PITTSBURG — Heracio Harts grew up near the El Pueblo housing project, and now he’s come back to grow vegetables there.
Harts, known by most as “Ray,” stands on a 2-acre plot, thick with tall grass fed by recent rains. That rain has also added a layer of rust to an old baseball backstop he said he’ll tear out to make room for a community garden behind the El Pueblo main office. It’s a main component of the Healthy Hearts Institute, a nonprofit Harts started in 2014 to operate both a community garden and an urban farm to help pay for the enterprise. The urban farm, Harts said, would sell produce — to the school district or restaurants, for instance — to help pay for the garden. The Housing Authority will pay for the water.
Harts hopes that, on April 29, he and a dozen or so other people will be planting the first crops in this garden.
“I didn’t see this lot as where I’d end up, but I wanted to be back in the community,” he said. “I wanted to help people.”
Founded in 2014, Healthy Hearts Institute’s mission is to help improve the health and well-being of the residents of the El Pueblo, a community of 171 apartments and duplexes operated by the Housing Authority of the County of Contra Costa.
A large part of HHI’s mission is helping eliminate “food deserts” with few choices for healthy eating by transforming empty lots into community gardens and urban farms. On its raised-bed individual garden plots, El Pueblo residents will be able to grow the fruits and vegetables they want.
“The access issue is difficult to tackle when there aren’t supermarkets near where these people live; they end up eating what they can get at small, corner stores,” said Tracey Rattray, director of Health Services’ Community Wellness and Prevention Program, which partners with Harts’ program, as well as other similar groups. “There is a lot of need for it.”
Harts’ community service bent is in direct contrast to his teen and young adult years Harts he spent in and near El Pueblo, getting into various forms of trouble in a neighborhood for more wracked with crime in the 1980s than it is today. He spent 8½ years in prison after being convicted of voluntary manslaughter.
“I was knee deep in it,” said Harts, now 43. “I sold drugs, did other things … ”
But even before he got out of prison in March 2013, he was plotting his next move, and it involved farming and growing food. “I didn’t think anyone was going to have me, so I wanted to start my own business.”
HHI joins existing Contra Costa groups, including First Generation Farmers, a nonprofit community farm outside Brentwood near Knightsen, and Urban Tilth, which operates a small North Richmond urban farm and helps with several school gardens.
First Generation Farmers has, for the past three years, operated a 12-acre organic farm near Knightsen in rural eastern Contra Costa County. It brings its programs to area schools, and its produce (and recipes, including those veggies) to farmers markets from Pleasanton to Martinez to Brentwood. Alli Cecchini, founder and executive director of FGF, said the group also runs a produce booth along Delta Road at its farm, open (but not staffed) 24/7, where people can leave what they consider a fair price for produce.
Be it a 12-acre farm or a 2-acre garden plot, successful community growing operations have some common needs, Cecchini said.
“The people have to take ownership of their vegetables,” said Cecchini, who comes from a farming family. “They have to have input and they have to make it fun; make it a social thing as well as a food thing.”
That’s exactly how Aqeel Sabir sees the Pittsburg garden playing out. He lives in the area Harts expects the garden to serve, which goes several blocks beyond El Pueblo in all directions. He expects to be working one of the first 10 4-by-12-foot plots.
“This garden will produce unity — it will bring people together, even if it’s just for the vegetables,” Aqeel said.
As for physical activities beyond the gardening work, Harts said he wants to restore a running track that existed decades ago on the parcel, where people could walk and run around the gardening activities.
Harts is getting technical help from the University of California Master gardener’s program, and monetary help, including a $10,000 grant from the Los Medanos Community Healthcare District. He’ll seek others, he said. “We’re trying to get as much support for this as we can,” he said.
Healthy Hearts Institute also recently launched a new website (https://www.healthyhearts.co/).
Published at Mon, 13 Mar 2017 17:28:21 +0000