Food is Free Benicia Shares Bounty with Foodstand

By Heather Pierini, Food Forest Keeper and Food is Free Benicia

I grew up gardening. My grandparents grew a vast (to me) backyard garden with rows of peppers and tomatoes and onions and every other vegetable that I ignored because I didn’t like those as much. I would sit in the shade of the plants during the hot Central Valley summer and eat tomatoes fresh from the vine or peppers straight from the plant. The smell of hot soil, tomato leaves and humus; the sharp, sweet taste of warm vine-ripe tomatoes; the humidity of the garden are some of my most treasured memories.

My grandparents lived through the Great Depression. They were incapable of seeing anything go to waste. We made sauces and canned them. We made preserves and jams and jellies. We brined olives and ate them year round. My grandmother washed every container to come through her kitchen to reuse. Every plastic bag was washed and hung to dry on clips over the sink. To do any less was wasteful. But even with the help of grandchildren, there was inevitably too much for one family. This is where my favorite part of the summer came in.

Whenever someone walked by, my grandfather would chat with them over the fence. By the end of the conversation they would be loaded down with zucchini and tomatoes. If they were particularly nice, maybe even a jar of olives. I was graced to grow up seeing that a garden can be a gathering spot for a chat, a connection point for the neighborhood and a bounteous source of food for those who choose to share.

Now I am in the privileged position of having a large, south-facing, sun-drenched backyard with plenty of room to indulge in nostalgia and add my own twist. Several years ago I read about a garden stand with the slogan #foodisfree. I dug a little deeper and found the Food is Free Project based in Austin, Texas. From the website: “The Food is Free Project is a worldwide movement of people growing and sharing food freely. We encourage connecting with your neighbors by planting a front yard garden or sharing your harvest with a #foodisfree table.” This was the first time I had heard of people organizing how to share excess homegrown food but in a very organic, low-key way.

Heather’s Birds, Bees & Beyond garden

About five years ago, I started putting extra food on a toddler’s table at my sidewalk with a paper sign taped on that said #foodisfree. Fairly often someone would grab the food, but I was rarely there to chat or connect. Two years ago, I found a wonderful wooden display stand and decided to repurpose that as my “foodstand.” I added a chalkboard with a larger #foodisfree sign. More people came, and I got to chat with some of them.

This year has been different. I am struggling with health issues that keep me from my garden. In June I still put the garden stand up, hoping to fill it with produce that grows even without my help. Not much got put into the stand. In July I fell in the garden and ended up with a fracture in my leg. I was banished from the uneven ground of the garden and ended up sitting on my couch feeling sorry for myself. Then someone dropped off some squash and cucumbers. I was delighted. It was the most fun I’d had in days. There’s not much to be entertained by in the summer with a broken leg. I decided I would start a Facebook page for my food stand.

Food is Free Benicia was officially created! It turns out that a lovely woman, Barbara, who had enjoyed the food I shared in previous years, decided to drop off the produce. I put up some pictures and shared the link to several local groups and the page has taken off. Now the stand is fairly self-sustaining with dropoffs and pickups happening several times a day. I post what food is available, usage ideas and garden-related information. The Food is Free Benicia Facebook page now has over 200 followers. It has expanded from just produce to spices, herbs and canned goods. I met a lovely young woman interested in starting a #foodisfree stand at her apartment building. We got together and I shared some of the things I have learned and offered to help in any way. Food is Free Benicia Waterview is now open!

My leg is almost healed now and I am back in the garden with renewed energy due to the influx of visitors. My daughter helped me paint an old bench from the backyard and we moved it up by the stand. Now, when someone stops to grab an apple they can sit in the shade and enjoy the garden. I have had the chance to meet many of the garden visitors lately. One older gentleman, David, bikes past every day. I often see him stop, grab a few apples or pears, eat them and drop the cores in the compost bucket. Today I was heading out on an errand and guess who was resting on the bench? Yep, David. It turns out he bikes daily for exercise but often gets tired midway. Our stand offered a quick blood sugar boost and now a lovely spot to sit as well.

