Lettuce in the winter and nopales in the spring – they’re just a few types of fresh foods finding their way into people’s homes from one Santa Ana neighborhood, where a community urban farm grows what’s in season on nearby church land.

Instead of shopping at a chain grocer, low-income residents who sign up with the CRECE Urban Farm by Santiago Park can pay according to their tax bracket, and come to the farm in person to take their produce home in boxes.

Still, the place known as “La Granjita” can only do so much while piggybacking off the church’s electricity, and its nine-member organization’s campesino spirit faces a new test: To outgrow the farm’s reliance on the church power and develop its own through fundraising

A source of sustenance for the neighborhood now seeks to better sustain itself.

With plans to install a solar panel system on site, one which could power a walk-in fridge to widen distribution windows and support other gardens, the CRECE farm’s meaning expands beyond just agricultural zest, if you ask those who either harvest or consume the yields. 

Tomatoes, peppers, and various herbs and greens harvested from La Granjita. Credit: JUVENTINO ROSAS (@juventino_photography)
La Granjita grows what’s in season. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The farm “humanizes the relationship” between people and fresh food in a city where fast food is often the more accessible option, said Santa Ana resident Abel Ruiz, one of CRECE’s founding members. 

“We’re serving between 20-30 boxes every week.”

The farm’s also fueling passions in other fields, like health equity, after finding collaborators in people like Dr. Dylan Hanami, a family medicine physician at UC Irvine, who with the help of grant funding has connected her patients with the farm’s produce on a prescription program known as Veggie Rx, which has taken off in other parts of the U.S.

“The people we’re connecting with CRECE are some of the sickest people in Orange County — they have kidney failure, severe diabetes,” Hanami said in a Tuesday phone interview. “People who screened positive for food insecurity.”

To Hanami, the farm represents a necessary “infrastructure” for healthy food access: 

“When I’m in the clinic administering medicine to patients, it’s frustrating because I wish insurers would cover healthy food. I really believe that if we did have access to healthy food, so many chronic conditions wouldn’t be as prevalent.”

Greens grow throughout La Granjita on Jan. 13, 2023. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

And what started as a one-third acre stretch of grass and some garden beds six years ago has now expanded to nearby homeowners’ yards. 

In November, criminal defense attorney and unincorporated north Tustin resident Rachael Cianfrani would wake up to blooms in her front yard of a flower usually found in the wild in Mexico: Cempasúchil, or the Aztec Marigold. 

Her family home soon became an unlikely cultural harvest site, supplying the marigolds to Dia de Los Muertos festivities in Santa Ana. 

It happened about a month after the 10-year resident offered CRECE her front lawn for additional cultivation. Farmers took out the grass for irrigation and garden beds. 

Now, Cianfrani watches life cycles play out from her front door. 

“Property, especially in OC, is at a premium these days,” she said. “We have a lot of low-income people in OC. It’s very difficult to live here. So to put land to its highest use and alleviate some basic needs for the community, instead of over-sprayed green lawns – I think that’s really beautiful.”

The 1/3 acre garden, CRECE, in Santa Ana on Ja. 13, 2023. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

After starting his master’s degree at Cal State Fullerton in 2020, certified beekeeper and CRECE’s newest staff member found La Granjita through an agricology internship.

“I didn’t know the farm was less than 10 minutes away from where I lived,” said Steve Anticona in a Monday phone interview. “At its core, it’s an organization that cares to build that community, not just raise a farm.”

The farm, in turn, has become a special type of gathering space, for educational classes and events but also, on occasion, for community mourning. After the death of well-known local activist Miriam Lopez at just 23 years old in 2021, La Granjita became a place to light candles.

“How do we use this space to connect? The people who show up at the farm, they feel very much like close friends,” Anticona said.

Born in Peru, the CSUF student found a way to reconnect through the farm, not only to the environment but to his heritage 

“My grandma’s an important part of my life. She loves plants and lived in a rural area and would tell stories from there,” said Anticona, who added that La Granjita became a “lab” of sorts for agricultural knowledge contributed by people in the community – often hailing from other countries and farming methods.

“Knowledge of seeds, what uses you have for that plant – that’s all knowledge that is shared.”

The farm’s efforts toward solar power are also highlighting a community-led energy movement, one which started in the University Hills neighborhood of Irvine and may now be the farm’s key to an onsite energy source.

Known as OC Goes Solar, the group started in 2017 as a response to the perception of solar as a discouragingly complicated switch for homeowners.

“About 300 homes here in our neighborhood of University Hills have gone solar through our programs,” said Randall Crane, who chairs OC Goes Solar’s Board of Directors.

Now the group is matching donations and helping CRECE meet a $15,000 to $20,000 fundraising goal to solarize the property, to provide adequate lighting for community gatherings throughout the year and refrigeration. 

While the group typically vets solar panel installers for homeowners and advocates for state solar programs, “CRECE hit our radar because they’re an interesting project,” Crane said. “They’re an easy thing to pitch – this really well-meaning effort to bring off food to neighbors in Santa Ana .”

From left, Valeria Esqueda, youth intern coordiantor, and interns Victoria Esqueda, Jose Morales and Wendy Ruiz display their produce from the CRECE garden in Santa Ana. Credit: COURTESY OF CRECE
CRECE Urban Farming Cooperative farmer, Abel Ruiz, stands for a portrait in the Santa Ana garden on Jan. 13, 2023. The garden is a co-op that sells produce boxes and educates residents about local farming. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The farm is also working toward what Ruiz calls a larger goal of establishing food sovereignty in Santa Ana – the idea that people in need can determine their own nutritional options and grow their own food.

On top of that, Ruiz said the farm is in the early stages of compiling a seed library, comprised of seeds from the crops CRECE grows.

“This is the first year we are beginning to re-seed the seeds that we saved. This is a massive project that’s barely taking off,” Ruiz said.

Aside from Veggie Rx, CRECE distributes produce boxes under a Community Supported Agriculture program called SALSA (Santa Ana Local Sustainable Agriculture). Ruiz said the long-term goal is to incubate a cooperative to handle food distribution and create a “circular economy” in town. 

“CRECE decided to stay in the nonprofit world so that we could anchor the educational aspect badly needed to talk about food sovereignty, and after SALSA started during the pandemic, we started seeing SALSA as a potential cooperative in the making.”

Making sure people get fed — “to me it’s a basic block of society,” said Cianfrani, whose front yard, thanks to CRECE, has become its own ecosystem of native pollinators and hummingbirds.

And if all goes well, she said her backyard is next. 

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