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Home / Articles / News / News /  Closer to farm
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Tuesday, Feb 03, 2009

Closer to farm

Efforts are starting to pay off for folks hoping to start a community garden in City Heights

By Rebecca Tolin

Johora Musa is pregnant with her fourth child. She and husband Bilali Muya are unemployed, and their family of five is living on food stamps. The Somali Bantu couple CityBeat introduced you to several weeks ago has reason to be encouraged, though.

Two years since the International Rescue Committee set out to start the New Roots Community Farm in City Heights, the first physical sign of progress came into view on Monday: a chain link fence. Some $28,000 worth of metal around the vacant city-owned plot near 54th and University streets signals the beginning of a longstanding dream: immigrants farming the land.

“It still seems intangible, so I’m excited to see the fence go up,” said the IRC’s Ellee Igoe, who said it cost $46,000 to get the required permits from the city. On Jan. 21, the nonprofit urged the City Council’s Land Use & Housing Committee to make it easier to start a community garden. About 20 citizens—from refugees to nutritionists—testified that growing vegetables on blighted land shouldn’t require a well-financed crusade.

“The outpouring of support from the community has really been impressive,” said City Councilmember Todd Gloria. “The council should be supporting efforts exactly like that.”

The committee directed city staff to streamline the process for garden permits. But the item still faces public hearings with the Community Planners Committee, which represents all the neighborhood planning groups citywide, and a full City Council vote.

“Folks are trying to find ways to eat more affordably and more healthy,” said Councilmember Tony Young. “We should have an ordinance that reflects that.”

Igoe says the money IRC spent on permits could have fed 13 immigrant families for one year. Instead, it went to fees, inspections and a city-mandated fence. Now, they need $80,000 for things like irrigation, a tool shed and a portable toilet for the 80-plot garden.

“It’s really important to fund-raise the rest of this money,” said Amy Lint, IRC’s New Roots Farm Coordinator. “This garden has raised a lot of hopes for refugees—people who are really struggling.”

The IRC recently abandoned Community Development Block Grant money, because it came with too much red tape, and started vigorously soliciting donations. In the last two weeks, IRC got fundraising offers from the Young Democrats, Slow Foods San Diego, Whole Foods and Sea Rocket Bistro, a North Park restaurant.

“I’ve been on this search for the last six months just looking for any local garden that will sell me produce, and there just aren’t any,” said Dennis Stein, Sea Rocket’s co-owner. “So I was thinking, if I can help get a local garden going, they’d probably want to sell some things.”

Apart from farmers markets, Stein buys most of his produce from North County. But he’d rather stay within a 10-mile radius and support his neighbors. After reading the Jan. 14 CityBeat story about New Roots, Stein started planning a fundraiser for March 19.

Whole Foods in Hillcrest even mounted photos of Musa and Muya at its cash registers, offering to donate a nickel to New Roots for every bag its canvas-toting customers bring in through April—at the shopper’s request.

Musa stands ready, her belly showing through a bright floral dress. “You farm when you’re pregnant, too, and put the other baby on your back,” she said.    For details about IRC’s fundraising benefits, call 619-641-7510 x244.