UC Cooperative Extension takes community gardening to a new level in Riverside

For low-income Californians who can’t afford fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables, the suggestion to just grow their own is well-meaning, but overly simplistic, advice.

UC Cooperative Extension in Riverside County brings together students, agencies, nutrition educators and gardening experts to work alongside families to grow produce in garden plots at a community facility.

“A lot of people don’t know how to start gardening,” said Chutima Ganthavorn, nutrition, family and consumer science advisor for UCCE and manager of its local UC CalFresh nutrition education program. “Gardening takes space, water, resources like seeds and transplants, and advice and support. Our group goes the extra mile in Riverside County to help people grow and eat healthy food.

This year, the local coalition received $10,000 in support of the Kaiser Permanente Heal Zone project to expand a vegetable garden at the Community Settlement Association (CSA), a center where community members gather for nutrition classes UC CalFresh, weekly food distributions and other services.

“A few years ago, Community Settlement Association garden plots were neglected and overgrown with weeds, while families struggled to get healthy food,” Ganthavorn said. “UC CalFresh has partnered with UCCE Master Gardeners and CSA staff to turn them into lush and beautiful edible gardens. Now our coalition is growing to include members from the UCR Community Garden and Healing Zone, including people from the City of Riverside Parks and Rec and the Riverside Community Health Foundation.

In 2014, UC Master Gardener volunteers, nutrition educators, and community members planted vegetables in five existing planters at the Community Settlement Association, 4366 Bermuda Ave. at Riverside.

For planting day, neighborhood families — many of whom had attended UC CalFresh nutrition classes at CSA — plowed the ground and planted seeds and transplants to grow tomatoes, peppers, summer squash , lettuce, green beans and Swiss chard.

“We are planting a garden for children,” said Gonzalo Rodriguez, who joined the planting day with his family. “We are planting transplants and seeds of chilli and tomato, foods that will provide vegetables and give children the joy of caring for plants.

In 2015, UC CalFresh received a $500 grant from Wood Streets Green Team, a local group that promotes sustainable living, to purchase fruit trees. Master gardeners led volunteers to plant blackberry bushes, peach trees, pluot trees, nectarine trees, plum trees, fuji apple trees and mini mandarins. They also planted quince, pomegranate, lemon and lime trees donated by a master gardener.

With funding from Heal Zone and support from UC Riverside student Claudia Villegas, a Global Food Initiative scholarship recipient from the UC President’s Office, a sprawling garden has begun to take shape.

Villegas recruited students from Sigma Alpha Epsilon and Phi Chi Theta fraternities to transform a lawn at the community center with raised cinderblock beds. She coordinates training sessions and encourages local families to visit.

“I want the community to feel comfortable coming to the garden,” said Villegas, a psychology major. “I want them to come in, hang out, interact and talk about gardening issues.”

The raised plots were allocated to families in the community.

“They feel like they own and maintain the gardens,” Ganthavorn said. “They can keep the produce they grow, and any additional produce goes to CSA’s weekly food distribution program.”

A gardening club now meets from 9 to 10 a.m. on the first Thursday of each month at the community garden. UC Cooperative Extension coordinates gardening workshops with UC Master Gardener volunteers and nutrition and cooking sessions with UC CalFresh educators.

A 4-H club for children in the community is also being developed at the CSA site by Claudia Diaz Carrasco, UCCE’s 4-H Youth Development Advisor. The purpose of 4-H clubs is to help young people from diverse backgrounds discover and develop their potential and become competent, contributing and caring citizens.

“We believe the children of CSA will benefit a lot by participating in 4-H learn-by-doing activities within the club,” Diaz said. 4-H clubs typically meet in the evenings or on weekends and offer multiple self-chosen learning experiences.