Food Runners and Urban Gardens

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Mural at Free Farm by Leanne C. Miller
From graffiti to mural at Free Farm

In a place as densely populated as the Bay Area, one person’s bright idea can make a big impact. Just ask Mary Risley, owner of Tante Marie’s Cooking School and the founder of Food Runners. As a cooking teacher, Risley loved being part of San Francisco’s vibrant food culture. But she also knew that part of the price of perfection for the city’s restaurants, bakeries, cafes, and cooking schools was a willingness to toss anything that wasn’t 100% great. Which meant a lot of food–good quality, clean, unused but not sellable–was filling up a lot of dumpsters at the end of every business day.

With the city’s ever-rising cost of living (and ever-squeezed public and private resources for homeless shelters, low-income families, and crisis centers), how could such food get out of the landfill and into the hands of the hungry? Businesses were busy, nonprofits were stretched; the missing link was just that, a link that would connect the food industry with organizations dedicated to feeding the hungry.

Looking for a way to start giving back to the city that had nourished her and supported her business, Risley went first to the SF Food Bank, but realized she wanted to be doing a lot more than packing bags of canned goods. So the Food Bank got her in touch with Daily Bread, an organization in Berkeley run by Carolyn North, which picked up unused food and spread it around to the city’s homeless shelters and crisis centers. She asked North if she could start a similar organization across the bay, and North agreed, so long as she changed the name. So in 1987, Risley started Food Runners, a nonprofit dedicated to feeding the hungry by reducing food waste.

As a businesswoman, Risley wanted to make Food Runners into a professional, easy-to-use system that would be simple and mutually beneficial for both businesses and service organizations. 23 years later, Food Runners relies on a network of 250 volunteers who pick up excess usable food from over 400 sites every weekday, from every type of place from small cafes and big hotels to local schools and corporate cafeterias. The food is delivered by volunteers’ car and the company’s refrigerated truck to shelters and neighborhood food pantries.

When I managed a cafe in the Ferry Building, I knew that all I had to do was box up our extra pastries at the end of every day. The next morning, a cheerful volunteer would show up, pick up the boxes and sign off on my tax-deductible tally sheet. Later that day, those pastries, made with organic ingredients and fruit from a local family farm, might be feeding parents and kids at a drop-in center for homeless families, or adding a little bit of sweetness to a seniors’ lunch.

There are other ways to turn waste into resources. The easiest way to start? Drop that banana peel into your green bin. One banana peel multiplied by over 700,000 residents in San Francisco alone means that many tons of food waste (everything from that four-day-old hunk of burrito at the back of the fridge to orange peels and onion skins) are diverted from the waste stream every day via the city’s green-waste bins. All that stinky stuff goes to Jepson Prairie Organics, a composting facility near Vacaville. Over the course of about 30 days, it’s transformed into high-quality compost that’s ready for use by local farms, nurseries, and vineyards.

Or, what about starting from the very beginning, and growing more food from scratch right here in the city? Even in cities as highly populated as San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley, a surprisingly amount of arable land is still available. Just look at the Free Farm, which was started on a vacant lot at Gough and Eddy Streets in January of this year.

Pastor Megan Rohrer, a young Lutheran pastor who works with a variety of homeless communities around the city as the executive director of Welcome Ministry, wanted to expand the work she was doing, going from feeding the hungry of San Francisco to growing food for those same communities. The St. Paulus Lutheran church was willing to offer an empty lot it owned to her and a dedicated community of volunteers to make a garden.

Meanwhile Tree, a longtime food-justice activist and community gardener as well as the founder of the Mission’s popular Free Farmstand, was looking for a place to grow more local food to supply the farmstand. Once Megan’s church connections met Tree’s gardening expertise, the Free Farm was born. With grants from the Mesa Foundation along with several local Episcopal and Lutheran churches, plus a whole lot of wheelbarrow-pushing volunteer labor, the weedy lot has undergone an astonishing transformation.

