Urban Agriculture in San Diego

Urban farms and community gardens bring fresh food, vibrancy, a spot for gathering, and countless social benefits to urban neighborhoods everywhere. This week, SDFSA highlights the various ways urban agriculture brings life (literally) to cities and their residents, and spotlights four innovative projects happening in San Diego.


Intro to Urban Ag



+ How do you define urban agriculture?

Growing food in the inner city is a response to the food system that has been presented to us. For many of my students, the only choice they they have is highly processed, convenient, cheap food. Urban agriculture gives them a positive alternative—the ability to consume locally grown food, free of pesticides.

Urban agriculture is a way to reintroduce what we have lost in our culture. My students often share that their grandparents were skilled at growing vegetables, fruits and medicinal herbs. Regaining these skills, especially in an urban school environment, is a reconnection to our roots and a way to reclaim our health. And it’s not only about physical health. Urban agriculture can positively impact mental health. Many studies have shown that activities in green spaces even socioeconomic disparities. People who live in low income communities tend to have worse mental and physical outcomes, but when exposed to gardens, their outcomes improve. I believe urban agriculture and access to nature is an equalizer across society.

+ How do you participate in urban agriculture? And why?

I advocated for green space on campus for many reasons. First, I wanted students to have healthy affordable food. I wanted students who experienced food insecurity to have an alternative to cheap processed foods. Second, I wanted students to be surrounded by beauty and nature. There were two empty lots on campus that were full of weeds and collected trash. Next time you see an abandoned lot take a look around. Most likely you are in a low income community. Those are the only places blight is tolerated. That should not be. I grew up in this neighborhood. I raised my children here and I teach here. They deserve nature and fresh air too. So we turned one lot into a fruit tree orchard and the second into a student farm. Students in our Social Justice in Food class work outside in the sunshine, planting, composting and harvesting. Students from other classes come to the student farm to do an assignment in the outdoor classroom, take pictures or to simply enjoy nature. It is a space on campus that promotes mental and physical health. The last reason I participate in urban agriculture is to support the health of our environment. Having a student farm on campus has reduced food waste significantly. Every day students pick up fruit and vegetable waste from the cafeteria and compost it to create healthy soil. In this way students are contributing to a cleaner environment. Instead of simply reading about climate change and feeling powerless, they are actually doing something about it.

What we did at Chula Vista High, starting an urban agriculture program, could not have been done without the help of community partners and grants. I’m eternally grateful to them for helping us get started; REACH Chula Vista Community Health Improvement Partners, The Chula Vista High School Foundation, The Quin Murphy Foundation, Common Vision, The City of Chula Vista Healthy Chula Vista Initiative… Even teachers, parents and friends donated seeds, tools and their time. It truly takes a village.

+ What are the benefits of urban agriculture for your community?

This program has benefits beyond the classroom. Our classroom is the outdoors. The knowledge students gain does not remain at school. Students share their knowledge with their families and their community. The mother of one student emailed me to express her gratitude. She said her son was struggling with being overweight, and he had been diagnosed with prediabetes. As he learned skills, he shared his knowledge. When she picked him up from school everyday, she would ask “How was school?” Normally he would say, “Fine.” like most teenagers and stop there. But he was really excited about our class. This inspired the entire family changed their eating habits. At his following appointment, he had lost a significant amount of weight, and most importantly, he was no longer prediabetic.

+ What positive impacts do you see urban agriculture having on the environment, specifically climate change?

Growing food responsibly is key to reversing climate change. Since we started our student farm we have diverted thousands of pounds of green food waste from the landfill. When organic matter decomposes in landfills one major byproduct is methane gas, a potent greenhouse gas. It is very effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere. We do our best to collect as much food waste as possible from the cafeteria and around campus. The students have a funny response when someone asks them what they are doing with those buckets of “trash”. Their response is, “We are saving the world.” We have several compost bins where we add the fresh green food waste with dry material, like dry leaves and even shredded paper. In a short amount of time we see the compost bins invaded by life; ants, worms, spiders and microorganisms we can’t see but we know are there. We use this rich soil to plant more vegetables, flowers and trees. This plant life sequesters carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and in turn gives us what we need, oxygen.

Growing up, my grandma in Mexico, did this. They did not have trash pick up service, so she was and expert at reducing waste. She used food scraps for her chickens and composted. She did not use single-use plastics. Everything was reused and repurposed. We as individuals and especially as organizations need to analyze how we are contributing to this problem. There are a few simple steps we can take; start your own garden, buy produce from local urban farmers, compost your food waste, refuse single-use plastics like water bottles, plastic cutlery and straws, and support local businesses that are environmentally responsible.

+ What is Chula Vista High School Student Farm currently growing?

In the Student Farm we are presently growing kale, lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, chard, cabbage and potatoes. We also have flowers and herbs. It’s all about diversity. We don’t do monoculture at the Chula Vista Student Farm, and we don’t use pesticides. (Monoculture is the cultivation of a single crop. At first it produces a higher yield, but eventually it becomes a all-you-can eat restaurant for pests and disease, which leads to a higher use of pesticides.) In the orchard the peaches and nectarines are doing really well. We’ll have hundreds this spring. We also have apples, pomegranates. We even have a banana tree that is thriving. Students go so excited when they found a bunch of green bananas hiding under a leaf. One finally ripened and we shared it. It was delicious.

