Sowing the seeds
Chico’s GRUB turns back yards into bounty
At the end of Normal Avenue, seeds of change are in full bloom at a two-acre plot laden with a variety of vegetables including peppers, eggplant and lettuce. The garden is located at “Riparia,” a larger property owned by a neighborhood of self-described social activists who support the slow-food movement, and who heard through the local grapevine about the good work of GRUB.
Food is the foundation of life, and GRUB (Growing Resourcefully Uniting Bellies) is the food-based 9-month-old nonprofit creation of four friends who want the community to embrace sustainable food practices.
During a recent Saturday morning at Riparia, GRUB’s Francine Stuelpnagel described the large-scale farming practices that took hold in the 1950s, after World War II. Giant machines capable of harvesting millions of pounds within minutes replaced simple machinery. The technology dramatically changed agriculture, leading to the demise of the small farm and American food culture.
“And everyone’s like, let’s have smorgasbords and Home Town Buffet—American mentality took over. We forgot what people do with a plow, and what a hoe is,” said Stuelpnagel, a Chico State student. “And unfortunately industrial agriculture [was bad] for the earth, and now we are losing topsoil, and there’s [trouble with] pesticides and fossil fuels—if you have a fuel shortage, the food shortage follows along with it.”
Earlier in the day, Stuelpnagel had appeared as a guest on a KZFR radio show opposite Raj Patel, activist and author of Stuffed and Starved. Patel’s book examines the global food system in which a billion overweight people live among 850 million others going hungry. The topic of the show was the global food crisis, and Stuelpnagel offered her insights:
“We are dependent completely upon fossil fuels for our food. Like in Cuba in 1989, when the Soviet Union fell, Cuba had a famine for four years. They were forced to grow food on rooftops and in parks. Now they grow half their food for 2 million people within the walls of the city,” she said.
Since last July, Stuelpnagel, along with fellow Chico State student Max Kee, British transplant Lee Callendar and community activist Sherri Scott, has helped sow communal gardens and the spirit of volunteerism. Eventually, the four would like to make a living running the project.
The garden is a partnership with neighboring farmers, who were already growing food and selling their yields at farmers markets. Callendar had experience working on an organic soybean and passion fruit farm in Ecuador, which is where he learned about CSA—community supported agriculture.
Stuelpnagel is credited with jumpstarting GRUB after hearing Amie Frisch from the California Student Sustainability Coalition Foods Initiative speak at a sustainability conference about how no green spaces are left in San Jose. Frisch’s nonprofit, Veggielution, started knocking on doors, asking for open back yards.
In Chico, GRUB grows and sells food, distributed to the community via bicycle. The process begins with a CSA registry; members pay a small fee to receive food during the harvest season. It’s also a grassroots effort, taking communities back to principles that predate industrial farming.
GRUB is also into composting, which, to this group, is a metaphor for sustainability in action. Kee began by picking up scraps from Bustolini’s Deli. He now spends three days a week riding a bike to like-minded businesses, including Empire Coffee, Chico Tofu, Café Coda, Teaz Me Tea Bar & Asian Café and House of Nature’s Own.
Compost makes the soil rich, but that’s not the only reason for the practice. Diverting nutrient-rich food scraps from the landfill is an important aspect of recycling, although one most people overlook.
“Ethical agricultural practice is central to our philosophy, and compost is a big part of that,” Callendar explained.
The group also educates the community about where food comes from. Stuelpnagel and Scott are working with kids from the Boys & Girls Club of Chico and Mi Esquelita Maya, a charter preschool started by Robin and Maria Trenda. They are eager to educate children and families about the origins of food and how to grow it themselves.
“Getting kids to think about all those strange things they consume every day, about where food comes from—if we can just get them to think about the implications of consuming those items, about the big picture,” Stuelpnagel said.
Scott adds that farming should be celebrated, noting that when children show an interest in becoming farmers, they are often told it’s too difficult and unprofitable.
Stuelpnagel is as passionate about reclaiming land from the industrial farm movement as she is about creating a bright future for kids. Yet the argument goes that the rise in industrial farms allowed developing nations to make cheap and plentiful food; that organic food is too expensive to produce on a mass scale. As Will Allen, organic farmer, activist and author of The War on Bugs asked at his recent talk at Lyon Books, “How cheap does chemical food have be to think it is a better option?”
Stuelpnagel agrees wholeheartedly. “Conventional food is not cheap in the long run. Industrial farms have cleared our virgin forests, which were providing the oxygen for our kids to breathe,” she said. “We are eating foods devoid of any nutrients. Children are getting 30 percent of their calories from soda pop, and they are obese, yet they are malnourished.”
Callendar makes the point that the kids most affected are from low-income families, primarily from minority backgrounds. GRUB’s solution is to donate 25 percent of its bounty to the families most in need. The group is partnering with Karen Goodwin of the Opt Fit for Kids program to provide dietary counseling for kids with obesity or potential obesity issues. GRUB recently donated five bags of lettuce, two bags of peas, and a whole crate of grapefruits for distribution to the low-income families served by the organization.
The GRUB group now manages four community gardens, totaling nearly five acres, and is consulting with the Chico State Sustainability House, part of the honors dorm, Konkow Hall, about growing another. At Riparia, the location of the newest and largest of these gardens, up to 25 volunteers at a time bike out every Saturday. Martha Foley, a friend of Scott, believed she had a “black thumb” until she started spending every Saturday in the GRUB gardens, planting and pulling weeds.
Another volunteer, Blake McSorley, comes to the garden to help grow the vision of Kee and Stuelpnagel, who he knows through his involvement with Chico State’s sustainability movement.
His reason for volunteering?
“Just hope, I guess,” he said. “Without creating your own hope, you are going to be lost in the culture we have.”