Alma Backyard Farms On Reclaiming Lives, Repurposing Land, and Reimagining Community
In Conversation with Cofounder Richard D. Garcia of ALMA Backyard Farms
Currently, ALMA operates 1.5 acres of urban farmland in West Compton, East Los Angeles, and San Pedro cultivating underutilized greenspace while reimagining community care. Through environmental stewardship and experiential education, ALMA empower at risk youth and uplift disadvantaged, formerly incarcerated people through their urban agriculture job training program, youth education workshops, and their Farm Stand social enterprise.
In partnership with cofounder Erika L. Cuellar, Richard D. Garcia of ALMA Backyard Farms (ALMA) has been revitalizing desolate lands and restoring the lives of youth, juvenile offenders, and formerly incarcerated persons through the healing powers of urban agriculture and food justice work.
The genesis of ALMA was a culmination of many sparks after Erika and Richard crossed paths, working closely at Homeboy Industries, Dolores Mission Church, and Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative. It was in these various realms of service, where Richard encountered the harsh realities that disadvantaged people faced due to a broken criminal justice system and a deeply-rooted history of disenfranchisement.
What was the initial spark that led to ALMA’s mission?
I was born and raised in Los Angeles. I went to Loyola High School when the founder of Homeboy Industries who was an alumnus came to preside over a service. He read a line from scripture, “And a voice pierced through the clouds, and said you are my beloved son.”
I was very drawn to this feeling of being loved, and my life has grown from this foundation. I felt a calling to pursue priesthood, which ultimately led me into work as a pastoral minister mentoring youth in juvenile halls. At this time, Los Angeles was trying these young children as adults and putting them behind bars for life.
In these environments, I had the gift and opportunity to truly listen to people – and bear witness to their desire to get another chance and lead productive lives. The spirit or sentiment inside these prisons was:
Then Richard worked with Erika at Homegirl Cafe in Chinatown Los Angeles, a social enterprise of Homeboy Industries. As he developed a garden program for the cafe, Richard and Erika had the unique opportunity of working for a business operating with a triple-bottom line mentality and began to dream up their own way of giving back to the world.
There are many overtones between urban agriculture and restorative justice that suggested a different approach was possible to not only re-integrate vulnerable members of society, but create long-term solutions to build resilience in disenfranchised communities. They started to plan how they would design a space that empowered people to connect, find community and reclaim their sense of belonging through the act of growing and sharing food, gainful employment/job training, and connecting with the earth as stewards and integral members of the community.
There’s a lot of meaning behind the name: ALMA Backyard Farms
ALMA - Stands for soul in Spanish. It reveals the deeper yearning of community for connection, as the heart of why we do what we do. Alma Ave was also the first street where we activated a garden that holds significance as both a word and homage to planting roots in the local community. We don’t strive to grow food alone, but grow people together. And in a beautiful way, the plants mirror this truth back to us.
BACKYARD - When we were just starting out, we jumped on any opportunity we could and everything started in the backyards of Los Angeles. Before we developed any structure or specifications, we would land an agreement with the landowner and design the landscape according to our needs and the needs of the neighborhood. But working in various parts of LA means there were too many moments wasted in traffic to get from point A to point B and maximize our impact, so we focused building on our three urban lots in West Compton, East LA, and San Pedro. Also, we are taking a stand that these issues of food insecurity and a broken criminal justice system are in all of our backyards and a shared responsibility for everyone, not just by the members of these communities.
FARMS - We’re serious about growing in volume. Currently, we repurpose underutilized greenspaces and operate 1.5 acres of urban farmland, growing over 20,000 lbs of food annually. We seek to maximize every square footage and cultivate our edible foods with organic standards.
In the last year, we pivoted our Farm Stand to start giving away 250 Grocery Kits on a biweekly basis during the pandemic. Since then, the plants have grown exponentially. It’s my belief that the plants know they are providing nutrition and a sense of hope for people who really need it. And our team are the facilitators and partners in this process.
This space also exists to help our community discover their ancestral foodways and explore their identity through food on the farm. One of the youth in our workshops took home some vegetables to his grandmother, who then came by the space to drop off some mustard seeds and longhorn okra she had her brother mail over from Louisiana. It’s a beautiful thing to co-create a space together with the local community, as she shared that she knew what the people around here wanted to eat.
How did you choose which neighborhood and community to serve?
