Sarah Whedon remembers discovering the Free Farm Stand on a Sunday after moving from Boston. There, in the middle of a park on 23rd and Treat streets, volunteers were giving away fresh local produce to those in need. “We moved to the right place,” Whedon recalls telling her husband.
To other neighbors, however, the stand is a nuisance, getting in the way of children at play and the birthday parties held in the gazebo in Parque Niños Unidos. “It’s nice to have open space to play with a ball,” said Jackie Goeldner, a neighbor and parent of two children as she gestured toward the green field near where the stand operates from 1 to 3 p.m. on Sundays. “A lot of parks close by don’t really have that.”
Patricia Delgado, who lives across the street, said that the “stand started as one table. Now it’s taking over more of the space that park users would have access to.”
So far, the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department agrees with those opposed to allowing the stand to stay in the park. Park officials recently sent a letter asking the operators to relocate within 30 days. On Sunday the stand will be set up on the sidewalk outside the park.
Jack Brown, a father and nearby resident, doesn’t understand the opposition. “As far as I can tell, it probably wasn’t parents of small kids, because it doesn’t infringe on the play area.” Brown visits the park several times a week and has never heard fellow parents speak negatively about the stand.
Wheldon agrees. “Having access to free organic produce is a really valuable thing,” she said as she watched her daughter play on the jungle gym. Wheldon said she and her daughter sometimes volunteer there. If it ends, “I’d miss the resource-sharing and community.”
Salena Ruiz, who works at the park’s Tiny Tots program, was surprised to learn that the stand might be closing or relocating. “Even on a crowded day I wouldn’t say it interferes,” said Ruiz as she demonstrated where the stand is set up and the back door that accommodates the line. “Who doesn’t like a farm in the neighborhood with free food?”
Two people, according to Tree’s information about what Rec and Park told supporters. That’s the number that have formally complained to the city since the stand opened in 2008, the operators have been told. Connie Chan of Rec and Park, said earlier that she has not reviewed the letters. She wrote in an e-mail on Friday that she will let Mission Loc@l know on Monday “ the number of complaints, verbal and written” when Dana Ketcham, the director of permits returns.
The founder of the stand, Dennis “Tree” Rubenstein, said in an e-mail that supporters who wrote to Rec and Park had received a letter from Dana Ketcham, the department’s permits and reservations manager. “Families feel overwhelmed by the crowds as they use this park with their children,” Ketcham wrote.
Rubenstein started the Free Farm Stand in April of 2008 to give away food and to teach people of all ages about where food comes from. Often, children volunteer alongside their parents. Tree, as he is widely known, has lived in the Mission since the early ’70s, and has been working in food education for as long.
“My goal has always been to be educational and to encourage people to garden as a step towards ending hunger,” he said.
Delgado, who said the popular stand has outgrown the park’s capacity, uses the community garden that Tree manages. But about the stand, she said, “There’s other places that would be more appropriate.”
Aware of the growing numbers in the Sunday line — more than 200 nowadays — Tree used a ticket system last week to keep it organized and to prevent people from crowding the stand. Tree said that he’s “always really conscious about environmental impact,” and sees the stand’s growing popularity as a sign of need. “It shouldn’t be just a certain class of people [that] should have access to this kind of food,” he said, referring to fresh fruits and vegetables.
Even Delgado acknowledged that while she thinks the stand has “a negative impact on the park, it’s a wonderful resource, too. So it’s a catch-22.”
The e-mail Ketcham sent to the stand’s supporters pointed out that Tree was operating without the proper permit. “In addition,” Ketcham wrote, “parks are not authorized places for distribution of food — they are intended for other uses and can only be used for recreational purposes.”
In response, Tree said on his website and in a flier distributed on Sunday, September 18, that he attempted to work with the city as early as 2008. At that time, he said, he applied for a permit, but when no one responded, he went ahead on his own.
Despite the lack of a permit, many nearby residents commended Tree’s dedication to feeding those in need.
“He’s the guy who would feed the world,” said Carolyn Deevy, 71, who moved to the Mission in 1969. Many would agree, as the Free Farm Stand and the Free Farm received second place in the “Citizen of Tomorrow” awards sponsored by the Bay Citizen in May 2010.
Sara Miles, director of the Food Pantry at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church on Potrero Hill, said Tree was an expert in collecting excess food from neighborhood backyards and gardens and that he and his volunteers provide an important source of fresh local produce to her nonprofit.
“It’s completely integrated with education about gardening and growing food,” said Miles. “Tree has been working for years with kids in the neighborhood. It’s an amazing example of what communities can do to feed themselves and their neighbors.”
To Tree’s knowledge, the two recent complaints were the first the city has received. Following those, Tree received his first e-mail from a concerned neighbor. The resident said that he felt uncomfortable with some of the people who came to the stand last week, but still supports the project.
For Tree, such feedback is valuable. “I want to be open to criticism and open to improving things. I just haven’t been convinced that there’s a serious problem.”
Faced with an October 15 deadline for leaving the park, Tree was weighing his options this week and researching how to get the necessary permits. He was unsure how long the project will be able to continue or where it will ultimately go. “Since 1974 I’ve lived on same block; this is my neighborhood,” he said. “I just want to do the right thing.”
Amplification: An earlier version of this story wrote that Connie Chan from Rec and Park confirmed that only two letters of complaint had been received. Ms. Chan says Mission Loc@l misunderstood and that when we followed up on the two letters, she only said that she had not reviewed the two letters. This article has been amended to reflect this.
At present, the director of permits who received the letters, is out of town. Ms. Chan said the number of letters will be available on Monday, Sept. 26. At that time we will again update this article.