Urban farming in Sacramento: A Community and Social Event.

Categories: Food, Green

“When you used to say ‘farmer,’ you wouldn’t have me as the picture.” Fighting back against the food desert one square-foot farming plot at a time, Chanowk Yisrael leads the way.

Rich beds of freshly tilled soil, a friendly flock of chickens, and a grove of trees dotted with orange orbs. It’s the picture of bucolic bliss you’d expect to find miles outside of the city, but this particular scene is rooted in south Oak Park—one of our region’s many food deserts—at the residence of the Yisrael family, who are changing the narrative of Sacramento’s farm-to-fork story by acting on their motto: “Transforming the hood for good.”

Urban homesteaders Chanowk and Judith Yisrael, along with their nine children, have converted their yard and a neighboring lot into a half-acre farm consisting of a chicken coop, a small orchard producing everything from plums to goji berries, and gardens bursting with crops like Ethiopian kale, Swiss chard and collard greens. They’ve also taught themselves how to compost, cultivate seeds and make jams and soaps.

Chanowk Yisrael runs next door to surprise his neighbors with a bowl of cherries he just harvested with the help of 48 other members of the community. The harvest came from the school across the street, with which he has a Memorandum of Understanding agreement for the use of the garden. Yisrael, his wife Judith and her family, and their nine children are not new to urban farming. They’ve been doing it in their own backyard since 2007. 

Yisrael, a skinny but muscular man in his early 40s, tells me that for some of the folks (even into their 30s), this was the first time they’d experienced the joy of pulling a piece of fruit off the vine and biting into it right then and there. It’s a life-changing experience, he says, that he provides for people year-round in his backyard garden.  

“People come back after months, sometimes years later, saying, ‘I came to your garden and here’s what I’ve been doing since then.’ They show me pictures and their whole backyard is square-foot gardening,” Yisrael says.

This is in the Oak Park neighborhood of Sacramento, California, which is currently battling food insecurity, poverty and gentrification, which is largely the result of historical racism, redlining and other tactics designed to undermine the fabric of the community. Oak Park is Sacramento’s first suburb. After World War II many non-white Americans moved here because other neighborhoods were racially restricted. Now it’s the “it” neighborhood for out-of-town investors to flip houses and make a profit.

“Most gentrification efforts are led from the outside in. What we’re doing is we’re making change from the inside out. And people are seeing that. We’re transforming the ‘hood for good,” Yisrael tells me.

As we speak, he transfers young plants from the greenhouse to palettes outside so they can harden off before getting planted in the ground. Then he goes out to till the soil in one of his gardens (or as he calls it “dancing with the earth”), opting not for a rototiller, and instead using a broadfork. He jokes that interviewing a farmer is a “moving target.”

The Yisrael Family Farm has been in operation since 2011, before there was much talk in the media about “urban farms.” They grow food for themselves (crop varieties change with the seasons) and they also sell what they don’t need to their neighbors via a table on the driveway. Yisrael tells me the prices are significantly lower than the organic produce at grocery stores because he doesn’t have to worry about the same overhead and transportation costs.

The farm makes its income through a variety of sources. They hold classes on cooking, health and farming. They sell soap. They hold harvest events, and will even help community members build gardens in their own yards. They also hold their annual Urban Farm to Fork event, which is a response to the pricey mainstream Sacramento Tower Bridge Dinner in the fall, which celebrates the culture of farm-to-fork the city is known for, and runs upwards of $200 a meal.Yisrael charges $25 for a five-course vegetarian meal, utilizing much of the produce from his own backyard, and even provides live music.

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