Spiral Gardens produce stand in jeopardy

Like many nonprofits, it took a while for the downturn in the economy to impact the nursery sales at Spiral Gardens, a community food security project on Sacramento Street in South Berkeley.

But this spring and summer plant sales dropped off dramatically, says co-director Lisa Stephens, and now the nonprofit may be forced to close its weekly produce stand if an infusion of funds is not secured quickly.

The all-volunteer organization is making a direct appeal to residents (striking black and yellow fliers can be found at farmers’ markets around town and at the group’s headquarters).

The gardens are a bright spot in a neighborhood that has seen a spate of violent crimes in recent months, including yesterday’s homicide.

The weekly produce stand offers locally grown, organic produce at cost in a neighborhood where corner liquor stores filled with unhealthy products are a mainstay.

While the stand is geared toward serving low-income residents, it welcomes all comers and only asks that consumers who can afford to pay a little extra when shopping for good quality produce do so.

Still, the Tuesday market, which runs from 3 p.m. until 7 p.m., typically runs at a loss. Up until now, the stand has been subsidized by plant sales.

Stephens says the group needs to raise about $10,000 in the next few months to keep the produce stand afloat. The organization’s operating costs run about $4,000 a month.

To meet their goal the group is running a raffle that will be drawn on the winter solstice (December 21). Prizes include a month’s worth of weekly produce, Ecology Center memberships, a $100 gift certificate from Blue Wind Botanical Medicine Clinic, and posters and books from Inkworks Press.

Readers who want to show their support can send donations to: Spiral Gardens, 2830 Sacramento Street, Berkeley, CA 94702, or swing by the produce stand and pick up some raffle tickets along with their greens.

The nursery is also looking for garden equipment donations to replace aging gear.

The executive director of Spiral Gardens, Daniel Miller, was the subject of a recent Berkeley Bites.

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  • Deb

    The location is unfortunate, inasmuch as it is located half a block from where yesterday’s murders took place.

  • Dan Alpert

    I am puzzled as to how the stand can be costing Spiral Gardens $4000/month (which I would guess means approximately $1000 each time it opens, since it is open once/week) when it is entirely volunteer run and I assume is not paying any rent to specifically operate the produce stand.

    Perhaps the $4000/month operating cost refers to all of Spiral Gardens’ operations. That would make more sense, and indeed would not diminsh Spiral Gardens’ need for revenue. But it would make me wonder about why the area they are thinking of cutting out is the produce stand, which it would seem costs little to operate.

    I value the idea of helping lower income Berkeley residents have access to this produce. My inclination is to want to rush to Spiral Gardens aid, but I guess I would like to better understand why the cost is so high before doing so.

  • Dan, The $4K does indeed refer to the cost of keeping Spiral Gardens up and running — the nursery, community farm, education programs, and the produce stand — and includes fixed expenses such as rent, insurance, and water.

    My understanding from talking with Lisa Stephens is that since the stand usually runs at a loss, and there is an outlay of cash necessary to supply the stand, that is why it may be the first service to get cut back.

  • laura menard

    After the first article Berkeleyside wrote about Spiral Gardens I asked Sarah why she did not publish the sources of the various funding subsidies. I think this would be helpful now, it just might not be worth the expense, since the Tuesday Farmers market is only a few blocks away at Derby. There could also be other less expensive options making produce available for low income folks.

    Spiral Gardens has always been a mixed bag to some of us locals. I have supported the garden when they first applied for a grant to build at the site and I have given in kind from my garden. Lisa is great and has a far more balanced perspective than Daniel about crime prevention in my judgment. Daniel thinks the cops are the real thugs, his words spoken on several occasion when I tried to solicit his support of neighborhood crime prevention efforts.

    All merchants and residents have to be a part of the solution in discouraging street level drug sales on Sacramento if we are ever to see gains in public safety.

    Daniel does not agree with that sentiment. Hence when the liquor store staff on the opposite corner tells loitering known drug dealers to move along they simply cross Oregon St to a more hospitable site in front of the garden.

    The photo Sarah used for the first story included few of the neighborhood kids who were always looking for a safe place to be. I know those kids rather well since my yard was one of their daily destination during summer.

  • Matt

    It’s important to note that the produce stand is actually open most Wednesdays as well, from 11am-4pm. I stopped by today and found some great persimmons, greens, squash and other great produce.

  • Good point, Matt. I think Spiral Gardens’ policy is if there is sufficient produce leftover from the Tuesday stand then they open for business again on Wednesday.

  • Thanks again for getting the word out Sarah, and thank you for your accurate responses to the comments. Of course it’s hard to clarify all the details in a brief article so I’ll try to flesh things out a little more, and folks can also review our programs on our website and facebook page.