+ What’s your favorite thing to grow?

I love growing things that students can eat right away. Cherry tomatoes and basil are great companion plants. Students pick a leaf and wrap it around a cherry tomato and make an impromptu caprese salad. I also love growing hierba buena or mint in our herb spiral. We snack on it, or put it in their water with a teaspoon of chia seeds. It’s the alternative to soda.

+ What do you enjoy most about participating in urban agriculture?

I enjoy exposing students to something new. I enjoy seeing the moment when they get it, and something lights up within them. At first some students come in to class totally opposed to anything healthy or getting dirty. They think they are going to hate the class, but after a couple of weeks they start feeling differently. Being surrounded by city noise changes you, so it takes time to realize that there is an alternative to screen time, four walls and concrete. Putting your hands through dark soil is like therapy. There is nothing else you need to worry about. Then when you see the fruits of your labor, you realize that it bigger than you. You are contributing to your school’s health, your community’s health and the health of our planet.

W.D. Dickinson is an heirloom fruit, vegetable, and herb farm, historic event venue, and modern-day general store. The farm was founded in 1888 and revived in 2012. Even with only 0.25 acres and 2,500 square feet of active farming, W.D. Dickinson still thrives, offering CSA, a farm stand, restaurant sales, a farm store, small batch pantry, home good product lines, meal prep, home delivery, events, and private farm business workshops! Whew!

Founder Stepheni Norton says, “After I was diagnosed with stage 3 Lyme Disease and promptly started daily IV treatment, I struggled for months to find fresh and clean food that didn’t contraindicate with my medicines. I took matters into my own hands – I learned the business of farming, designing a farm layout and business plan from the clinic IV chair.”

+ How do you define urban agriculture?

Farming within a non-rural environment.

+ How do you participate in urban agriculture? And why?

I grow diversified vegetables on a 0.25 acre residential lot. I'm able to provide speciality diet food for my family and others with similar needs.

+ What are the benefits of urban agriculture as it relates to your life?

I know exactly where my food comes from and that goes on it.

+ What are the benefits of urban agriculture for your community?

My greater community (people with dietary needs) has access to organically grown, freshly harvested food. It also beautifies my local community.

+ What positive impacts do you see urban agriculture having on the environment, specifically climate change?

Increasing the tree canopy, green space and reducing the carbon foot print of food distribution.

+ What is Dickinson Farm currently growing?

Heirloom fruits vegetables and herbs

+ What’s your favorite thing to grow?

Fava beans

+ What do you enjoy most about participating in urban agriculture? Least?

Most? Setting an example of what is possible. Least? Neighborhood cats and gophers.

To learn more about W.D. Dickinson, visit their website. You can also read this recent interview that Stepheni gave with Local Food Safety Collaborative and listen to this podcast through Urban Farm U, where Stepheni shares about heirloom small-plot urban farming.

Second Chance Youth Garden is a six-week job training program for young people ages 14-21. The program combines classroom and experiential learning to increase youth awareness of urban agriculture and food justice, and helps move them toward successful high school graduation or employment.

Meet two 15-year-olds, Anjohnae (AJ) and Johnathan, who work as Supervisors at Second Chance Youth Garden.

+ How do you define urban agriculture?

AJ: Farming or gardening in the city.
Johnathan: Gardening/Farming in the city.

+ How do you participate in urban agriculture? And why?

AJ: I work with compost, make/plant beds, transplant and planting seeds in pots. I do this to help make fresh produce for the community.
Johnathan: I participate by planting seeds and other produce like vegetables, so I can eat healthier.

+ What are the benefits of urban agriculture as it relates to your life?

AJ: It’s healthier, and better because I know what’s going in my food and how its made. Johnathan: Urban agriculture helps the environment that I live in.

+ What are the benefits of urban agriculture for your community?

AJ: Composting helps to reduce the amount of waste and fresh produce is healthier to consume. Johnathan: Less waste goes to landfills (compost), and it saves gas so also less air pollution.

+ What positive impacts do you see urban agriculture having on the environment, specifically climate change?

AJ: It helps to reduce the amount of gas in the community because it’s not transporting the produce to different locations with cars and this is because local neighbors come to buy the produce. Johnathan: There is less air pollution due to less transportation of the produce.

+ What is Second Chance currently growing?

AJ: Currently, we’re growing collard greens, kale, swiss chard, salad mix, carrots, radishes, snow peas, etc. Johnathan: Collard greens, swiss chard, kale and cilantro.

+ What’s your favorite thing to grow?

AJ: Favorite thing to grow is kale because it’s nice and simple. Johnathan: Collard greens.

+ What do you enjoy most about participating in urban agriculture? Least?

AJ: Most? I enjoy learning more about the produce and how I take care of it. I also love to harvest. Least? What I enjoy least is probably the new variety of insects I get to meet when working. Johnathan: Being active and also communicating with other people. I enjoy everything about Urban Agriculture.