I am excited to share the foodstand with our community. It has given me much joy and happiness during a very difficult time. I can’t wait to see what the future has in store.

Food is Free Benicia Holds

Swapluck Garden Party

Food is Free Benicia will host its first Swapluck from 11 am-2 pm Sunday, Sept. 22.

Join others who are interested in sharing abundance for swapping and sharing seeds, plants, cuttings, food and whatever else you would like. No gathering is complete without food, so bring a dish to share. (You do not have to bring anything to participate.)

More details here

Heather Pierini is a food forest keeper through Sustainable Solano’s Benicia Sustainable Backyards program. Her garden, ‘Birds, Bees & Beyond,’ is on our annual tour of permaculture food forest gardens, and now home to Food is Free Benicia.

Help Students Build Skills While Building Your Resilient Community

By Allison Nagel, Workforce Development Manager

Volunteers work on a lawn conversion in Vallejo’s first Resilient Neighborhood

Sustainable Solano is entering an exciting new phase this school year with our latest area of focus — workforce development — which is creating new opportunities for students and Benicia residents.

This year, our Land and Water Caretakers program for high school students will launch at Liberty High School in Benicia. Students at Liberty High will have a chance in the coming months to listen to engaging speakers and attend field trips to some of our Benicia Sustainable Backyards to learn about permaculture and food forests and build interest in sustainable landscaping.

Then, starting in January, students who join the Land and Water Caretakers internship training will have the opportunity to learn about what goes into creating and maintaining sustainable landscapes, building life and leadership skills with a strong hands-on component.

We are able to offer this program in Benicia thanks to a generous stream of funding. The program fits into our long-term vision of creating a sustainability curriculum for youth that helps them think about the effects their actions have upon the environment and society and how that perspective fits into work in landscaping, water conservation, the food system and energy.

As the new workforce development manager, I am excited about where we are headed with this vision and what the creation of this year’s program will bring to students and the community. We are already in conversation about growing the program.

Students who successfully complete the Land and Water Caretakers program this spring in Benicia will have increased insight into how systems work, better understanding of a range of green careers and have employable skills in sustainable landscaping. They will be eligible for a summer Permaculture Design Course (PDC) free of charge and the chance to earn a weekly stipend for assisting with that course, building financial literacy along with new skills. Those who finish the summer PDC will have an internationally recognized certification.

One of the benefits of the Land and Water Caretakers program is it not only gives students new knowledge, but can also help to make Benicia neighborhoods more sustainable. As part of their hands-on lessons, students will create edible permaculture food forest gardens at local homes that are fed by rainwater capture and greywater systems. We’re looking for those homes now.

The Living and Learning demonstration food forest in Benicia

We’re hoping to find Benicia residents who want to change to a sustainable yard, moving away from water-hungry lawns and chemical fertilizers and pesticides. And we would like to find neighbors interested in creating something beyond a single sustainable yard — similar to our Resilient Neighborhoods communities in Vallejo that bring together several neighbors on the same street. Benicia properties will be selected for the Land and Water Caretakers program, which runs from January through April, and the PDC, which will be during the summer months. Property owners commit to the program as well as participating in future annual tours to let others see how sustainable landscaping techniques were incorporated into the garden.

If you’re a Benicia resident interested in this program, please fill out our Sustainable Landscaping Interest Form to find out if you might be a candidate. All forms should be submitted by Oct. 18 for consideration for this year’s program. Submissions after that date will be considered for future programs.

 

Mini Green New Deal for Benicia: Funding Will Make Education, Conservation Program a Reality

By Sustainable Solano

Sustainable Solano will launch a new program in Benicia that will bring sustainable landscaping training and skills to local landscape professionals and high school students while also helping Benicia residents turn their lawns into sustainable, waterwise food forest gardens in the coming years.

Significant funding provided for the Community Land & Water Caretaker Program is the result of three-party negotiations initiated by the Good Neighbor Steering Committee with Valero and the City of Benicia. The negotiations ended with adoption of a second amendment to the 2008 Settlement Agreement, which had been originally contracted between the GNSC and Valero over challenges the GNSC had posed to Valero’s submission of an addendum to the officially adopted environmental review of the Valero Improvement Project. The current amendment reallocated funds that had been previously distributed to other projects under the original agreement but were determined to be “nonperforming” as they had not been put to use as intended.

