The people who wanted or needed food didn’t know how or where to get in touch with us, and we didn’t know how to get to them.”

After a painstaking permitting process, late last year the CSA program welcomed its first members: 20 families that Robinson described as hardcore Urban Tilth supporters.

“People who would be really forgiving if we screwed up,” she said while chuckling.

Because cost is a major reason many in Richmond don’t have healthy food, some families pay more so that others can pay less, Robinson said. The boxes are worth $20, but for every two families that pay $5 extra — there are 50 that do so — one low-income family can get a box for just $10.

Now, the program membership is up to 98 families, and Robinson hopes they can reach 200 by the end of next year. AdamsCrest is Urban Tilth’s main production site for the boxes.

Those ambitions will keep the young farmhands busy. but even without extra hours and training, Urban Tilth employees have other reasons to keep farming.

“Promoting what you can do with the land and the earth can be a revolutionary act for people, because they ground themselves and reconnect with the earth,” said Eddy Chacon, who helps run Urban Tilth’s education programs at Richmond High School.

The CSA program likewise has meaning beyond nutrition, Robinson said. Members connect over everything from recipes to kitchen mishaps.

“Somebody accidentally microwaved a melon cause they thought it was a squash,” she said, adding that this member wasn’t the only one to make that mistake.

Back at AdamsCrest, Lozito, the other staff, and guests munch on homemade guacamole. “I feel like we’re super disconnected. I feel like that’s the cause of a lot of problems, we do not have enough connection, which leads to lack of empathy.”

On the farm, Lozito not only helps the community gain access to low-cost, healthy food, but he also nourishes his own body and mind. It seems that disconnection is the least of his problems. That fennel on the AdamsCrest hillside, however, is another story.

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