In this week’s feature we’re getting our hands dirty with Lauren Anderson. An artist and gardener, Lauren added CEO to her list of credits this year when she single-handedly founded Produce to the People, a San Francisco non-profit that works to distribute backyard- and community-grown produce to low income individuals and families free of charge. We got a chance to visit her in her sweet little garden where she served us homemade beer and Beet Velvet cupcakes and we chatted on her afghan-outfitted yard furniture (she swears the acrylic tenacity of these granny blankets makes them ideal for outdoor use- they never mildew- and they look so darn good!).
Produce to the People, which often consists of Lauren and any good-natured tree-climbing friends and volunteers she can scrounge up, travels throughout San Francisco harvesting fruits and vegetables from private gardens and gardeners who simply have more apples, plums and oranges than they know what to do with. In a single season a fruit tree can produce 300-400 pounds of fruit. Seriously. Think of all the front yards you’ve passed covered in moldering lemons and squishy plums and thought, “What a waste.” Well, Lauren thought so too and decided to do something about it. Now people can contact Produce to the People to arrange picking parties: PttP comes to your house, harvests your goods, and gives them to hungry people throughout the city.
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“I was inspired by the amount of produce that can be grown in our tiny little city. It’s amazing that when I’m up in a tree in someone’s backyard, harvesting fruit, I can look down the block and see all the other fruit trees in all the other backyards. It’s amazing how many there are.”
In an era where everything organic seems to come with a well cultivated price tag, Produce to the People believes that access to quality fruits and vegetables shouldn’t hinge on the fat of your wallet. Locations like the Free Farm Stand in San Francisco’s Mission District are helping to level the playing field by giving away thousands of pounds of produce every year. As well as working with the Free Farm Stand, Produce to the People also makes regular drop-offs to food pantries and soup kitchens throughout the city.
“I’m inspired predominantly by a belief in food justice and local food security, meaning that I think healthy food should be a right rather than a privilege, and that a sustainable way to work towards that is to grow it as close to where it will be consumed as possible.”
Produce to the People requires the produce they harvest has not come into contact with chemical pesticides or fertilizers. One of the beautiful things about fruit grown on trees is that contaminants in the soil aren’t taken up in the body of the fruit, so even low quality soil can produce perfectly delicious and healthy fruit because the tree’s own filtering system doesn’t allow toxins to reach the fruit. Thanks to San Francisco’s mild climate Lauren and her crew can collect fruit year round: loquats in the Spring, plums in the Summer, apples in Fall, and citrus fruit in Winter.
Lauren’s own garden lives behind an unassuming house on Anderson Street, appropriately, in sunny Bernal Heights. The same house serves host to her other artistic endeavors including The Spare Room Project, which she and her housemates organize each month. Although only about 15 feet by 20 feet Lauren has managed to fit a smorgasbord of leafy greens in this little rectangle, as well as a hot tub turned greenhouse, several fruit trees, herbs, a gray-water watering system, and a full-size compost bin. She’s got room for flowers too, but prefers the kind you can put on salads and cupcakes. This garden proves that just because you live in a dense city doesn’t mean you have to compromise your agrarian dreams.
Here are Lauren’s urban gardening tips:
If you’re interested in starting your own edible garden you should start by growing leafy greens, like chard or lettuce. Leafy greens are easy to grow and maintain: just pull off the outer leaves every once in awhile for a salad and you’re done with your pruning, and they grow super fast.
Start a worm bin! It’s difficult to get the volume you need for a full on aerobic compost pile on a countertop, but you fit a worm bin under your sink. It’s easy to make and maintain, and very inexpensive. Make friends with a backyard gardener or a community garden with a worm bin and they should have extra worms you can scoop out. Here is a great how to video that explains the whole process by the Enviromentals.
Don’t have access to your own piece of dirt? Check out your community garden. Working at a community garden gives you space to stretch out, more opportunities to learn, and a community of new friends and neighbors. Most cities have gardens where you can reserve a plot, but Lauren especially likes community gardens where everyone works together on all the land and everyone that helps gets to share in the bounty, which means you get to harvest up your own fresh fruits and vegetables every week.