Community gardens have been shown in research to raise property values in surrounding areas and reduce crime rates.
Hopeful of such positive outcomes and inspired by the emerging food justice movement, Ana Rasmussen has taken on a the brilliant goal of bringing more gardens to Watsonville.
“The most important word in community gardening is community. It’s really powerful,” said Rasmussen, the sparkly eyed, driven creator of the nonprofit Mesa Verde Gardens, which strives to bring “young children and organic food growing and thriving together.”
“My vision is to have it be a web of connected, interested parties in the community. I had an image of a bunch of individual stars—I’m one, the church is one, Second Harvest is one, the gardeners are each one—and we’re about to become a constellation.”
Second Harvest Food Bank has taken Rasmussen’s garden project under its wing, allowing her to reach out for grant funding under the food bank's 501(c)3 status.
Rasmussen left a 20-year career in social work to start the organization. Last year, she completed a six-month, live-in apprenticeship in ecological horticulture at the Center for AgroEcology and Sustainable Food Systems through UC Santa Cruz.
Just in time for Earth Day 2011, Rasmussen planted the last of 10 low-income preschool vegetable gardens in Watsonville. The first is located at , located behind .
“The little garden that we have—they really love it,” said Elma Caballero, an assistant teacher at Martinelli. “If they see anything growing, even if it’s not ready, they’ll take it out and eat it. They’re growing carrots and peas in cups so they can see how they will grow and take them home. They’re learning that plants need water, sunshine, dirt and lots of love.”
The children excitedly anticipate the sprouting of watermelon, pumpkin, pepper, tomato and flower seeds as the days grow longer.
The preschool garden project has been made possible by grant funding from the Pajaro Valley Community Health Trust, donations from the CLIF Bar Family Foundation, Stoneyfield Farm and Botanical Interests, which gave organic seeds. Without the collaboration and generosity of individuals and agencies, Rasmussen said the gardens wouldn’t be possible.
“My original interest in doing all of this was to have some impact on the diabetes epidemic in young children,” said Rasmussen. “Preschool gardens expose children to the idea of eating and growing produce. Then, I thought maybe I could have a larger community impact by helping people learn to grow their own food.”
The Martinelli Children’s Community Garden, Rassmussen’s first community garden project, will soon be planted on the land adjacent to All Saints'.
“My daughters are really excited for this project,” said Ruth Arango, mother of Lilia, 5, and Alondra, 9. “We aren’t able to garden where we live. The opportunity to be a part of this project came to us and we are really excited because it’s almost together now.”
Rasmussen noticed the land as she was developing the Martinelli preschool garden and asked if it was available. The church was supportive and one member, Diane Porter Cooley, even donated equipment, a tractor and her employee to prepare the soil.
“There’s room for 30 families to have a 12-by-16-foot. plot,” said Rasmussen. “Nine families have already paid their membership dues—$5 per month to pay for water. As far as I know, this is the first family garden, and the only one currently in Watsonville, so it’s pretty exciting.”
Rasmussen’s plans also includes a small education garden, which she will plant and maintain for the purpose of showing families how to do organic farming—how to do intensive planting, cover cropping and rotation planting.
“My big vision is many community gardens around Watsonville, so I’m looking to partner with others. At the Martinelli garden build, we were asking parents who were helping if they garden at their houses, and pretty much everyone we talked to didn’t have a place that they could grow food, even though lots of them work in agriculture.”
The community garden project is partly funded by $15,000 in grants from Driscoll’s and the Left Tilt Fund.
“It’s coming together; we’re going to be a constellation of sustainable food system change gardens in Watsonville,” said Rasmussen.
Families who would like to start a family garden as an Earth Day resolution, or individuals and organizations that want make donations or get involved, can contact Ana Rasmussen at 831-325-3560.