This spring, San Jose-based nonprofit Valley Verde took on a large, unexpected pivot to respond to COVID-19. The organization has spent the past decade developing food sovereignty for the city’s low-income residents. As those families, and many other residents of California, reeled from the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic, Valley Verde tapped into its extensive network — which includes local farms and a bicycling coalition — to distribute free seedings to 1,574 families across the state.
Raul Lozano, the organization’s founder, was not surprised by the overwhelming demand for something as simple as a seedling. “It comes back to food sovereignty,” he says. “It comes back to where your food comes from. It won’t satisfy all food needs, but it can mean families’ vegetable needs are in their hands.”
The idea for Valley Verde first rooted in Lozano’s mind during the 2008 recession. “I was transitioning from another job I had for 23 years,” he says, “And when the housing crisis happened — it was the same thing that’s happening now — people getting laid off, organizations shrinking, inundated food banks with people trying to feed their families.”
With experience in nonprofit leadership, and a long history of organic gardening with his family, he founded Valley Verde in 2012 “to create access to organic vegetables for low-income families living in food-insecure communities.” Since then the organization has trained over 500 families through its home gardening program, developed an apprenticeship for gardeners to grow and sell seedlings through their own mini greenhouses, and opened a community greenhouse in Downtown San Jose.
Because of its steady expansion serving low-income families of San Jose, the organization could move quickly to distribute thousands of seedlings to families in need as COVID-19 once again exposed the country’s stark food insecurity.
The home gardening program, which launched as a pilot a few years before the official launch of Valley Verde, had a straightforward goal to help low-income residents in San Jose start growing organic veggies. The organization continues to help families create raised-bed gardens and provides the supplies and infrastructure they need to grow organic vegetables at home for a year or more. The organization also provides monthly organic gardening workshops and one-on-one mentorship.
The success of that program led to Super Jardineros, a three-year apprenticeship program that provides gardeners a mini greenhouse to gain professional-level horticultural skills and increase their income. The organization teaches its Super Jardineros how to grow seedlings that reflect the culture of Santa Clara County, including Mexican, Vietnamese, Indian, Chinese and Filipino. Gardeners grow and sell a diverse array of seedlings not always available in local nurseries.
In 2017, La Finca community greenhouse opened on a formerly-vacant downtown lot, where the organization holds educational programming and grows its own culturally diverse seedlings.
The organization purchased three new greenhouses prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. In early February, anticipating the economic effects of the virus, Lozano asked his greenhouse manager Claudia Damiani: “Do you think we can grow enough seedlings to satisfy the need of our [home gardening] program, plus an additional 500 families?”
She was up to the task — during April and May, Valley Verde’s urban farm network concentrated all its resources to grow thousands of edible seedlings for donation. “We’re a small grassroots organization with a small, grassroots program … because of that we could recognize the need quickly and be responsive,” Damiani says. “It’s easier for us to shift gears to make a change in the community.”
On top of an increased growing schedule, the organization donated additional seedings it grew for a market cancelled due to COVID-19. Lozano also connected with Stanford Educational Farm, the Forge Garden at Santa Clara University and Master Gardeners of Santa Clara County which brought even more seedling donations. Ultimately the group gave away more than 6,000 seedlings.
One important, if unexpected, partnership was with the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition. Lozanzo asked Shiloh Ballard, executive director of the coalition, if the nonprofit’s network of cyclists could provide contact-free delivery to homes. She wasn’t sure she could recruit enough cyclists to meet demand, given they would need special bicycling equipment to carry the seedlings and be willing to travel long distances.
“We had 150 volunteers and I had to turn 100 away,” Ballard says of the overwhelming response. For the first giveaway, 50 cyclists picked up bags filled with six seedlings (tomato, cucumber, zucchini, bell pepper and either padron or jalapeño pepper plants, plus seeds for green beans, green onions, spinach, lettuce carrots and radish) and distributed them around Santa Clara County. The kit also included care instructions and a contact for planting assistance.
People also came by car to pick up the seedlings from as far as Sacramento, over 120 miles away. Given the demand, the team organized a second giveaway this May, distributing to a total of 1,574 families.
Valley Verde’s goal is to serve a total of 2,500 families through the next several growing seasons, both by growing its own seedlings and continuing partnerships with organizations like Stanford EducationalFarm. “We’d absolutely want the partnership to keep growing,” says Patrick Archie, director of Stanford Educational Farm. “At Stanford, it’s very meaningful to have partnerships like Valley Verde to connect with the larger community.”
“We are adapting to the current situation by expanding in a strategic way,” Damiani explains. As opposed to the lighting-fast connections the organization facilitated in May, Valley Verde plans to be “more intentional” as it scales the giveaways, she added.
One planned change: the seedling care instructions were printed in English and Spanish; now Valley Verde is working with Santa Clara University students to translate the information in Chinese languages and Vietnamese.
“The need is exponentially growing,” Lozano says of food-insecure families that the organization aims to serve. “I could see these giveaways going on for another few years. The issue is, how big do we want to make it, how do we get the word out, and can we bring the growing capacity to scale up to meet the need.”