The community digs deep to ensure food security for vulnerable populations.

Growing the Gardens Project

Story Elizabeth Archer
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As the members of 100+ Women Strong arrived at Barra of Mendocino winery last November, each one wrote a check for $100—and left the “to” field blank. 100+ Women Strong Inland Mendocino is a new chapter of the nationwide 100 Who Care Alliance organization. By design, it is not a formal organization and doesn’t even have a bank account. Instead, 100+ Women Strong is an organized “giving circle,” which maximizes its impact by having no overhead or administrative costs. 

“Being an informal group allows us to donate 100 percent of the money we raise,” explains 100+ Women Strong founder Katie Fairbairn. She and the six Core Group leaders volunteer their time and cover the organization’s minimal costs—PO box rental, website domain, and printing—themselves. At each quarterly meeting, the women listen to a five-minute presentation from three different local nonprofits. The members then vote on their preferred organization, and the winner of that vote receives every $100 check. In 2019, 100+ Women Strong’s first year, the group raised over $92,000. 

“It’s one of the most empowering things I’ve ever been involved in. I never dreamed it would be this successful or work this well,” says Fairbairn.

In November, the checks totaled $20,600, which members voted to donate to the Gardens Project, a program run by North Coast Opportunities (NCO). Since its inception in 2007, the Gardens Project has built 55 community gardens across Lake and Mendocino Counties, all of which are run by garden volunteers and supported by NCO staff. Garden sites include previously vacant lots, unused or underutilized space at low-income apartment buildings, and dedicated areas of public parks. In addition, nearly every public school in Mendocino County boasts a garden, many of which are supported by the Gardens Project. 

Gardens Project manager Sarah Marshall shares her 100+ Women Strong membership with friend and Gardens Project coordinator Lucy Kramer. This creative model allows more women to participate at a lower financial entry point. “It’s been really valuable to become a peer of so many incredible women,” says Kramer. She and Marshall are some of the group’s youngest members.

“We are so inspired by this group of women coming together,” says Marshall. “The power of combining many donations into one large gift can mean a lot to a small nonprofit.” 

During her November presentation, Marshall explained that the funds from 100+ Women Strong would be earmarked to build community gardens in low-income senior apartment complexes. In the summer of 2019, many local people, especially the elderly, suffered during the prolonged PG&E power outages. 

“With community gardens, even without power, at-risk people can get fresh fruits and vegetables right from their own backyards. That kind of food security can be lifesaving,” says Marshall.

Based on end-of-year surveys, the Gardens Project estimates that its network of gardens yields nearly 30,000 pounds of produce annually. This food is eaten by the gardeners, shared with friends and family, and donated to food banks. Many Latino community gardeners grow favorites from their home countries including nopales, jalapeños, and other spicy pepper varietals as well as the three sisters: corn, beans, and squash, planted closely together. Other common summer crops include tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, and strawberries. The gardens are planted and harvested year-round, with herbs, broccoli, cauliflower, and leafy greens like lettuce, spinach, and kale taking center stage in the cooler months. Many gardeners also dedicate a little space to flowers, which provide color and beauty as well as food for pollinators and pests alike. 

Public gardens create a natural gathering place where community is built and strengthened, where children can play safely, and people young and old learn from one another. Many gardeners organize informal gatherings like potlucks and barbecues as well as regular work parties. The annual Garden Tour happens each September with various offerings at each participating garden site, including arts and crafts, live music, and free refreshments. The Gardens Project also offers free workshops year-round with a wide variety of topics including seed-saving techniques, seasonal garden planning, irrigation methods, and even olive brining. The goal of all these workshops is to help people, especially low-income and at-risk populations, have consistent access to fresh food. 

“It was incredibly impactful to learn how many senior citizens end up food insecure and what a difference the gross tonnage of vegetables produced by the community gardens will make,” says Fairbairn.

The Gardens Project will start construction this spring on seven new community gardens at low-income senior apartment sites in Fort Bragg, Willits, and Ukiah. The gardens will be designed with input from the seniors who will use the gardens. A combination of NCO staff, community gardeners, California Conservation Corps crews, and interns from the Mendocino County Office of Education’s New Beginnings program will build the gardens, which will be primarily raised beds. 

“Raised beds work really well because they make gardening accessible to individuals of all mobility levels,” explains Marshall. 

The Gardens Project counts on multiple community partners to keep costs to a minimum. Mendo Mill & Lumber provides materials at cost, while Cold Creek Compost donates compost to all the gardens across both counties. Several tree services donate wood chips, and almost everyone involved donates their time to build and maintain the gardens. Through volunteerism and collaboration, the seven senior gardens will be built for about $3,000 each, putting the 100+ Women Strong donation to use for years to come.

“I can’t speak enough to the power of sharing the work you do with over 200 women who are riveted by your story,” says Marshall. “Even the nonprofits who don’t ‘win’ come away with a new, supportive network, and they can be nominated to present again. This organization is only a year old and is already having a huge impact on our community. I’m so proud to be part of it.” 

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