The day began in the Mission District with Guillermo Vasquez behind the wheel of his 1985 Mercedes diesel car. With his wide-brimmed hat in place, Vasquez had gardens to visit.
At 10 a.m., he knew he had just three and a half hours before a line of people would be waiting at 20th and Mission streets for the organic produce, eggs, citrus and meat he needed to pick up.
The journey to pick up fresh food for distribution
Our first stop was Treasure Island, where his nonprofit, Indigenous Permaculture, manages two community gardens in partnership with the Treasure Island Development Authority. Vasquez is of Nahuat descent, an indigenous community from El Salvador, and this has informed his work educating people in urban cities about farming and the history of indigenous peoples.
“We need to educate people in urban cities about environmental problems,” says Vasquez, who has been living in the Mission for more than 30 of his 55 years.
For 20 of those years, he worked as a gardener at Golden Gate Park and since then he has been teaching people about sustainable agriculture, indigenous farming practices, permaculture and environmental design.
Indigenous Permaculture specifically works to revitalize Native and local communities through indigenous science, land stewardship and community food security. For example, in the community garden, Vasquez cares for the soil by planting cover crops to get nitrogen into the soil and help the soil’s living biology. He also sprays compost tea on the soil to conserve water and help soil fertility.
Vasquez also planted amaranth, an indigenous plant that was banned by colonizers because of its high nutritional value, using seeds from Guatemala. He worked with the group Semillas Viajeras to invite indigenous Guatemalan farmers to come visit the garden and educate the local community about amaranth and its properties.
One of the ways Vasquez educates people is by bringing them fresh food and produce — beautiful mixed greens, arugula, citrus, and eggs — something he has been doing at 20th and Mission every Tuesday since March. He also distributes food every Friday in the San Antonio neighborhood of Oakland, from the parking lot of his community garden there.
On Tuesday, his Mercedes, which runs on vegetable oil, rumbled a bit as Vasquez drove onto the bridge. No matter; Vasquez is proud that it has endured 360,000 miles.
The two community gardens on Treasure Island feed locals there, and Vasquez also uses the farms to teach residents and others about permaculture farming.
He talks about establishing a deep relationship with the soil, and plants flowers to encourage pollinators. In his planting, he takes into account the conditions of the wind and sun, and the summer solstice and winter equinox.
Vasquez was inspired to bring fresh, local food to the community after a Mission firefighter dropped off food to his 80-year-old mother who he lives with in the Mission. He saw his mother open her box to find only one fresh item, a lone carrot. That carrot created the Tuesday food giveaway in the Mission District, he says.
Vasquez explains that he tries “to source local food to reduce the carbon footprint, connect farmers with people and bring organic greens and fresh produce to people,” in order to educate people in urban cities about environmental problems and encourage a more sustainable ecosystem.
He calls his food distribution the Emergency Response Food Network.
To deliver the food, he converted an old yellow school bus. He says that when he first got the bus, a honeybee was hanging out on its yellow hood, mistaking it for a sunflower, and so he named the bus “honey,” and muralist Crayone painted it.
Vasquez parks his bus in the parking lot of the church in Oakland where he has his community garden. The Mercedes would remain behind as we filled the bus with produce and continued on our journey in the converted school bus.
An earlier bus still needs repairs and probably a new engine, which Vasquez is raising money to buy. You can donate to his gofundme for the truck here.
Vasquez has another community garden in the San Antonio neighborhood of East Oakland, a “food desert” with limited access to affordable and nutritious food. The San Antonio garden is located on top of the parking lot of the St James Episcopal Church. In other words, he put down a layer of wood chips, and managed to plant a thriving urban garden on top of concrete.
“People do not have access to fresh produce, they cannot afford it. Organic produce is good for sickness prevention, immunity and nutrition. I believe in fresh produce as a response to covid,” explains Vasquez.
He also drops in on other nonprofits to pick up food. Vasquez showed me around the Ecohouse, a community garden and environmental educational center in Berkeley where Vasquez picked lemons and oranges to give away in the Mission.
The Berkeley Food Network, a nonprofit that works to alleviate food insecurity by purchasing food from farmers, is also a source for Vasquez.
It receives, processes and donates food from restaurants, grocery stories and food distributors, and redistributes it to community centers and others.
On Tuesday, Vasquez got eggs, meat, fruits and vegetables from places like Berkeley Bowl and Trader Joes. Holden Bussey, the director of operations at the Berkeley Food Network, said that when Vasquez asked for food to give away, he agreed immediately. Vasquez, he said, has “great energy.”
The last stop on Vasquez’s tour around the Bay Area was Urban Adamah, a Jewish community center and urban farm that donates fresh produce.
Delivering the produce in the Mission
Two hours later, when Vasquez arrived back in the Mission at 1:45 p.m., a line of people eagerly awaited his arrival.
Jake Plut, a volunteer on Tuesdays, says, “We’re giving fresh veggies and food to folks, that is as little processed as we can. These are things people don’t have access to.”
One of the people in line was Claudia, who lives in a room in the Mission but does not have access to a kitchen. She stands in line and gets food to give to her mother, who lives in a household with five people. She called Vasquez’s work “God’s work, and shows that God is always listening.”
“I like the food, it’s good food,” said Lily Yu, a 55-year-old who lives in the Mission. “It is good for the people, because they need some fresh food, and it is very difficult to find a job.” Yu’s friend told her to come get the free food, and now she has eggs to cook in the morning and vegetables she plans to boil. “The people are very nice and friendly,” she adds.
Vasquez is working on launching another program to share recipes with people on how to cook greens, and to give out free starts to people who can grow their own lettuce inside.
“The Mission gave me a lot of love, so now I give a lot of love back.”
If you would like to donate to Indigenous Permaculture to support the food drive and community organization, you can do so here.
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