So much of Sam Ramos’ life is shaped by the cycles of gardening — tilling soil, planting seeds, harvest.
But that’s not where the cycle ends. For the last few months, Ramos has spent his Tuesdays hosting a farm stand in West Sacramento, where he gives tables full of produce away for free to residents of the Broderick neighborhood.
“I work about every free farm stand we do, which is right next to my house,” Ramos said. “So, it's great just to see people's faces.”
Ramos advertises the stand on his Instagram and said he often recognizes the people who come by to pick up fresh food, some of them classmates from high school. They start every Tuesday at 10 a.m., armed with about three tables full of freshly harvested vegetables.
With each passing week, Ramos has seen more and more people swing by to pick up food. Often, those tables are wiped clean by the early afternoon.
“It’s gone basically every time,” he said. “Recently, people have been lining up for the stand before we’ve even set it up yet.”
Now 18, Ramos said that he didn’t grow up with a garden. He’d never farmed a day in his life, much less imagined his schedule revolving around it — at least, not before meeting Alfred Melbourne, the founder of the nonprofit Three Sisters Gardens.
The nonprofit hosts the free farm stand and runs four gardening sites throughout West Sacramento, as well as selling community-supported agriculture boxes that locals can subscribe to through their website.
With the launch of Three Sisters Gardens in 2018, Melbourne began offering farming workshops to young people in West Sacramento, as well, where he also lived. The classes are aimed at giving them the skills to farm fresh produce and harvest food for their community.
The neighborhood Melbourne and Ramos grew up in is a food desert in Sacramento, where residents have historically faced more barriers to accessing fresh foods. It’s a large part of the reason that, while some produce is for sale, about half of the food they grow is regularly given away for free.
“We’re in a food desert in a state that produces the most amount of food,” Ramos said. “That's one of the reasons we do this … so you can get good, nutritious food to the locals, and also just expose people to it who aren’t going out of their way to farmers’ markets.”
Issues with inaccessibility persist in the Sacramento region, according to a new survey on food access by CapRadio, Valley Vision and the Sacramento State Institute for Social Research. Low-income communities and communities of color often have the most interest in accessing fresh food through community gardening but are frequently equipped with the fewest resources to do so, according to its findings.
Victor Brazelton, director of operations for Planting Justice, said that he saw this need for better access while growing up in South Sacramento. With Planting Justice, an organization aimed at democratizing access to fresh foods in urban areas, he said he’s seen just how common this issue is beyond Sacramento, too.
There are plenty of reasons certain communities, often low-income communities and communities of color, might see bigger barriers in accessing fresh food, according to Brazelton. Many communities impacted by gentrification are forced to move out of their neighborhoods, some moving into smaller spaces where they have no space for gardening or in areas far from places where fresh food can be bought.
That’s where community gardens come in.
“Community gardens give an opportunity ... to that farm-to-fork experience, which folks who have access to capital markets have,” he said. “But the idea of bringing that farm-to-fork experience to the communities that need it at a price that's affordable, that’s something that we wanted to do for the community overall.”
Now, Planting Justice and Three Sisters Gardens are coming together to work on a new project. Since retiring the city’s tree nursery in 2008, Sacramento officials have spent years looking for something else to take up the space. Melbourne said that with their project approved to begin work in the next few months, he and other youth workers will renovate the space for an entirely new community garden.
But it’s more than growing food, Melbourne said. He also plans to have a ceremonial space, meant for local Indigenous people to come and culturally connect with the land, as well as “connect with other folks that look like them and that share some history.”
This is what makes this project different from other community gardens, Melbourne said — their work goes beyond farming and is tailored to the community he grew up in, aimed at helping youth of color discover new paths in life.
“That's what we want to do by creating this shared space,” Melbourne said. “Giving these youngsters the connection to the land that has been lost.”
Growing in tandem
The story of the Three Sisters, one shared by many Indigenous peoples, carries a core lesson for any gardener growing corn, beans and squash.
