Spiral Gardens Helps Needy Feed Themselves

by Sarah Henry on July 30, 2010 · 34 comments

in berkeley bites,civil eats,community gardens,farmers' markets,food politics,food security

Just around the corner and down the street from where I live on a stretch that includes liquor stores and the dodgy characters who frequent such places, you’ll find Spiral Gardens, a slightly disheveled verdant oasis on a fenced in corner of a formerly empty city lot.

It’s a welcome addition to the neighborhood. For the past six years in this location, the community food security project has developed a four-pronged approach to reaching low-income residents, particularly people of color, on the southwest side of Berkeley. The nonprofit is home to a nursery chock full of edible starts and trees, culinary and medicinal herbs, and California native plants for folks who want to grow their own food. Nursery sales help fund other programs the group offers.

Across the street the urban garden center’s community farm is full of summer bounty, such as tomatoes, greens, and amaranth, in one large collective plot that everyone works on together. Around half the harvest is given free to people in need, such as the homeless and elderly, the remainder is distributed among the volunteers who help the garden grow. There’s a pen with chickens and ducks too.

The organization runs the cheapest produce stand in town; every Tuesday afternoon it offers organic greens, fruit, eggs (supplied by a local jewelry store owner who raises hens), and such from the usual farmers’ market suspects at cost. Note to local readers: The stand serves all comers and appreciates those of means rounding up or kicking in a little extra to support the program.

And on Sundays the nursery-garden provides ongoing free farm classes, such as how to grow food in an urban setting, cooking produce from the garden, and beekeeping for beginners.

Daniel Miller has served as the executive director of this worthy edible experiment for 16 years. It is largely a labor of love. Miller is only paid a few months of the year, he supplements long days at Spiral Gardens with edible landscaping jobs and says he foregoes many standard accoutrements of modern life such as a home he can call his own, a car, and new clothes.

The 42-year-old father, whose Twitter handle describes him as “a gritty optimist dedicated to the compassionate reimagination of how we live,” resides in Oakland. We chatted at the nursery while Miller repotted plum trees.

1. Who are you trying to reach with this project?

We believe everyone has a right to fresh food that’s good for you. Studies show that in areas where people lack access to fresh produce, sometimes called food deserts, there’s a higher rate of negative health outcomes such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. On average, poor people of color live 10 years less than those who have access to such food. Our target audience is the poor and hungry.

2. What are some of the obstacles you run into trying to reach your target community?

There are many. We have to first let people in the community know we’re here. We find doing door knocks and leaving fliers an effective way to get the word out. We also educate people about why it’s important to eat farm fresh food. Some people automatically think that organic food is too white, chi-chi, and expensive.

3. Do you feel like you’re making a difference in the neighborhood?

I do.  The farm stand is a positive, wholesome  presence that attracts people. I’m convinced we’ve lengthened some people’s lives. I know we’ve put a lot of plants out there in this community that will provide food for years to come. And we fill a safe, social aspect in the area, we give people something positive to do. I’ve seen people who are homeless, drug abusers, mentally ill, or with other severe obstacles to overcome benefit from our produce and programs — even start growing their own food.

Even in seemingly small ways we have an impact: Our heirloom tomato starts have become the impulse buy down the street at Biofuel Oasis.

With the downturn in the economy all kinds of people are showing up at Spiral Gardens. People are really struggling and there’s an increased interest in growing and making your own food.

4. What are the rewards of this kind of work?

I’m proud that we exist. And that every day we’re doing something to help people eat well and grow food that has a positive impact on their health and environment. I think any time you can get people to interface with soil, which we all need for our survival, that’s a good thing. We have a dozen or so hardcore volunteers who water the plants, weed the farm, feed the animals, and generally keep everything going, though on a farm project day 50-100 people may show up to help. We’ve cultivated a great sense of community.

5. Are there any local food activists you admire?

The people who live at Fort Awesome, which is located not far from here. It’s a collective house with solar panels, graywater recycling, an urban farm with fruit trees and chickens. It’s across the street from my son’s school, sometimes when I drop him off I’ll see a wayward chicken crossing the street.