    As stated, we currently have four main programs: The at-cost Produce Stand, the Nursery of edible and otherwise useful plants, the Community Farm, and Free Education. The $4k/mo. figure is an estimate of our total cost of operation which is about as low overhead as is currently possible. Our staff is entirely volunteer, with the exception of occasional small stipends to neighborhood folks who help with basic details. We also have nearly no administrative overhead and don’t spend staff time seeking grants, having relied for the past five years on the revenue from our nursery social enterprise and unsolicited donations to satisfy the most basic expenses.The $10k figure is our estimate on how much we will fall short by March, when the nursery revenues spike again, without seeking other inputs. Our direct appeal and raffle have already started bringing in a flow of support from our wide base of fans.

    The Produce Stand is our most popular and visible program. We order produce from regional farmers and sell it at cost on the corner, only trying to make back what we spent, which is currently about $1500-2000. We usually recoup pretty close to the amount that we spent, but, due to the vagaries of a market place, have to be prepared to take a hit, which requires that we have a certain amount of financial cushion. However, on a good day, the Produce Stand requires no net outlay at all. It is also important that everyone understands that Spiral Gardens is here for the long run; we are only forced to consider temporary contractions.

    The Produce Stand is not equivalent to the Farmers’s Market because the produce is much less expensive, as it is basically a volunteer service to redistribute wholesale purchasing. The need for this is the huge health disparities suffered by the neighborhood in which we are located. As documented by Berkeley Dept of Health, folks in this census tract, primarily along lines of race and income, die 10 years earlier than the Berkeley average due to chronic disease proven preventable by diet and exercise. Mappings of the same area show a lack of fresh food outlets and an overabundance of liquor stores. Further studies show price, transportation, and availability to be the greatest obstacles between good food and the people who need it.

    Finally, I must assert that the challenges in this neighborhood are WHY we are here. Sixteen years of doing this have proven to me over and over again that the myriad benefits of building community though urban gardening and access to good food are real. Beyond testimonials of health improvements, the vast majority of neighbors praise us for how much safer, more pleasant, and cohesive this corner is since our arrival. They testify to how we have created a hub of positive activity that has replaced the previous vacuum that allowed a much greater intensity of nefarious activity to flourish. Our good intentions of serving the whole community has engendered a deep respect, and even those engaging in small-time illicit activities give us a wide berth, and do not seek refuge in or outside our site. Of course, as the periodic shootings within a few block of here show, much more still needs to be done. With more funding we could offer much more (like youth employment, for example) but to solve the complex needs of underserved communities requires the engagement of the whole community on a multitude of proactive levels, way beyond a self-defeating focus on increased incarceration.

    Daniel Miller
    Executive Director
    Spiral Gardens Community Food Security Project

  • Pingback: Help Spiral Gardens’ Produce Stand! « Ecology Center()

  • Dan McMullan

    I remember when that corner was an ugly trash fiilled lot and have always been thankful to Dan and Lisa. What I also appreciate is watching young people in out neighborhood latch on to the garden as a way to bring some health, beauty and respect for life. One comment here about how unfortune it was for the garden to be so close to violence, misses the point. How much more violent would out neighborhood be without that garden?
    A couple of years ago we had a community meeting about violence in this area and although there was a lot of punitive ideas.
    Nobody (except myself) spoke of reaching out to neighborhood kids. It’s not like Laura Menard states that some people see the police as thugs. It’s just that, if you have to use the police. You are way too late. Something like the spiral gardens has so much more to offer than just fresh veggies (Though that is great too).It is a place where the village looks out for it’s own. It is an oasis of serenity in an often harsh world. And well worth the $4,000 (That’s total operating costs for everything there, I went and asked.) it takes to keep it going.

  • laura menard


    If Daniel wants to apologize to me and change what he has said several times that is fine. But twisting facts and minimizing the impact of violent crime on ALL the residents of this area is not helpful.

    On several occasions as chair of the neighborhood association I reached out to Daniel. One time following several violent robberies committed by local teens who claimed Oregon St corner as their turf Daniel dismissed the seriousness of the incidents, portraying these young men as misunderstood, ignoring their criminal record for drug sales, gun possession and robbery. The majority of incidents were felony offenses, but as juveniles they only receive a slap on the wrist and are placed on probation, hardly punishment.
    Contrary to Daniel’s suggestion the shootings occur down the block, again denial is not helpful, what about the shooting of a bicyclist during the day at the corner of Oregon/Sacramento St. Press missed this shooting because everyone was focused on the cougar incident.

    I am arguing for personal ACCOUNTABILITY and serious remedies to serious problems.