What was once a trash-strewn, needle-littered eyesore that neighbors called “The Pit” is now a welcoming, mural-lined space full of neatly mounded raised beds planted with salad mix, potatoes, beans, broccoli and lettuce. Bricks salvaged from the St. Paulus church (which stood on the space before burning down in 1995) now form strawberry beds on the hillside and a winding spiral bed planted with flowers, herbs, and vegetables. Cold frames and a newly built greenhouse are filled with trays of tiny seedlings, everything from kale to tomatoes to marigolds started from seeds donated by church communities across the country. Bright garden-themed murals by local artist Leanne C. Miller cover the concrete wall on the west side, and there are plans to bring more artists and sculptors into the garden to create site-specific works.

Volunteers get down and dirty every Wednesday and Saturday from 10am to 2pm, building infrastructure, hauling mulch, manure and compost, planting seedlings, waterings, and more. A volunteer-made vegan lunch, often featuring produce harvested from the garden, is shared by all. Volunteers will also share in the harvest, with excess supplying the Free Farmstand (Rohrer hopes to establish another neighborhood Free Farmstand on the site) as well as providing fresh local produce for twice-weekly homeless dinners organized by Welcome. (For more information on Welcome’s additional garden projects around the Bay Area, go to Urban Share.)

At the educational Garden for the Environment in the Inner Sunset, weekend workshops teach everything from composting basics to chicken husbandry. Want to spread the word? If you’re a San Francisco resident, you can sign up for a three-month gardening and compost educator program that will give you all the necessary tools to teach the basics of urban green gardening and composting. Just want to do a little digging? Volunteer days are Wednesday and Saturdays, 10am to 3pm, with pizza from nearby Arizmendi Bakery to share. The garden’s also a great place to get ideas for your own backyard. Organized by concept, there are examples of low-water gardens, native plants, edibles, and more.

In association with the SF Parks Trust, the Garden for the Environment is also offering Garden City, a three-part class on creating an urban farm or community garden, on May 2nd, 9th, and 16th. Topics include locating and identifying available land, working with the city to get the proper permits, building a community of volunteers, and the horticultural nuts and bolts of productive edible gardening and landscaping.

And finally, don’t forget about what’s growing in your own backyard. Want to turn your lawn into a food forest? Check out a recent blog post about how a week (and a bunch of friends and neighbors) transformed one Oakland bungalow, thanks to the help of permaculture designers Planting Justice. Neighborhood Fruit and Produce for the People can help you find, glean or distribute excess fruit in your neighborhood. Got extra lemons or loquats? Don’t waste them, share them!

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Category: DIY, foraging, urban homesteading, economy and food costs, food banks, hunger, volunteer, gardening and urban farming, local food businesses, politics, activism, food safety, san francisco

About the Author ()

Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen is a longtime local food writer, author, and cook. Her books include The Art of Vintage Cocktails (Egg & Dart Press), World of Doughnuts (Egg & Dart Press); Kids in the Kitchen: Fun Food (Williams Sonoma); Honey from Flower to Table (Chronicle Books) and The Astrology Cookbook: A Cosmic Guide to Feasts of Love (Manic D Press). She has studied organic farming at UCSC and holds a certificate in Ecological Horticulture from the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. She does frequent cooking demonstrations at local farmers’ markets and has taught food writing at Media Alliance in San Francisco and the Continuing Education program at Stanford University. She has been the lead restaurant critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian as well as for San Francisco magazine. She has been an assistant chef at the Headlands Center for the Arts, an artists' residency program located in the Marin Headlands, and a production cook at the Marin Sun Farms Cafe in Pt Reyes Station. After some 20 years in San Francisco interspersed with stints in Oakland, Santa Cruz, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, she recently moved to Sonoma county but still writes in San Francisco several days a week.
  • http://urbanshare.blogspot.com Megan Rohrer

    Thanks for the great article and for putting in some work at the farm. You’re an excellent seedling sorter!

  • Scott Hawkins

    lovely post…thanks for highlighting the generous, down and dirty spirit of the City!

  • Tamara

    As a volunteer at the Free Farm who works with all the arts-related programming I have had the pleasure of watching the transformation of this site from a once abandoned lot strewn with trash and needles to a beautiful farm sprouting with glorious fresh lettuce, strawberries and herbs – it has been an incredible sight to see and a testament to the power of the people. I’m inspired by all those who take matters into their own hands and as the name of the organization run by the lovely Lauren Anderson’s states brings the produce to the people!