Cooperative Garden Promotes Food Self-Determination for Santa Ana

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Abel Ruiz tends to the Amarenth plant in the CRECE Cooperative Garden in Santa Ana.

It’s a blue-sky, crystalline morning in this Santa Ana garden and the butterflies swirling just above the vegetable stalks and over-sized leaves complete the enchanted spectacle.

There are some chile peppers on the vines, upright kale leaves and scattered fruits. But it is fall, after all, and the growing season is coming to an end. The rows of vegetable beds look a little wild, a little overgrown.

The volunteers who run the CRECE Cooperative Garden are going to let the soil rest until spring. So even though, for the past three years they’ve provided cempaspuchitl – Mexican marigolds – for Día de los Muertos altars, they won’t have any of the flowers available this week. But don’t worry, they say. They will next year. And they have other plans. Big plans.

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

CRECE is currently replenishing their soil this year. Members of the co-op are clearing out the garden beds.

The CRECE Cooperative Garden has been supported by the Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities initiative, which was launched nine years ago with a major grant from the California Endowment. The goal of Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities is to improve the health and overall quality of life of low-income residents. Making tasty and fresh food available is one important piece.

When it’s growing season, CRECE is one-third of an acre of abundance: cucumbers, guava, lettuce, corn (five kinds), avocado, pomegranate, raspberries, peppers (10 kinds) and much more.

“This farm has grown over 100 different crops,” says Evelyn Estrada, who became a volunteer after returning from the Peace Corps in the Philippines. “It’s teaching us so many lessons.”

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Evelyn Estrada, 32, fixes the vines growing along the garden work station at the CRECE Cooperative Garden in Santa Ana.

CRECE stands for Community in Resistance for Ecological and Cultural Empowerment. You might wonder, how is a garden an act of resistance? Clara Leopo, a senior at UC Irvine explains.

“Because I feel like a lot of grocery stores are expensive and not accessible to families here,” says Leopo, who grew up in Santa Ana. “And a lot of the (grocery) fruits and vegetables have harsh chemicals and are produced by harsh labor that’s been exploited. When I see a fruit here, I get really happy because it’s grown by the people and for the people.”

CRECE is off Santiago Street tucked behind the First Congregational Church of Santa Ana, which owns the land; it has been a community garden for many years, most recently known as the Santa Ana People’s Garden, when it was divided into small plots, each tended by a different family. Its wall-size mural proclaiming that name is still there.

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Ana Urzua, 32, of Santa Ana tends to the marigolds in the Santa Ana co-op garden.

But by 2016, the garden was “underutilized and the coordinator moved out of town,” said volunteer co-op member Ana Urzua, who works with Building Healthy Communities and an organization that helps establish worker cooperatives, Cooperacion Santa Ana. This was the opportunity to shift it to a cooperative venture and build a legacy of locally grown foods made available to marginalized communities.

“Some of the things that we set out to do that can last, include this garden,” Urzua said.

So far, between five and 10 volunteers show up on a weekly basis. It’s been a steep learning curve for those who did not have extensive backgrounds in agriculture. And the work is difficult.

“Anyone who gets their hands dirty, can take whatever they need,” said Abel Ruiz, another community organizer.

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Members of the CRECE Cooperative Garden. From left, Manny Preciado, Evelyn Estrada, Abel Ruiz, Clara Leopo and Ana Urzua.

Next April or May they hope to launch a community-supported agriculture program (CSA), through which people pay money in advance to get a monthly delivery of produce as it ripens. “The research that we’ve done is there is a sliding scale” for harvest prices, based on the buyer’s income, Ruiz said. “There are other CSA’s like ours and they have different levels of membership.”

They are also setting up an aquaponics system, which UC Irvine donated. Giant plastic tanks sit empty, waiting to hold plants that will grow in water. A separate tank will hold fish, probably tilapia, and the fish waste will be filtered to provide nutrients for the plants. Volunteers from UC Irvine are coming on Nov. 16 to finish setting up the system and the public is invited to come and help.

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The aquaponics area in the CRECE Co-op Garden in Santa Ana. The aquaponics are still in the process of being built and are expected to be in full working condition by next year.

The garden organizers have also sponsored events, such as movie screenings in the summer, and a jam-making workshop, which concluded with a barbeque. Ruiz said they are considering offering yoga in the garden, as well. About two months ago, representatives from the Menonimee Nation from Wisconsin visited CRECE to talk about revitalizing traditional foods that indigenous peoples grew generations ago. It’s just one effort to reach out to people of color who farm, and learn how they are achieving what Ruiz called food self-determination.

“There’s nothing that says you have to sacrifice your well-being to carry on this community work,” Ruiz said. “We can transform our community and do it in a way we are also growing and advancing the project we’re working on. I think it’s part of the approach that we can still change policy, but from a point of view of enjoying the work.”

Laura Bleiberg is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at laura.bleiberg@gmail.com.