Before there was the Gardens Project of NCO, there was a small group of volunteers meeting at the Ukiah Community Center to discuss ways to address a recommendation of the 1999 Mendocino County Hunger Task Force report – Community Gardens. Joining together, these volunteers worked with the City of Ukiah staff to find suitable land near low-income neighborhoods to develop a sustainable community garden. Upon seeing the power of bringing together low-income community members to advocate for access to the land in front of City Council, open the Cleveland Lane Community Garden to the greater community with pride, grow and share food in a community space, and feed their extended families and friends - the seed for a much greater endeavor was planted.
One of those original volunteers, Miles Gordon, approached North Coast Opportunities with the concept for the Gardens Project. Miles had not only witnessed the power of community organizing for the Cleveland Lane Community Garden, he had witnessed the causes of political uprisings in Mexico and Guatemala – people demanding access to land to grow food. Thus, the NCO Gardens Project was born with aim of empowering low-income people as stakeholders in their communities by not only having access to land to grow food, but being trained in leadership and community empowerment.
Officially launching in 2007, the Gardens Project of NCO set out to rapidly expand access to food through developing a diverse network of gardens: preschool, youth gardens, senior gardens, non-profit agency gardens, multi-generational and ethnic neighborhood gardens, low-income housing gardens, tribal gardens and church/faith-based gardens.
The first new gardens were supported by funding from First5 Mendocino to build the NCO Gardens Project organizational capacity, as well as numerous gardens for the Head Start and State Preschools in Mendocino County. In those first 2 years, 13 gardens were developed: 6 preschool gardens, 2 youth gardens, 1 soup kitchen garden, 1 church garden, 1 neighborhood garden, and 2 low-income apartment gardens for seniors and families. By 2010, the NCO Gardens Project had partnered with AmeriCorps VISTA and had 5 VISTA service members working throughout Mendocino County developing production and leadership trainings, facilitating the building of new gardens, and promoting and fundraising for the development of 18 more gardens by 2012.
As a beneficiary of the USDA Community Food Projects Grant in 2011, the NCO Gardens Project continued to build gardens, but added an intensive 11 month leadership program for 20 garden leaders in the Ukiah Valley, followed in 2013 with the training in Willits, and finishing the series in 2014 on the Coast. Leadership trainings became an essential sustainability tool for the gardens by building the capacity of the gardeners to manage their own gardens and support each other in dozens of gardens. This became the motto of the NCO Gardens Project: Our goal is to become obsolete and have a truly sustainable network of gardens that are self-empowered and knowledgeable.
The success of the NCO Gardens Project is not merely based on external grant funding, but by the countless hours and tens of thousands of dollars donated by community businesses and individuals. Most importantly, its success is based on the contributions of the gardeners, NCO’s staff, Executive Director Patty Bruder, founder Miles Gordon, Coordinators Stephanie Logsdon and Ava Ryan, and all of the AmeriCorps VISTA, HealthCorps, and FoodCorps members that have served over the years: Lucy Neely, Kelly Burwell, Cassie Dillman, Mason Giem, Belinda Judelman, Natalie Loots, Jessica Ruff, Katrina Hanson, Caitlin Morgan, Keegan Niland, Sarah Stowell, Ben Feldman, Arianna Chiechi, Jae Rodriguez, Sarah Marshall and Taylor Jamison.
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