    Yes the garden is an oasis, and as I wrote earlier in this thread I too provided a safe positive place to play for the very kids in the photo Daniel supplied to Sarah. Yes, greenery is a positive, I am a horticulturist by training, but I will not be intimidated into silence when good people of different perspectives should all be focused on the message against violence in south Berkeley, “Enough is Enough”.

  • I’m not going to get into an ongoing online argument about this, and, Laura, you can have the last word next if you like, but I have to state for the record that I really don’t understand the impetus for these personal attacks, I have twisted no facts, and frankly have nothing to apologize for. They feel like non sequiturs from the subject of this article/appeal, which is the dire need to make healthful food available in this under-resourced community. Hopefully that subject is not in dispute. If Laura doesn’t recognize Spiral Gardens as a resource deserving support in the neighborhood, that is her prerogative, but surely there is no good served in maligning me. While Laura and I may have different strategies against violent crime, to imply that I am aiding or abetting it is clearly outrageous.

    Again, I don’t understand how I’m minimizing the impact of violent crime. When I mentioned the periodic shootings that occur within blocks of here, I meant that as a radius with this corner at the center. The local senior ladies who volunteer at the produce stand have dodged bullets several times while setting up the stand and I can show anyone the bullet hole through the window of the shed in our Nursery and the one in the shed on the Community Farm.

    I’m outside on the corner all day long, four to five days a week, and during the winter months I staff the produce stand mostly alone in the dark until 8pm. If that’s not being personally accountable, I don’t know what is. I risk my life and the lives of my family being out here as much as we are. Once a man was shot in a car across the street while I, my son (five years old at the time), and my partner were standing in the street by our car, almost directly across from the incident.

    I have actually had only a handful of interactions with Laura and she has largely misrepresented my statements to her. I believe the source of her accusations are all from one “conversation” when she became aghast and verbally berated me because I admitted I was not regularly calling the police on the black youths who live around here and sometimes gather. If I’m supposed to be reporting people I suspect of using or dealing drugs, I’d be calling in on at least half the neighborhood (and not just the young people of color), and that would probably be the quickest way to sabotage my work, jeopardize my personal safety, and create an impermeable barrier between me and the community I serve. I never signed up as a soldier in the so-called war on drugs. However, that said, because we are outside on the block all the time, we often are the first to witness any violence or other incidents threatening public safety. When things cross that line I have not hesitated to call the police many times for serious fights, shootings, traffic accidents, and health emergencies. We are often the first responders until official help arrives. And I’ll add finally that while I doubt I was so impolitic as to call the police “thugs” to Laura, I do firmly believe that their methods and attitudes are often extremely counterproductive, but this is not the appropriate place to have that discussion in detail.

    Spiral Gardens isn’t remotely just about greenery and I hope we can all be assured of the fact that we are all deeply concerned about violence and indeed “good people of different perspectives.”

  • Dawn Hunter

    As a long time friend and partner of Spiral Gardens, and a African American mother and Grandmother, I would like to personally thank the staff and volunteers of Spiral. 1) for providing a healthy environment for my children to grow up in. 2) For providing some of the healthiest food they have ever had, 3) for all the friends we’ve made in the community, 4) for giving our entire family important volunteer opportunities to grow food, 5) for the chance to see first hand, the transformation in the community over the last 10 years, which is truly profound.

    Since I have been going to volunteer at Spiral 2 days a week, I have made many friends among a lot of those youth referred to earlier and, of course, being a mom, I ask them questions. It’s the best way to get a better understanding of what another is going through. Some of the answers I have received have caused me great sadness and alarm and I came to realize that I had to just give a lot of love to those children.

    Any child given enough love, good food and a respectful education will thrive. Because of the enormous disparities they suffer, there can only be a desperate response to their situations.

    Before getting too excited about the effects, I invite you to investigate the causes FIRST. Find out the best way to support the youth rather than finding ways to cart them all off so that you can feel safer. A little love from a lot of people goes a long way.

    Waves of Love radiate from Spiral Gardens, and you know it…it’s just that sometimes when Love is so powerfully concentrated in an area where there has been a lot of suffering, sometimes there is a reaction that appears negative. Things aren’t always what they seem…expand your thinking, be creative. There are so many other ways to build community. Historically, attack and blame never work.

  • Dan McMullan

    As someone that has supported the gardens from it’s inception. it really saddens me when I see someone trying to make political points by attacking it. Find a real issue. Better yet, ffind a real solution. Are gardens better than jails? Well that’s something you can talk about in your next political campaign. As for the garden. I think the proper response to this article is. ‘Hey, I must remember to stop by and pick something up at the garden.”