Home Restaurant Urban Farms Are Stepping Up Their Roles in Communities Nationwide

Urban Farms Are Stepping Up Their Roles in Communities Nationwide

“We had 70 people line up to get a free plant. Everyone was wearing a mask like we asked. People were so happy to get a plant,” Bennet said. “It’s not food but it brings people joy. It reminded me of the importance of what we do.”

Alma Backyard Farms, Compton, California

On the other side of the country, Compton, with a population not much larger than Fayetteville, feels more urban, embedded in the vast sprawl of metropolitan Los Angeles. Compton’s modest residential neighborhoods are mixed with autobody shops, warehouses, and fast-food chains. On a July morning, I drove down Redondo Beach Boulevard looking for the quarter-acre farm, and found it tucked behind a church and a day-glow-green artificial soccer field.

Erika Cuellar, who with her husband Richard Garcia founded Alma Backyard Farms, met me at the gate. Cuellar (pictured at top with Garcia) grew up in the neighborhood. In fact, as a 10-year-old, she played softball on the very field where she now farms.

Alma, which means “soul” in Spanish, is a place of redemption, of coming home, a nonprofit organization that has its roots in community service and restorative justice. The workers are all formerly incarcerated, seeking to rebuild their lives through farming. More than 300 formerly incarcerated men and women have worked at Alma since its founding nine years ago.

“Community is incredibly important when you get out of prison,” said Cuellar. “It’s not just you come out of prison, get a job, and then you’re fine. No, you have to figure out where to ground yourself, where to find people that are going to support you in your reentry. Alma has become that community for a lot of people, where you can do something that is rewarding, and give back to the community to make sure people are nourished and fed.”

Cuellar and Garcia launched Alma in 2013, working at first in private backyards, but ultimately securing this plot of church-owned land that was previously overtaken by weeds and gophers. Over the years, they built up a clientele for Alma’s produce, with a focus on selling to chefs.

Children taking part in the education program at Alma Backyard Farms. (Photo credit: Alma Backyard Farms)

The pandemic changed everything. Restaurants closed, and the Alma team began offering curbside distribution of free food. Compton was already food insecure, and in the months of lockdown, hunger became a reality for many families. During the chaotic days of 2020, local residents could pull up at the curbside in front of the farm, and get a bag of fresh produce and donated groceries, no questions asked.

Over time, the curbside distribution program morphed into a bi-weekly farm stand, and neighbors began visiting the farm to buy vegetables, hang out, chat about food, and swap recipes. Although Alma no longer operates in actual backyards, the farm on this once-abandoned field slowly became a kind of community backyard.

The farm site has multiple uses, according to Garcia, a former seminary student turned farmer. “This was a farm stand last Sunday. For the last two weeks we’ve had a farm camp for kids, and this was our amphitheater for the campers. On some nights we’ve used it for meditation class,” he said gesturing to the farm’s ample community gathering area. “That’s part of why urban ag is so nimble. Our spaces are versatile.”

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