By Antoine Abou-Diwan
Richard Garcia clearly remembers a conversation many years ago which crystalized his life’s work.
Garcia and a colleague from Homeboy Industries were driving to a small urban farm plot by the Dolores Mission Church in Boyle Heights, and he noticed that she was not saying much.
“I asked her when we got out of the car, emptied the van of seedlings and planting material—I asked her why she was quiet,” Garcia recalled.
“She said the last time she traveled down that [road] was when she was an active gang member looking to do a drive-by because that was enemy territory,” he continued.
“She had found herself in a moment of recognizing who she was today, as somebody planting new life where she was once planning to take away that life. That’s when I recognized that urban agriculture has deeper meaning than just feeding the palate.”
Garcia realized that the act of turning the empty lot next to the church into a green oasis of nutrition for the community had also nurtured new life in his colleague. He set about to replicate that effort in other areas of Los Angeles.
Garcia launched Alma Backyard Farms with fellow Loyola Marymount University alum Erica Cuellar in 2013. They envisioned Alma Backyard Farms as a restorative environment for formerly incarcerated individuals, a place for them to redirect their lives in a healthy and sustainable direction as they grow and harvest nutritious food for the community.
The need was clear. Approximately 50 percent of inmates released from state prison in California are subsequently convicted of a new crime within three years of release, according to a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation report. Urban agriculture with formerly incarcerated folks at the helm might be one way to help them from falling back into the clutches of the prison system.
Garcia and Cuellar began with a modest plot in East Los Angeles that provided food for five families of formerly incarcerated individuals and their children as part of an effort to reunify the families and help them grow. It was a small but crucial start.
In 2015, Alma Backyard Farms planted an urban farm at a transitional home for 60 formerly incarcerated folks to ease their re-entry into the community. That space had 12 raised beds, 24 fruit trees and one chicken coop on 2,000 square feet of edible landscape as well as a 1,000 square foot pollinator garden.
In 2017, Alma set up its largest urban farm on an unused softball field on the property of St. Albert the Great Church on Redondo Beach Boulevard in Compton. This space started as a quarter-acre plot and doubled in size two years later. It includes 64 raised beds, 36 in-ground rows, 12 fruit trees, 8,000 square feet of pollinator gardens, and a children’s learning garden.
“The questions we posed were, how do we increase that impact, go to places that have food insecurity and could you grow food there, go to places where there’s disproportionately more people on parole, Like the South L.A. area, and could you possibly employ them?” Garcia said. “We found some answers to doing that here at this particular farm in Compton.”
The answer is obvious for anybody who visits. Garcia and his colleagues turned that empty lot into a peaceful and lush oasis with collard greens, kale, squash, okra, celery, melons and more.
There is a spot for families and friends to sit together. Area businesses, such as bakeries, have an opportunity to sell their goods alongside Alma’s produce.
Men and women who were once incarcerated manage various aspects of the project. They plant and harvest vegetables, ring up sales, answer questions and help customers carry their groceries to their cars.
The Compton location is also home to the Alma Farm Stand, which is open to the community every other Sunday.
“Typically, a farm stand would be at the curbside. People would pull up their cars and run in and out,” Garcia said. “I think the effort here with our farm stand is for people to come into the farm, interact with each other and interact with the folks who work here.”
“One of the joys I have, particularly, is when I hear mothers and children talk about what they’re going to prepare, or grandma and grandkids talk about what they’re going to prepare later in the day.”
Prices are suggestions. Customers can pay what they can afford and are welcome take what they need. Nobody is denied food for lack of funds.
“Part of what we do is to reinforce the deeper truth that people are capable of growth, and should they have paid their dues, redemption is a possibility,” Garcia continued. “We want to get to a point where someone’s identity is not resting heavily on a past—a regrettable past— but that their identity today rests on their capacity to help feed, nourish people.”
The effort seems to be paying off. Dozens of families crowded the food stand on a warm Sunday morning in September. They filled baskets with celery, tomatoes, kale and more. They chit-chatted with Alma staffers. They paused for selfies among the okra vines.
“Journey,” an urban farmer with Alma, managed the bread stand.
Journey grew up in Compton, and said that plot had been an abandoned baseball field as far back as 1990.
Journey was once incarcerated. She joined Alma through a re-entry program.
“I was gang-banging, running amuck, being bad,” she said. “Here you can be yourself. I learned construction skills, how to be a cashier, I took etiquette classes.”
Nowadays Journey lives across the street from the Farm Stand. She celebrated her four-year anniversary with Alma in September.
Alma Backyard Farms’ success has attracted a significant amount of media attention. PBS, KCRW and ABC News have covered the project, and the attention has not let up. Garcia was busy fielding questions from two organizations when Community Health Councils visited the Farm Stand in September.
The story is inspirational and real. The farm field is a reflection of the people that work it, people such as Loy, who helped establish the Compton farm. Loy spent 23 years in prison, according to Garcia.
“He recently visited and he said, ‘this kind of looks like my life. It was unproductive, fallow, desolate.’ But his life today—he’s married, has a steady job—his life looks more like this,” Garcia said, referring to the farm.
The land was once fallow, and the people working it today once served time. That same land is now productive, and those same folks are now feeding themselves and their community.
Instead of discussing the financial viability of the project, Garcia talks about the viability of the folks who work with him.
“I don’t have background in agriculture per se,” Garcia said. “I studied philosophy, English and theology. I think those studies helped me to imagine and helped us to imagine this space differently. I wasn’t looking for production, for volume for profit–I was looking for production for volume to add value to people’s lives, not necessarily for the bottom line of dollars.”