Corporate sponsorship of a community garden? At Proyecto Pastoral, it's not a question
Just 2 months old, the tiny Proyecto Pastoral garden in Boyle Heights is going through a growth spurt, like a grade-schooler who jumps two shoe sizes in one season. In the salsa bed, the tomatillos are already fruiting, and some of the cilantro is starting to flower. The first batch of strawberries already were harvested, eaten communally as a sweet lesson in healthy snacks.
Such a perfect picture gets a little more complicated, however, when one hears that the new community garden was funded largely through a corporate sponsorship -- and that the sponsor was Scotts Miracle-Gro.
Skeptics may say Scotts Miracle-Gro's planting a community garden is like a fast-food restaurant teaching a nutrition class. But the company is moving ahead with plans to build 1,000 public green spaces in the U.S., Canada and Europe by 2018 through its GRO1000 grant program. GRO1000 gardens have broken ground at the Homegirl Cafe in L.A., as well as sites in Chicago; Houston; New York; Tampa, Fla.; Ontario, Canada; and Lyon, France.
Here in L.A., the garden at the Proyecto Pastoral after-school community center serves 80 students, kindergarten through 12th grade. Most of the kids come from the nearby Pico-Aliso housing development, and their garden is set on a busy section of Mission Road, next to a printer, behind a chain-link fence.
In March a city public works crew tore up 700 square feet of asphalt in the community center’s parking area. Then a team from the Guadalupe Homeless Project, a nearby shelter, built the seven garden beds with organic soil. They excavated under the walkways as well, laying down sand, then garden soil, then a 6-inch-deep layer of mulch. Ornamentals were planted around the perimeter, and a “reading garden” went in under the tree by the front gate.
“It’s high-crime and home to a lot of at-risk kids," he said, adding that the presence of industry in the neighborhood is another challenge. "The community center is surrounded and gets overlooked.”
Scotts Miracle-Gro's involvement here might seem incongruous given that the company is associated with chemical fertilizers, insecticides and the herbicide Roundup. Synthetic fertilizers are often discouraged, if not forbidden, at community and school gardens.
But the company's Organic Choice line of products is being used at Proyecto Pastoral. Also, Yvonne Savio, who oversees the region's master gardener training as manager of the UC Cooperative Extension's Common Ground Garden Program, says people need to look at the larger picture.
“The whole point is to get the kids growing, literally, in the garden and in themselves as individuals, and it doesn't matter to me how it happens,” she said.
She has no problem with corporate sponsorship of a community or school garden. In fact, that's one of her first bits of advice: Be aggressive in getting a piece of the pie.
“Who's going to do this if it is not corporate?" Clarke said. "There's no public funding for this kind of project. What Miracle-Gro is doing with their philanthropy is marvelous. These communities need gardens for all kinds of reasons.”
The Scotts Miracle-Gro grant was for $10,000, and Home Depot donated a $2,600 gift card to its stores for materials to build the garden.
Many families in the area can’t afford to purchase fresh food, said Velvet Holguin, the Proyecto Pastoral coordinator overseeing the garden. Because the kids are the gardeners, they ultimately will decide what happens to their harvest -- how much will go home with them and how much will be donated.
“When it’s recess, the younger kids run to line up where the water pails are so they can water," she said. "And they’re already asking what we’re going to do with all the tomatoes.”
Indeed, the children don't question where the money came from. They just see the food. Kristin Sandoval, 9, pointed at thyme and basil and said: “I planted a couple of things there. And the strawberries. They’re good. Juicy. That’s all we’ve eaten so far.”
Soon Holguin will have her gardeners recording the progress of their garden in journals: what works, what doesn’t, and who gets to eat crops such as basil.
“You can eat the leaf?” asked George Alcaraz, 9, in stunned amazement as he stuffed the herb in his mouth — his first taste of it.
"It’s so good I can’t believe it!” he said in delight. “What else can you eat?”
Dispatches from community gardens appear here on Wednesdays. For an easy way to follow future installments, join our Facebook page for gardening in the West.
-- Jeff Spurrier
Photos, from top: Litzy Huerta, in the purple shirt, and Cristina Sandoval water one of the raised beds at Proyecto Pastoral; garden coordinator Velvet Holguin stands with Scotts Miracle-Gro manager John Kondo; Ashley Damian, in the multicolored dress, plays tetherball with Ledany Flores behind the seven raised garden beds; George Alcaraz spots a bug on a tomato plant. Credit: Ann Summa