Garden in the desert

Community plots bring nutritional awareness to Butte County’s ‘food deserts’

Get in the gardens:
For information on how to get involved with community gardens in Berry Creek, Concow and Southside Oroville, go to Cultivating Community Advocates website at

A little more than two years ago, Matthew Trumm decided to quit his job as a credit counselor and live entirely off his family’s 12-acre property in Berry Creek, where he now grows more vegetables than he can eat himself. So he trades with his neighbors for other goods, such as eggs, or just gives his produce away.

But not everyone in Berry Creek has access to healthy food in such abundance.

“We have two convenience stores up here, and there are no fresh vegetables, really,” Trumm said. “They might have some iceberg lettuce, and that’s about it.”

Therefore, every run to the grocery store necessitates driving “up and down the mountain,” he said, as the closest is in Oroville.

The Berry Creek area is nestled in the remote foothills east of Lake Oroville and is home to about 2,000 residents. It’s also what’s known as a “food desert”—defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a “census tract with a substantial share of residents who live in low-income areas that have low levels of access to a grocery store or healthy, affordable food retail outlet.”

It’s a problem residents are well aware of and striving to address. In May, Trumm secured a grant through Cultivating Community Advocates (CCA) to build a community garden adjacent to Berry Creek Elementary School. The garden serves as a venue for after-school programs focused on food education, Trumm said, and also as an example for the broader population.

“It’s a really low-maintenance, long-term garden focusing on perennials—things that will grow back every year,” he said. “We try to get people to experiment and grow their own garden.”

Trumm hopes that’s the first step in making the rural community more self-sufficient in terms of producing its own food.

“It would be nice to eventually have a farmers’ market, some food networking,” he said. “I trade as much as I can; if we work together, we can have pretty much everything we need.”

The garden in Berry Creek was funded by a grant handed down in 2012 by the California Department of Food and Agriculture to promote specialty crops—fruits, vegetables and tree nuts, explained Sue Hilderbrand, CCA project manager. CCA, a project overseen by Independent Living Services of Northern California, used the funding to award mini-grants to increase access to healthy food for low-income, rural and multiracial populations in 13 areas throughout Butte County.

“All over the county, we look at populations that are the most vulnerable and the least organized, particularly regarding healthy food,” she said.

What makes the model unique, Hilderbrand says, is that CCA doesn’t presume to have solutions for food-access issues among populations they know little about.

“I’m a middle-class white girl—I don’t know what Southside Oroville needs in terms of organizing the community to grow their own food,” she said. “The idea is, we give money away, give them this seed money and we work very closely to help organize their community and provide them technical skills to get their gardens going.”

Not all of the 13 sites are “true food deserts,” Hilderbrand said, but three of them are: Berry Creek, Concow and Southside Oroville. Others include schools, shelters and churches that serve primarily low-income or minority populations.

Access to healthy food has been an issue for decades in Southside Oroville, says longtime resident Cissy Smith.

“We’re considered the poor part of Oroville,” she said. “A lot of our residents are wheelchair-bound, don’t own vehicles. Our incomes are low, or nil. It’s a struggle for us to get down to FoodMaxx, in the middle of Oroville, to get decent prices on groceries. It’s so far away that many people spend their money on junk food at liquor stores.”

In 2010, Smith helped found the African American Family and Cultural Center in Southside and spearheaded a community garden project across the street from Wyandotte Avenue Elementary School. Since securing grant funding through CCA, interest in the garden has escalated.

“The more people see the garden growing, the more they want to be a part of it,” she said.

Like Trumm in Berry Creek, Smith uses the garden to educate schoolchildren about nutrition.

“We try to go out there with [children] every week or every two weeks to learn something knew,” she said. “We figure that, if you teach the kids, they’ll take it home.”

Indeed, a strategy employed by all of the projects—including the Gratitude Garden Project at Concow Elementary School—is to influence adults through their children. Every week, Tammy Wichman leads classes in the garden and sends students home with vegetables.

“We’re trying to introduce them to new foods younger,” she said, “and to the general concept of how what we’re eating affects our ability to be healthy, functional human beings.”

That’s especially important because “you can’t go grocery shopping in Concow,” she said. “We have one restaurant and one gas station, and there are only a few things in that whole store that could be considered of nutritional value.”

Another component, Trumm said, is helping people identify what constitutes healthy food in the first place. For example, when he gives away the squash he grows on his property, he often gets a curious reaction.

“They always ask me, ‘What do I do with this?’ I’m like, ‘Well, you could eat it,’” he laughed. “It’s not prepared, it’s not packaged; it’s something different they haven’t eaten before.”

Hilderbrand emphasized that all of the projects are long-term, and it’s difficult to measure progress made in the two years since the funding was made available—especially since the goal is “changing fundamental consciousness about food,” she said. “In 20 years, when the kids are buying their own groceries, we’ll know if this worked.”