6.  What’s next for Spiral Gardens?

I’d like to see the nursery expand — it would be great if we could be a full-service, one-stop nursery, selling people their soil when they pick up their plants. I’d also like us to become completely self-sustaining. And it would be great to get paid for what we do. I want to offer more classes and serve more people in need. There’s always more we could do, it just takes resources.

This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside and was republished on Civil Eats.

You might also like:

Garden Teacher Kim Allen Offers Youth Space to Grow

Operation Frontline: Teaching the Needy to Cook

Dig It: Growing Greens, Creating Community, and Feeding Families

Grow Your Own Row

Farm Together Now

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{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Alexandra July 30, 2010 at 4:24 pm

Great interview! Thanks for focusing on this type of activity. When my daughter was growing up, she spent a summer working at a place called Dreampower Farm, in Weston, MA where dedicated folks grew vegetables for people in Boston who could not afford them. It is even better to have such an endeavor happening in the inner city. Hats off to Daniel Miller!
Alexandra´s last [type] ..An Evening on the Town


Sarah Henry July 30, 2010 at 4:31 pm

Thanks, Sandy. It’s great to know that gardens like this are sprouting all over–the more food we grow close to home the more likely we’ll reach folks in need.

And, of course, it’s better for both the local community and the global environment. A win-win all round, really.


MarthaAndMe July 30, 2010 at 4:45 pm

I love projects like this – they give me so much hope!


Sarah Henry July 30, 2010 at 6:03 pm

I know what you mean, M&Me.


Susan Johnston July 31, 2010 at 6:29 am

What a fascinating project! An old roommate of mine who studied landscape architecture got funding to study urban farming in your neck of the woods. I wonder if she visited Spiral Gardens? In any case, it sounds like a very worthwhile program.


Sarah Henry July 31, 2010 at 8:46 am

Maybe so, Susan, though truth be told, there are several urban farming projects in my neck of the woods, including City Slickers in Oakland, Ghost Town Farm, also in Oakland, and the subject of farmer-writer Novella Carpenter’s well-received memoir, Farm City, Green Faerie Farm in Berkeley, and the relative newbie in San Francisco, Hayes Valley Farm. Lots of others sprouting up as well.


Donna Hull July 31, 2010 at 6:39 am

What an amazing man and project. I never thought about having to convince people that fresh farm food is the best way to eat.
Donna Hull´s last [type] ..Saturday’s scene- Celebrating At The Great Wall of China


Sarah Henry July 31, 2010 at 8:00 am

If you don’t have access to fresh farm food, if all you know is packaged and processed foods, then food grown in a garden may seem unfamiliar to you. Sad, but true.

Given an opportunity to plant, tend, harvest, cook, and eat homegrown fruits and vegetables, though, and most people–kids and adults–are delighted to discover the pleasures of fresh farm food.


Sheryl July 31, 2010 at 6:45 am

Sarah; I continue to be impressed by everything and everyone you write about. What a wonderful, selfless man this is. He is helping so many people with his efforts.


Sarah Henry July 31, 2010 at 8:01 am

Yes, what a legacy, 16 years and counting. Talk about making a difference.


Dianne Jacob July 31, 2010 at 7:55 am

Thanks for giving a voice to someone under the radar who is doing worthwhile work. Like Oakland, Berkeley has many food deserts and not enough people working on it.

There must be a freelance piece in here somewhere, don’t you think?


Sarah Henry July 31, 2010 at 8:03 am

Thks, Dianne, who always has her editor’s hat on!

And yes, I don’t doubt there’s a story here for a wider audience. I’ll get right on it!

You might be interested to know that a couple of the foraging posts I wrote last year will form the basis of an upcoming magazine story. More soon.