LA is my home. I grew up in Koreatown and still there are ruins that have never recovered from the ‘92 riots, and most likely some new ruins from COVID as well. LA born folks want to get out of the hood because it can be chaotic, but also everyone else wants to come here. We, the people from LA, I think ought to stay and make it better.
It’s a place that has some of the most pressing challenges, but also the most amazing opportunities to create new spaces and systems. ALMA Backyard Farms was a direct response to these challenges and a recognition that LA has so much more to offer than the glamour that’s often portrayed.
Compton also historically is a huge source of talent with Serena Williams to Kendrick Lamar. There’s so much good here for Angelenos to experience and this goodness belongs to you as well, no matter what criminal history or bad circumstances you may have run into in the past.
How does your personal origin story as a Filipino American intersect with your work as an urban farmer and food justice worker?
My passion for growing food and mission to see that no life and no land is wasted comes from my childhood growing up as a Los Angeles native. My connection to the land comes from my father’s father, who was a sugar cane farmer in Guam. My dad shared stories about my grandfather as a migrant farm worker driving out to Florida to harvest lettuce or working in Central CA to prune grape vines until he became a US citizen.
My mother was a registered nurse, who was a hero in her own way taking care of people in Canada and California. I remember the most calming thing was to watch my mother watering the plants in the morning. The garden was a place of therapy for her after coming home from 12 hours working in the emergency room.
“The land as healer, we are preserving our history through the daily actions of the people cultivating and inhabiting this space.”
Richard shared an account of one of the at-risk teenagers in the youth program:
Driving out to a dangerous neighborhood, I noticed that Sarah grew silent during the car ride. When we parked on a corner, she told me the last time she came down this block was for a drive-by for a rival gang. This time, we were here to plant some new seedlings in a neighboring lot, which ultimately helped her build an entirely new relationship to this familiar, yet unfamiliar space.
“Farming brings me peace. I haven't had peace like this before." - Sarah
These transformative moments are what catalyzed ALMA Backyard Farms to have their start in healing not only the land, but people’s lives from the outside-in and the inside-out.
In pre-COVID days, ALMA mentors nearly 100+ people through its Urban Agriculture Job Training program to teach technical skills such as irrigation work, carpentry, and farming. Among their beneficiaries, 52% are Latino, 25% are Black/African American, 10% White and 3% Asian ranging from ages 18 to 60 with a 97% success rate of continuing their education or finding gainful employment opportunities.
One afternoon, Richard was teaching a former Vietnam veteran how to line up the blade on a miter saw and the vet shared how it reminded him of training in sniper school. Coming back from a war and finding yourself in a prison system is a common and unfortunate pipeline for many people dealing with PTSD. By re-inserting a tool and pulling the trigger of a miter saw to create new life rather than taking it away is an act of tenderness and radical transformation that gives people back their sense of agency to be someone with the capacity to create, not just harm and destroy.
“It’s more than just the skills. It’s mirroring back to people their reflection of how sacred they are and reminding them that they are loved. It’s these kinds of memories of serving the community and something bigger than yourself that people fall back on when times get tough.”
After completing the training, these mentees are then exposed to working at ALMA’s social enterprise, the Farm Stand. By working the cash box and handing off grocery kits to the community, it’s proof that these people are not only good at what they do, but really making a positive impact. Especially during a crisis like COVID, people were grateful for the essential work they were doing without questioning their integrity based on their past.
Food is the bridge connecting people to the land and to each other. Through the Farm Stand, ALMA serves 5000 community members with access to organically grown produce at affordable prices. 80% of ALMA grown food is sold and 20% is shared with partner agencies servicing low-income communities, such as seniors and the homeless.
With California opening back up this June, ALMA Backyard Farms is looking forward to an abundant future. Pivoting back to their pre-covid operations, ALMA is re-opening in Compton and launching a new Farm Stand in San Pedro with a Pay-What-You-Can model. Different from standard farmer market stands, the team is intentional about enhancing the experience of buying direct from small farmers through education workshops, live music and tours at their urban farmland. ALMA plans to open by late summer.
As part of our community efforts, Potli will be sponsoring and supporting ALMA Backyard Farms in their mission to bring healing foods and holistic wellness to the community in Los Angeles and beyond. All donations raised during our Courage Over Comfort campaign from the sales of the curated wellness kits will be donated to ALMA’s efforts in re-opening this summer.