The three foods, or sisters, grow in tandem: Beans help fertilize the soil. The sprawling vines of squash choke weeds and keep the dirt moist. And corn stalks rise high to get their sun, avoiding competition with the other two. Melbourne, who is Hunkpapa Lakota and a member of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, said that he named his project after this perfect unity. This is the kind of relationship he hopes to build within his own community.
“We have to connect the dots for our youth, adults and elders so that they can grow together perfectly, as well,” he said. “We talk to our youth about reconnecting them to the elders, to the adults and to the land.”
That’s how Melbourne learned to garden, after all. His father showed him how to grow food from a young age by working with him on their garden at their home in West Sacramento. They grew squash, tomatoes, all sorts of food they could later eat. He said his mother still has a garden at home, where she teaches his nephew how to grow food.
“Having that at home was always real important,” he said.
But Melbourne said he lost a sense of the path he wanted to take as he grew older. When a friend first offered him a plot of land in 2018, a space that would later become the first garden for Three Sisters Gardens, he said he’d felt directionless.
Throughout his teen years, he’d gone in and out of juvenile hall and was later incarcerated as an adult. When he was released in 2016 — his time in prison totalling 18 years at that point — he said that he was filled with a desire to offer different paths for the youth of color in the neighborhood he grew up in. Gardening had always been a space he found comfort, so he started there.
“I knew that I wanted to give back to my community after all the time of being incarcerated, watching kind of what was going on from afar in my community, a school-to-prison pipeline being established, over-criminalizing our youth,” he said. “I was trying to find a way to rescue our youth and give them something that I didn't have.”
He sees it as a redirection of resources: “There’s a lot of money to lock us up and keep us incarcerated. … We’re trying to redirect and divert that money into our programs.”
While his youth program is open to all, Melbourne said that he created it with youth of color who are often cut off from these opportunities in mind. As a Lakota person, he said there’s not a day that goes by where he doesn’t think of the languages, cultures and people that were ripped away from Indigenous communities after colonization.
“What we're talking about here is such a larger issue at hand when we're dealing with Native and Indigenous folks and trauma, generational trauma,” he said. “We acknowledge these things and we're trying to give our youth the inspiration to see the greatness in themselves.”
Lessons in a garden
When Ramos considers who he thought he’d be at this age, he can’t help but laugh. He said he wanted to be an electrician when he started high school. He could never have guessed that this would be his path.
His passion for it has now grown to the point where he’s started his own small garden at home. In it, he’s growing watermelon, tomatoes, cucumbers, spinach — all kinds of food he learned to grow with the mentorship of Melbourne.
“[I’d] never been to a farmer's market, I wasn't in a circle with any farmers, so I just really hadn't been exposed to it until I was in high school,” Ramos said of growing his own food. “So, yeah, I just really like having a mentor — really helps along the process.”
Brazelton with Planting Justice expects that the project to take over Sacramento’s old tree nursery will provide between 10 to 20 new green jobs in the area. His organization and Three Sisters Gardens will likely break ground within the next three months.
Ramos will be one of the primary point persons for the tree nursery project. Melbourne said he’s already started training other newcomers to Three Sisters Gardens, too.
“That's how far we've come throughout this process, that our youngsters are gaining that confidence,” Melbourne said.
Brazelton said that he’s seen the power gardening can have beyond offering food, as well. Often, it’s a place where the people can learn the value of the food they eat by getting first hand experience as to how it’s made.
“A garden in itself is its own school,” he said. “It's so important to be able to talk to people about where our food comes from, what's in our food, how our food gets to us.”
For Ramos, all of this came at the exact right time. He originally began working for Three Sisters Garden as a volunteer, one of the first to ever enter the program, and he’s since been hired on as a paid worker. Now, as a recent high school graduate, he said it’s given him a better idea of what he wants to do next. Something in the field of agriculture, he said. Something that’ll keep his hands in the ground.
But for now, he’s just happy to be working with Melbourne in the garden, in his hometown, providing food for a place he’s known all his life. While he’s come to love the work, he said that it’s the mission of Three Sisters Gardens that truly keeps him going.
“It’s more than the garden,” he said. “I can for sure say that.”
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