Alternatively, the GNSC proposed redistributing those funds to four worthy projects, which Valero and the city reviewed and finally approved. The chosen projects reflect water and energy saving aims that were terms of the settlement: $460,000 for an independent, Benicia Community Air Monitoring Program to be administered by a new nonprofit; $100,000 for Air Watch Bay Area, a public website capturing air monitoring data collected throughout the region; $450,000 for the city to create an Integrated Water Management Plan; and $440,000 for Sustainable Solano’s Community Land & Water Caretaker Program.

In late February, the Benicia City Council after long deliberation voted unanimously to approve the agreement as put forth by the GNSC and Valero — an agreement that will allow us to continue to grow the important work we do in the city where we first started with Benicia Community Gardens 20 years ago.

One of the most exciting aspects of the Community Land & Water Caretaker Program is how it will incorporate education with conservation, helping to teach the next generation of leaders and landscape professionals through a hands-on education and certification program — a training room without walls.

Here are some main benefits of the Community Land & Water Caretaker Program as proposed:

  • Create a new program for Benicia residents to convert their lawns through sheet mulching into environmentally friendly food forest gardens and incorporate greywater systems and rainwater harvesting. These could be done free of charge or for a small fee for the property owner and would help residents reduce their water bills, create more sustainable communities and create more edible landscapes.
  • Offer training for local landscapers and horticulture graduates on rainwater retention, laundry-to-landscape greywater systems and edible landscaping. Those who receive the training would then be hired as contractors for the program. The program not only provides the training and pays for the installations, but gives these landscapers increased exposure to potential customers.
  • Offer internships for high school students to gain experience in sustainable landscaping, including calculating water re-use for the home and creating landscape plans.

The idea builds on the important work Sustainable Solano has done to create food forests within communities, which started with the Benicia Sustainable Backyard Program funded by the Benicia Community Sustainability Commission. That program was able to grow with funding from the Solano County Water Agency — using demonstration food forests in Benicia to inspire gardens in cities throughout the county.

It also draws from what we learned with the Land Caretakers program, funded by the Solano Small Business Development Center in 2016. That program gave us insight into the need for sustainable practices training among landscape professionals and inspired the idea to teach high school students those skills as a means of workforce development.

Based on what we learned from the Benicia Sustainable Backyard Program, a single house that is converted from a lawn to a food forest with laundry-to-landscape and rainwater harvesting systems can save 70,000 gallons of municipal water, divert more than 50,000 gallons of rainwater from the storm management system and make more than 30,000 gallons of that rainwater available for groundwater recharge.

Preliminary estimates show that if 300 Benicia homeowners participate in the new program, converting 300 lawns could result in water savings of 2 million gallons a year; 300 laundry-to-landscape systems would save 7.5 million gallons a year; and rainwater retention would save 14.4 million gallons a year — a total of 22 million gallons of water saved annually.

We are delighted to have a chance to once again plant the seeds of a new program in Benicia that could serve as a model for other communities.

We hope to share more with you about the program as we move forward!

Good Neighbor Steering Committee’s Commitment Pays Off

Our hats off to the five local Benicia women of the Good Neighbor Steering Committee for their tireless work over many years as “refinery watchdogs” to protect our air quality, community health and safety.

The GNSC first formed in 2000 to address the refinery’s change in ownership when Valero made the purchase from Exxon.

For their determination to negotiate with Valero and the City of Benicia to reallocate settlement funds, we thank GNSC members Marilyn Bardet, Mary Frances Kelly-Poh, Kathy Kerridge, Constance Buetel and Nancy Lund, and GNSC attorney Dana Dean. We also thank them for recognizing Sustainable Solano’s contributions to water and energy savings that will be realizable through our new Community Land & Water Caretaker Program.