To learn more about Second Chance Youth Garden, visit their webpage or contact Kristin Kvernland. Looking for a way to support urban agriculture and low-income, at-risk or justice-involved youth in your community? Second Chance’s Summer CSA starts July 17, 2019 and lasts 10 weeks (September 18). The cost for 10 weekly boxes of fresh produce is $300, which allows Second Chance to provide stipends to youth in the program. 

Project New Village’s Mt. Hope Community Garden was the first community garden located in Southeastern San Diego, and it brings a welcome opportunity for local residents to grow their own food. In 2011, Project New Village approached the City of San Diego about leasing a vacant plot in the Mount Hope neighborhood where they wanted to start a community garden. Today, that garden is one-third of an acre with 40 garden beds that people in the community have become members, growing food and flowers.

Below is an excerpt from an earlier interview we conducted with Belinda. Check out the full interview on our blog.

+ What does urban agriculture mean to you?

To me, urban agriculture comes down to a few simple things: Taking care of the world we live in, knowing where our food comes from, and in my role in the Mt. Hope neighborhood and Southeastern San Diego, protecting normal people from corporate interests—particularly people of color.

+ How do you participate in urban agriculture?

I am Community Garden Manager at Mt. Hope Community Garden, one of the growing spaces of Project New Village. It is the first community garden located in Southeastern San Diego, with 40 garden beds for personal use. The garden members include neighborhood residents, social groups, and educational and emotional healing groups. I also staff the markets we participate in.

+ What are the benefits of urban agriculture as it relates to your life?

Through times of change and major life upheaval, I realized I had one simple, reliable constant: I could still grow beets. The garden was always there for me to lose myself in the therapy of growing and caring for plants. I could still be successful at something. Farming is work I enjoy enormously. Even the physical labor is refreshing.

+ What are the benefits of urban agriculture for your community?

The cool thing about urban ag is that it allows you to escape the system a little bit—you’re taking matters into your own hands by growing your own food. We forget how much corporations and exclusive power structures determine what we eat.

Especially in this part of San Diego, systemic practices have been in place to prevent residents from accessing good food. Decades ago, some very real events transpired, and practices like redlining were adopted that have prevented Mt. Hope from accessing good food for decades. If you look at maps of the region from the 1940s and 1950s, certain neighborhoods and areas were sectioned off specifically for people of color and poor people to live in—neighborhoods and areas that were intentionally not invested in. Discrimination in banking, lending, social services was another tangible way that people were excluded. The poverty that exists today is a vestige of racial and ethnic segregation over decades.

A lot of the reasons for poor food in the Southeastern San Diego area are historical. The precedent was set back then, which has allowed the perpetuation of discriminatory practices to continue. Growing our own food in the community garden is one small step in response to that.

+ What are you growing in the garden now? Any growing philosophies you’d like to share with us?

In the community garden we currently have everything from corn to artichokes to zucchini to pomegranates to figs to Asian pears. I’m working on starting black-eyed peas. I guess my growing philosophy starts with seeing myself in a contract with the Earth. If you take care of certain things, the Earth will produce. If you create a good environment with minerals, water, fungi to come through and feed the roots, the land will pay you back tenfold. I see it happening all the time. Sometimes I see myself fail at that contract, and I know what I need to do to become a better provider. “Giving something a little bit of love” is what I call my growing philosophy. It’s as simple as that.

To learn more about Mt. Hope Community Garden, Project New Village and their vision for a Good Food District in Southeastern San Diego, visit their website.


Get involved in the movement!


Get to know your local urban growers.

Find out what community gardens and urban growers are located in your neighborhood. Scout them out at your local farmer’s market, on the Internet, or via word of mouth. Ask them about what they grow and their farming practices!

Eat and buy local food.

If you can’t purchase directly from an urban farmer or urban agriculture organization, the next best thing to do is buy and eat locally produced food, regardless of whether the farm it grew on is urban or not. fewer food miles means more nutrients and flavor for you, more dollars back in the local economy, and a smaller impact on the planet.

To get started, check out:

Try growing your own food.

Try your hand at starting your own urban garden or small operation. Seek out your local gardening society, beekeeping club or urban agriculture technical assistance group for tips.

To get started, check out:

  • City Farmers Nursery - San Diego's largest organic nursery since 1972

  • San Diego Seed Company - Local seed company that produces organic heirloom varieties well adapted for Southern California and promotes and facilitates ethical seed production

  • Master Gardener Association of San Diego County - 300 Master Gardeners providing home gardening and pest control information throughout the county, free to the public! Trained and supervised by the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE).

In Cities of San Diego and Chula Vista - Learn about UAIZ.

The Urban Agriculture Incentive Zone (UAIZ) program offers a property tax incentive to encourage urban agriculture in San Diego neighborhoods. So far, this program has been implemented in the Cities of San Diego and Chula Vista. If you’re a landowner in these areas, consider leasing your parcel of land to an urban agriculture project.

To get started, check out: