- Greggory Moore
It was a swanky spread featuring dishes prepared largely from food grown right there on that seven-acre food-producing oasis in the middle of Los Angeles County’s biggest housing development, all with the goal of helping urbanites plug into the possibilities that what we eat can be cultivated right here at home.
In the late 1980s and early ’90s, the Carmelitos Public Housing Development was in the news for all the wrong reasons: robbery, gang activity, murder. But it’s a new millennium, and something far better is happening there, in the form of the Growing Experience Urban Farm, a not-for-profit farm/community garden founded in 2009 on the grounds of a former nursery. Operated by the Housing Authority of the County of Los Angeles and run by three full-time staffers and a fluid rotation of volunteers, five years after its founding the Growing Experience organically and sustainably produces approximately 60 different foods over the course of a year, including not only a variety of fruits and vegetables, but chicken eggs and fish.
“Our mission is to grow food and make it affordable to folks that live in this area who don’t necessarily have access,” says Jimmy Ng, program manager at the Growing Experience, as he walks me through the orchard, the chicken pen, the aquaponics area. No chemical pesticides, Ng says, no synthetic fertilizers, no tilling of the ground (“so we don’t disturb the soil structure”).
It might as well be a little slice of Farm Belt, except that we’re in plain view of the housing development, as well as a senior housing complex. Ng gazes in that direction and laments that even many of the people living there need only walk across the street to procure fresh food, some still go to retailers who cart their produce in from who knows where—if the patrons in question buy produce at all.
“It’s about education,” Ng says, “
But Ng says things are trending in the right direction. The Growing Experience offers a training program for low-income youth. It hosts a certified farmers market on a weekly basis. It provides a couple of pounds of lettuce every Tuesday to Long Beach City College to sell to students at its food court. Approximately a hundred families subscribe to the Growing Experience’s CSA (community-supported agriculture) program, which affords subscribers a variety of produce grown on the premises at $17 per box. There’s even a community kitchen where jams, juices, pickles, etc., are made—a practice that Ng hopes will lead to a branded line of products.
“Definitely a lot of people are aware and they seek us out now,” Ng reports, “whereas before we really had to do a lot more marketing and PR to put the word out there. Now we’ve stopped doing any time of advertising, [because] people actually come to us. They’re requesting [what the Growing Experience offers] more and more.”
And then there was that swanky dinner, an annual event that Ng says has gotten progressively bigger during its four-year run. It was pricey, with gourmands ponying up $85 apiece. But considering the sumptuousness of the fare, the pleasant novelty of enjoying a bit of farm life in North Long Beach, and the fact that the net proceeds benefitted the Growing Experience mission, it’s doubtful that anyone walked away unsatisfied.
But you didn’t have to be a foodie to appreciate the multiple values—nutritional, environmental, economic—highlighted by the event. And you don’t need to have been there to benefit from what Growing Experience has to offer to you and your community. Because this urban farm isn’t going anywhere.
The Growing Experience Urban Farm is located at 750 Via Carmelitos. Head east on Atlantic Plaza—a little road just north of 46th St. that leads you into a shopping center—turn right on N. Via Veranda, then look for the signs as the road bends to the left. For more information, call 562,984.2917 or go to GrowingExperienceLB.org.