“Greyhawk Grove” Demonstration Food Forest: Third Year Anniversary Reflections

 

In 2015, Benicia residents, Rob and Nam, submitted an application to have their yard transformed into a demonstration food forest garden, fed by secondary water (laundry-to-landcape greywater system & roofwater). This edible ecosystem would serve as a sustainable food source for their family and an educational platform for the community to learn about sustainable landscape design and wise water practices as part of the Benicia Sustainable Backyard program. This March marked the third anniversary of the installation of “Greyhawk Grove” garden. Below is a beautiful account from the homeowner of the journey and recent reflections of her family’s interaction with their food forest garden.

The wonga wonga (Pandorea pandorana) is blooming again, which reminds me that it is about this time three years ago that strangers descended upon our home and gifted us the most wonderful gift–that of time. Their time. Our time. The recognition of time. Of change. Of seasons and impermanence. If there is anything that can encapsulate year three at Greyhawk Grove, I think it would be the birds. Rick and Chris came over last year to paint the garden and Chris mentioned that the first thing she noticed upon pulling up was a whole bunch of birds taking to flight. There were always birds, but year three is when they have claimed the garden as their own. It may have helped that we put in a bird feeder. It may have helped that we put in a small bird bath, but I think as the progression of things go, they just realized that this year, the garden is perfectly suited to them. Who knows what it will be suited for next year, or the year after that. What we’ve learned is that the garden is constantly changing and growing, as are we.

The birds have taken to hanging out in the almond tree, the grapevines, the plum tree, the wonga wonga…the bean tent…everywhere. They sing. They bathe. The hummingbirds (same ones as last year? their kids?) are so comfortable around the garden and its inhabitants that I’ve spotted them hovering to peer at what the boys are up to while they are puttering. Of course the little brown birds have also eaten almost every seedling that has sprouted up. 

But as always, with a host of kids and cats tromping through the yard, it’s always been survival of the fittest around here–apparently the fittest seedlings are sweet peas–which the birds have left alone. They are twisting and curling from the ground, and our resident green thumb Perry is impatiently waiting for his corn to come so they can climb them. When told that it’s not corn season he ignores mama, because after all, he knows plants best (as he has proven over and over again). 

Perry’s white and orange poppies are in their third generation, resisting birds, weeds, and anything else that gets in their way. The paperwhites gifted to us from a Vallejo garden last year are sprouting up again. His cat garden not only overwintered, but like everything Perry touches, is the most vibrant part of the garden. His cat mints (two types), cat thyme, echinacea, chamomile, and cat grass lures a steady supply of cats, who have somehow worked out a detente with the birds, who have in tern worked out a timeshare with the bird bath between them, cats, and, curiously enough, honeybees. It’s like a miniature watering hole  And the water, of course, is studiously refilled daily by very enthusiastic young boys who water it, themselves, and others at the same time. 

As much as Perry cares about his cats and his bees (“Mama, I will plant a cat and bee garden, and they will come.”), Graham cares about his stomach. The garlics he has dotted throughout the garden are growing well. He checks the berry vines daily, wonders when the grapes will come, picks kumquats, points out the growing avocado, the oranges, tangerines, and peers at the blooming blueberry flowers to see if any are becoming blueberries. He reports regularly on the status of the strawberries (there are flowers! there are little berries! they are bigger today! they are not red yet!), and grins when he sees the tiny stevia leaves sprouting from last year’s stems (“Stevia is the only vegetable I like. But mama, you can eat that chard over there.”)

As for Rob and I, the garden provided something else aside from birds, bees, cats, flowers, fruits and vegetables. It provided to both of us peace, an escape, a meditation garden, space in an often difficult environment. We’ve had a lot of turbulence this year and with it came hard earned wisdom. Looming change in the future. But we know that the garden will continue doing what it does. In the coming and going through our door, the garden is always present. A buffer. A transition space. A place to just be. Be present. In the here and now.  

Thank you again, and continually, for this, the garden, your warmth and community. As always, our gate is always open. There’s always a ready chair and a pot of tea on the ready.