The Writer's [Inner] Journey July 31, 2010 at 7:57 am

I love reading stories like these. It’s an inspiration on many levels, including for all of us to follow what is important to us.
The Writer’s [Inner] Journey´s last [type] ..The 5-Question Author Interview- Stephen Elliott


Sarah Henry July 31, 2010 at 8:06 am

I know what you mean, Meredith. My veggie box sat fallow this summer, as I couldn’t garden due to some health stuff. I’m determined to plant a fall crop. I just remember how good it felt when my son and I harvested ingredients from our own plot.


Christine@Origami Mommy July 31, 2010 at 3:53 pm

How wonderful. I think it’s especially interesting that one of the hurdles to reaching the poor is the reverse stigma of organic or fresh food as being too chi chi or white. Recently I posted this link on my FB profile: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128621057 about how eating nutritiously is so difficult when money is scarce. A friend mentioned a documentary, called People Like Us (which I haven’t seen but want to), which also talks about food, values, and social class and mentions how fraught food is with associations and emotion – people want to eat what they see others around them eating.
Christine@Origami Mommy´s last [type] ..Salsa summer


Sarah Henry August 3, 2010 at 7:00 am

Thanks for the link, Christine. You raise a lot of important points about food associations and how they can impact what we choose to eat. I want to see that film.


Alisa Bowman July 31, 2010 at 4:55 pm

What an awesome concept! I hope this idea spreads around.
Alisa Bowman´s last [type] ..40 Things I’ve Learned in 40 Years- Part 1


MyKidsEatSquid July 31, 2010 at 6:20 pm

There’s a farm in Denver that has a similar project going on–I can’t remember the name of it right now, but the farm brings low income families in to work on the farm and then they can take whatever food they need. When I visited a farm’s market today (in Ohio) I noticed a sign that said they accepted food stamps. It’s cool to see so many people working to make sure that everyone has access to good, fresh food. Thanks for sharing this.


Sarah Henry August 3, 2010 at 7:02 am

I’m noticing a lot more people using “food stamps” (not actually stamps these days) at my local farmers’ market. A sign of the times, for sure.


Stephanie - Wasabimon August 1, 2010 at 8:53 pm

I love that they give free farm classes! That’s really the crux of it, isn’t it? Teach a man to fish, and all that.
Stephanie – Wasabimon´s last [type] ..Revisiting My Favorite Lettuce Wrap Recipe


Sarah Henry August 3, 2010 at 7:02 am

Yes, exactly Stephanie. And apparently they’re well attended, so the classes are filling a need.


Jennifer Margulis August 2, 2010 at 11:49 am

This is so inspiring. I love reading stories about this. We all should have access to fresh, healthy, organic food. I’m glad these folks are making this happen!!
Jennifer Margulis´s last [type] ..BlogHer Yes! Conference Swag I’m Just Saying No Thank You…


Anna, The Lemon Lady August 2, 2010 at 8:36 pm

I love this story! I love the interview and Daniel’s answers are right on. Exactly what I believe in too. Anyone who plays in the garden, teaches and inspires others to grow their own food are the best of folks in my book. Imagine the life experience this neighborhood is receiving. So wonderful, that’s why I read your blog Sarah. Good day.


Sarah Henry August 3, 2010 at 7:04 am

Hi Anna, Nice to see you here. Spiral Gardens is very much in keeping with your philosophy of sharing seeds, seedlings, and knowledge with people in need.


Melanie Haiken August 3, 2010 at 1:58 am

I find it reassuring to read about scruffier, more hardscrabble gardens in addition to the big, lush, well-landscaped ones. A garden doesn’t have to look good to provide great food, as my own will attest! Also challenges and setbacks are how we learn.
Daniel seems to be keeping it real!


Sarah Henry August 3, 2010 at 7:04 am

Well said, Melanie.


Jesaka Long August 4, 2010 at 10:51 am

Thank you for this interview and sharing the story. Like so many of your readers, I found this incredibly inspiring. My hometown in Texas needs something like this–people there are usually struggling to make ends meet and fast food makes it easier to afford junk over fresh foods. I plan to share this with people who still live there!


Sarah Henry August 4, 2010 at 1:21 pm

Thanks, Jesaka. I don’t doubt that many communities across this country would benefit from having something like Spiral Gardens in their area.


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