July 23, 2018|By Raul Lozano| Food and Farms
When the U.S. housing market crashed in 2008, Raul Lozano, then executive director of a local theatre company, started noticing something about his neighbors. Worried about their ability to feed their families, they were being forced to go to food banks—where the quality and supply of food is not ideal—in the low-income, Latino neighborhoods in San Jose, California where they lived. This gave Raul, who was looking to do something new that made a difference in the world, an idea.

“I was looking for the next thing to do. I was 55 and I figured I had a good 10 years of good, hard work left in me. And I wanted to affect my community in a positive way, so I just decided: I am going to start teaching people how to grow their own food.”

Raul started Valley Verde, an organization that helps low-income Santa Clara County residents learn to grow organic vegetables in their own yards. Since it was founded in 2012, the organization has flourished, and now features a three-year gardening apprenticeship program that tops out with the Super Jardineros (super gardeners!) level. This group has excelled through two years of training to now sow spring and summer seedlings for use in home gardens, as well as for sale through local retailers—keeping profits inside the network of growers and community. To date, The Conservation Fund has helped support the Super Jardineros program and more through two Community Food Sovereignty grants in partnership with W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Agua Fund.

Food Sovereignty: The basic right of people to choose the food they consume, as well as where and how it is produced.

Watch the video and share!

Whitney Flanagan: What is Valley Verde’s mission?

Raul Lozano: Valley Verde promotes the widespread use or practice of home gardening, with the intent to drive self-sufficiency within our families. We want to give them enough knowledge to become decent gardeners—or hopefully really good gardeners—so they can grow vegetables for their rest of their lives for themselves and their children, and to model for the next generation.

Valley Verde c Whitney Flanagan201804230 27Christopher’s mother carefully instructs him on how to plant and take care of vegetables from Valley Verde in their own home garden. Photo by Whitney Flanagan.

WF: Valley Verde is based in San Jose—the heart of Silicon Valley. What are some of the challenges people in this area face, and what are some of the benefits?

RL: The serious issue of living in this area is the income disparity. It’s really, really difficult. It’s almost impossible to buy or rent a home if you’re not making six or seven figures.

Our clientele are all low-income families and so they’re always faced with this cost of living. That’s why we’re teaching them to grow their own vegetables. It makes it accessible to them at about a third of the cost, and they basically get to eat as much as they want. A benefit of living here is that California passed a state law called the Urban Agriculture Incentive Zone, where any landowner can lease property that’s not being utilized to urban agricultural organizations at no cost. And in turn, these landowners will not have to pay property taxes. Once the state passed it, every county and every city had to pass their own version of the ordinance.

San Jose passed ours in October of 2017, and the landowner who had bought Valley Verde’s primary property contacted me and we signed a five-year lease with a three-year option [to renew]. Once we moved our facility here, a lot of the neighbors came and they were so happy that we had greened up the place.

Valley Verde c Whitney Flanagan201804232 7
Valley Verde staff and Conservation Fund project lead Jazmin Varela (center) work to ensure plants are cared for and ready for community distribution. Photo by Whitney Flanagan.

“What we’re doing is not about funding greenhouses or raised beds, it’s about funding the innovative ideas that that are creating health and wealth within the community.” 
- Jazmin Varela, project lead, The Conservation Fund 

WF: How has the Community Food Sovereignty grant that you received from The Conservation Fund impacted your work?

: It’s actually allowed us to increase the program capacity. We’re growing our own seedlings! We were able to hire a greenhouse manager, and we’re actually able to hire another program manager—a home gardening program manager. The funds aren’t paying for the entire salary, but they are paying for part of it, and so we’re able to serve more families. Last year we served, I think, 60 families, and this year we’re serving 100. We’re exponentially growing the program. The grant also helped support the Super Jardineros program where we are trying to sell wholesale seedlings to stores to generate a revenue stream for ourselves. Not only are we trying to get the families to become more self-sufficient in growing their gardens, but we’re also trying to become self-sufficient as an organization.