Much love and thanks,

Nam, Rob, Perry, Graham, Oliver (resident cat) & a flock of chickens (bawk, bawk)

Are you interested in learning more about our Sustainable Backyard program and seeing what a thriving food forest looks like? Join us on Saturday, April 28th and Sunday, April 29th for our 2nd Annual Benicia/Vallejo Food Forest Tours! Do not miss out on the chance to tour “Greyhawk Grove” and nine other demonstration edible gardens, all fed by secondary water (roofwater and/or laundry-to-landscape greywater system).

Come see how rainwater retention in the ground and drip irrigation can work with various plants selected for their high-yield, food- producing capacity to create a vibrant, varied, wise water garden! Ask our food forest keepers questions, enjoy the gardens, be inspired and get ideas on how you can work these design principles into your own yard!

Register here.

 

Our vision for Solano Community Food Centers is funded by USDA

Food, environment and human health, local economy and resilient communities

By Elena Karoulina

Executive Director of Sustainable Solano

Image from Pixabay

When was the last time you had Solano-grown produce on your dinner table? The most possible answer is ‘never’, unless you grow your own food in your garden or your backyard food forest. It’s a very unusual situation for a Bay Area county that is still largely agrarian, at least in the land use patterns.

Sustainable Solano is embarking on a new project to bring more local food to our communities and to connect our local farmers, chefs, and residents with the gifts of our land and with each other.

At the very end of September we received great news from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA): our proposal to further our vision by developing a business plan for Solano Community Food Centers was selected for funding! Annually, USDA funds about 14% of grant applications for local food projects, and we are honored to earn support on a federal level.

What is a Community Food Center? It is a hub for local food activities: CSAs deliveries, cooking classes, community education, and large kitchens where chefs and community members can cook wholesome nutritious meals. Larger Community Food Centers can include a food co-op.

Although Solano County produces close to $354 million worth of agricultural products and exports these products to more than 40 countries, only a fraction of that amount remains in the county due to weak distribution system, lack of sales outlets and somewhat low interest in local food. You can hardly find any Solano-grown products in our farmer markets, stores and restaurants. Small  farmers struggle to hold on to their land and to connect with local customers.

Where do we buy local food? People who can afford it obtain their local ag products in the markets outside our county: Napa, Sonoma, Berkeley (thus spending local money outside our local communities). Some cities in Solano are blessed with Community Supported Agriculture, but not many people know about this option and take advantage of it. People with low means have to go without local fresh food at all. Solano is a county of commuters, and unfortunately, the only option available for families on a go is fast-food restaurants and convenience stores (you cannot find local food there!).

We pay dearly for this lack of access to local food with our health: Solano County is among the sickest counties in the nation. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease rates are above national average in our home county.


Food, human health, the environment and local economies are all interconnected; by creating a network of city-based Community Food Centers, there is potential to re-envision and re-construct Solano County’s food system so that it works for everyone in the local food supply chain.


Sustainable Solano has partnered with researchers at UC Davis, Solano County Department of Agriculture and Department of Public Health to conduct a feasibility study, develop an effective business plan, and outline implementation for local food businesses that aggregate, process and distribute locally-produced, healthy food products. Our big vision is the environmentally and economically sustainable, equitable local food systems in Solano County.

We are looking for urban and rural farmers, chefs and local food activists interested to implement this vision. We’d love to hear from you with your comments, suggestions, reflections, and offers to help. Please email directly to me at elena@sustainablesolano.org

Let’s make it happen! I am looking forward to meet all of you at the official launch of the program on Wednesday, October 25, at 7 pm, at Benicia’s Heritage Presbyterian Church (doors open at 6 pm). Please join our Advisory Board members Dr. Feenstra and Dr. Campbell in the conversation about the future of food and why local resilient food system is so important. Come meet the project team and all of us interested to bring this vision to reality. 

Wise Water: An Informative Video from Sustainable Solano

For the past two years we’ve been working on our Demonstration Food Forests, with a major component of it being Wise Water use. Now, with the help of Constance Beutel, videographer extraordinaire, we wanted to share with everyone how very simple and replicable it is. Greywater workshops and installation workshops are always being offered. Please check our Events or contact Nicole Newell, Sustainable Landscaping Manager, for more information.