Tag Archives: food

Donald Theard, Community Gardener

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It’s amazing what one person can do for the community. Last year I met Donald Theard the main volunteer gardener at the People’s Grocery garden at 7th and Market. Called Free-er Way Garden because it’s right next to the freeway, it’s open to anyone to come by and pick vegetables. It provides a crucial service to the West Oakland neighborhood where healthy foods are hard to come by, though it wouldn’t be possible without a dedicated volunteer growing the food.

Not long ago the garden was a weed-filled vacant lot but People’s Grocery got permission to  grow vegetables as part of their food justice program.  When I talked to Donald last year he told me he’d never grown vegetables till the year before when he started volunteering at the garden. He said he comes twice a week tending the garden growing  everything from carrots, collard greens, peppers, kale, tomatoes, beans, chard, squash, watermelons and more. His latest experiment was growing okra. There’s newly planted fruit trees, an arbor, a greenhouse for starting seedlings and a beautiful mural. Across the street there’s a McDonalds but there’s no place nearby to buy produce. While I was there several neighbors came by and picked their own vegetables, including senior, Cloteal Davis who was picking  up some collard greens and peppers for dinner.

I stopped by the garden a couple of weeks ago and it’s still going strong, even though People’s Grocery has closed. I wonder if Donald is still at work, keeping the community healthy with fresh organic produce. If anyone knows please contact me so I can check in with Donald Theard, I’d love to hear how last year’s okra crop went.

Read an in depth story about Oakland’s Right to Grow program and four other American cities working to fix the broken food system in Fixing Food: Fresh Solutions from Five U. S. Cities by The Union of Concerned Scientists, 2015.

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Cloteal Davis, a neighbor, stops by to get some vegetables from the People's Grocery garden at 7th and Market in West Oakland that Donald Theard, a volunteer tends.

Cloteal Davis, a neighbor, stops by to get some vegetables from the People’s Grocery garden at 7th and Market in West Oakland that Donald Theard, a volunteer tends.

PeeWee and Veronica, neighbors stop by and talk to Donald Theard the volunteer gardener at People's Grocery garden at 7th and Market in West Oakland.

PeeWee and Veronica, neighbors stop by and talk to Donald Theard the volunteer gardener at People’s Grocery garden at 7th and Market in West Oakland.

Donald Theard, 510.238.8946, volunteers at the People's Grocery garden at 7th and Market in West Oakland. He never grew vegetables before working this vacant lot. Before working here, he never grew vegetables. He's worked here one year.

Hydroponics in the Tenderloin

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Steve Hunter with the Volksgarden hydroponics system by Omega Garden with basil plants, ready for harvest.

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The Project Open Hand greenhouse is located at street level and attracts a lot of interest.

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Arugula grows in a Volksgarden hydroponics system.

I never guessed I’d find a hydroponic system in the Tenderloin, but Project Open Hand has a greenhouse hydroponics system right next to their front door at 730 Polk Street.  The idea was started by Steve Hunter, the director of Building Operations when he found he could not expand the rooftop garden because of the weight.  40 solar panels cover most of the roof already and the engineers advised against adding anything else. So he turned to hydroponics.

To get the idea off the ground, Project Open Hand launched a  Kickstarter campaign and it immediately generated a lot of interest. The campaign raised $30,000 which allowed them to renovate the first floor room and buy two wheel shaped growers called Volksgardens made by Omega Garden in Canada. The system is designed for maximum yields in minimum spaces–growing up to 80 plants in the size of a closet.  Perfect for downtown San Francisco.

The plants grow in substrate called rock wool and they rotate slowly around a central light that is on 16 hours a day.  They soak in nutrient rich water each time they reach the bottom of the wheel so it’s crucial that the wheel never stops turning. Steve says “stopping the wheel equals plant death” and has to be checked every day. Insects are not a  problem, but the PH levels and nutrient levels are constantly monitored.

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Some seedlings are harvested for seasoning.

Since last year they’ve purchased two new Volksgardens that are smaller and more efficient, yet grow the same number of plants. They new models use fluorescent lights that are also cooler so fans  are no longer needed. Steve has  found basil and speckled butter head lettuce to be their most successful crops. Seedlings are started under grow lights, then transferred to the Volksgardens. They are ready to harvest in about 6 weeks, although some of the micro greens are harvested at two weeks, before are even transplanted. The harvested greens and herbs are added to lunches but they are important for other reasons too. They engage the community and set an example as to what is possible. Steve envisions getting more Volksgardens and stacking them to increase the efficiency even more.

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125 volunteers work daily at Project Open Hand. They do all the food prep, for the cooks.

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A chef at work.

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40 solar panels on top the Project Open Hand roof. They are used to heat water.

Project Open Hand was started by Ruth Brinker who began cooking meals in her kitchen for seven neighbors with AIDS way back in 1985. Today the non-profit prepares 2500 nutritious meals a day  for sick, and elderly delivered hot to their door. and groceries for 200 more. The company works with 125 volunteers a day who prep food, deliver it and now volunteers are even involved in growing food in the hydroponics greenhouse.

Project Hand has it’s annual Open House October 23rd at 6pm. Come by and see it all for your self!