Valley Verde c Whitney Flanagan201804234 11Super Jardinera, Petra Jimenez, proudly shows off the greenhouse Valley Verde helped build at her home. She successfully raises plants and seeds to sell, which both helps her feed her family fresh produce and makes extra income in the process. Photo by Whitney Flanagan.

“This program gives me opportunity.” 
- Petra Jimenez, Valley Verde Super Jardinera

Valley Verde c Whitney Flanagan201804235 8 Super Jardinero, Antonio (Tony) Altamirano, at the home garden Valley Verde helped him install. Farming is a family tradition for Tony, and he is passing down the lessons growing your own food teaches to his own children. 
Photo by Whitney Flanagan.

“If we know how to produce food, and we know how to eat well… we can change lives.”
 -Tony Altamirano, Valley Verde Super Jardinero

WF: What does Food Sovereignty mean to you and how is it linked to social justice and economic stability?

RL: Food sovereignty for me is really, really important. When I started doing this work, urban agricultural organizations were not going into these low income communities, and were not providing the knowledge they need to grow food in their own homes. Everything is kind of centered around community gardens and urban farms and so we decided to break the mold and go into the communities.

But the bigger thing—and we’re hoping to do this—is to get our families to become more involved in the food movement, because right now they’re not being represented. When I go to these coalition meetings, there are very few people of color there. We are working to inform the families about how important these issues are, because we are talking about food for the future, we’re talking about land use, we’re talking about water use, and these are major issues that are going to be really important in the future.

Valley Verde c Whitney Flanagan201804231 31Valley Verde held a planting day at a Vietnamese community gathering space and brought ready-to-plant traditional vegetables and instructed them on how to plant and care for them. Photo by Whitney Flanagan.

WF: What changes have you seen or do you hope to see in your community through this work?

RL: The important thing is knowledge—it’s to gain enough knowledge for our participants to feel confident about planting a garden. They can take that wherever they go; wherever they live they can start a garden. That’s the most important thing.

The other thing is to build a community. A lot of our families are immigrants, and some of the families and especially the women in the family are isolated and their children acculturate and learn faster than they do because they’re going to school. So a lot of women are at home and not sure how to expand their community, and this really helps families do that. It’s just a great way to get to know new friends, and hopefully we’re building again a community for the future because we work with them a lot after they’ve finished the program.

Valley Verde c Whitney Flanagan201804239 20 Photo by Whitney Flanagan.

WF: What drives you to do this work every day?

RL: I wanted to affect my community in a positive way, and so doing this and working in communities is just way more rewarding than I ever thought it was going to be. We get really, really positive responses from our families. We know how tough it is out there for our families on the housing and the income side, but they’ve responded—most of our families stay throughout the year in the program and graduate.

We’ve already served about 380 families. Two years ago, they grew 13,000 pounds of vegetables. One woman told me her son lost 10 pounds. Another woman was just talking about how her husband wanted to help in her garden. She said, no, that’s my garden and she kind of took charge because her husband works on cars and goes out and does whatever he does, but she’s able to own it.

Valley Verde c Whitney Flanagan201804236 22Photo by Whitney Flanagan.

At The Conservation Fund, we make conservation work for America. By creating solutions that make environmental and economic sense, we are redefining conservation to demonstrate its essential role in our future prosperity. Top-ranked for efficiency and effectiveness, we have worked in all 50 states since 1985 to protect over eight million acres of land.

We believe that food sovereignty—the basic right of people to choose the food they consume, as well as where and how it is produced—is a vital part of achieving economic, social and environmental justice for all communities. To date, we have worked on 19 food sovereignty projects across the country and have helped grantees leverage more than $3.5 million in grants and loans. Each project encompasses one or more of the six pillars of food sovereignty:

  • Focuses on food for people
  • Values food providers and their right to live and work in dignity
  • Localizes food systems
  • Puts control locally
  • Builds agricultural knowledge and skills
  • Works with nature

Find Out More:
Valley Verde
Community Food Sovereignty
On Track with Healthy Foods Grant program
Transplanting Traditions Community Farm