"Greens and Means"
The streets of East Palo Alto have seen everything from brick factories to poultry farms to gang shootings, but they haven’t before met anything quite like Rev. Bob Hartley, a known and respected longtime EPA resident. He’s a man with a plan to help the youth in the community give up their weapons – in favor of plants.
He and his wife Clara, an industrious wheelchair-bound woman with a lovely smile, grow a wealth of flourishing vegetables in their backyard and bring a selection of fresh pickings to sell at the EPA Farmers' Market each Saturday.
“There are some young folks that I want to go around with me, and I want to introduce them to vegetables as opposed to salads from McDonalds,” said 72-year-old Hartley.
"I want to tell them where African Americans, specifically, come from. When I was growing up, there weren't a lot of McDonald's around. And we didn't have a lot of change in our pockets. So our menus had to do more with nutrition and being able to survive and thrive for the tomorrows. So we struggled for food, and that struggle brought us closer together - certainly as a family - and consequently as a community.”
Hartley is well aware of how youth violence is affecting his city. “There’s a lot of disgust on our streets here. We had a young man killed on July 4th right outside. Kids on a bicycle came by and blew his brains out,” he said at his home, “on a bicycle.”
'Start young enough'
Hartley believes that bringing the youth back to their cultural roots through showing how food is grown and explaining the significance of the act of growing will help create a sense of community and steer them away from violence. “There's a hard difference between smoking weed and growing greens. But if we can start young enough and hold their interest long enough, I think we'll certainly be able to persuade some change in a select group of young folk,” he affirmed.
For Hartley, the vegetables that he grows and sells hold a culture, a history, and a way of life. “I was raised in Texas, and backyard gardening was a part of my growing up. We couldn’t imagine a home without a garden, the two synonymous, so I’m extremely familiar with the desire to garden and the appreciation for gardening.”
The two started growing vegetables in their backyard after stumbling upon the garden at the East Palo Alto Charter School and talking to Eron Sandler, who runs the school garden. She invited them to a meeting with Collective Roots, an EPA-based organization aimed at educating and engaging communities in sustainable practices. Collective Roots helped the Hartleys to establish their prolific garden. “We were told we might become vendors at the farmers' market and that was attractive,” Hartley recalled.
His approach to business at the farmers' market is one of sharing as much as possible. "We went around all the stores that carried collard greens and checked prices. Costco in Redwood City had them for $1.79 a bunch; Oakwood had them for $1.69. They were kind of small, so we bucked [ours] up and said $1.50 ... that's cool."
'A local economy'
"This farmers’ market is not the first farmers’ market in East Palo Alto by any means," said David Kane, 25, food system change coordinator for Collective Roots. "And the backyard gardener network is not the first association of growers in this city. But it’s different in that it allows local growers to make a little bit of money, which I don’t think you can discount the importance of – by growing food here in East Palo Alto and sharing it with their neighbors ... having a local economy where that money stays in this community." Kane added that the backyard gardener network "is almost entirely unfunded."
Not a handout
"One of the things that is most exciting to me about the Backyard Gardener Network is that it’s not a delivery of service. We’ re not handing out food. People are not standing in line at the food bank or the food pantry. They’re growing it here themselves like Rev. Hartley said, he’s excited about sharing it with whoever will come and buy from him at a very reasonable price," Kane said.
The EPA farmers' market has since taken on an even larger significance for the Hartleys. While Hartley acknowledged that at-risk youth don’t frequent the market, he said that their family members sometimes do, which provides a gateway to reach out to them.
“It's going to take a different approach to community organizing than I'm used to," he said. "I want to get into that mindset and start talking not about sons and guns specifically, but about greens and means. And how you can bring back some respect for each other.”