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Eden's garden

Pisgah Village in Highland Park reenvisions low-income senior housing, reconnecting people to their food. And to one another.

August 07, 2010|By Mary MacVean, Los Angeles Times
  • Residents at the organic vegetable farmers market at Pisgah Village.
Residents at the organic vegetable farmers market at Pisgah Village. (Kirk McKoy, Los Angeles…)

Ten women gathered around a few tables and at a sink one recent Friday afternoon to make soup, rice with vegetables and barbecued fish for a community potluck dinner.

That ordinary act — making a meal, repeated monthly — represents a profound plan to integrate food and shelter at Pisgah Village, a housing development in Highland Park for low-income senior citizens that aims to preserve the health and dignity of its residents.

Everywhere at Pisgah, named for the hill from which Moses saw the promised land, there are signs of that plan.

On Thursdays, there's a produce market, priced to accommodate people with modest means. Everyone seems conversant in notions such as pesticide-free and organic. There are classes in nutrition and cooking.

And there's Pisgah Village itself, a collection of rehabilitated bungalows and new Craftsman-style buildings, 47 homes in all in a compound full of gardens and a fountain. Once through the arched entrance, visitors see fruit trees and other food planted everywhere.

"Everything touches food, everything," said Alex Dorsey, the general manager of Equitableroots, the L.A.-based program that runs the market.

"We have a responsibility to help our communities be nourished," said Channa Grace, the executive director of Women Organizing Resources, Knowledge and Services, or WORKS. The independent nonprofit organization has developed more than 1,100 homes for people of modest means — those who earn $23,790 to $47,580 for a family of four in 2009, or 30% to 60% of the area's median income.

The food programs at Pisgah and at other WORKS projects are an effort to alleviate the problems of getting fresh, nutritious food, Grace said, along the lines of teaching people to fish rather than giving them one.

Finis Yoakum, a physician and faith healer who also became an early Pentecostal leader, founded a religious compound more than a century ago off what is now Avenue 60 in this northeast L.A. neighborhood. He called it Pisgah, and his vision led him to open the property to outcasts and the destitute. After his death in 1920, the houses and church on the site were used by successive Christian groups.

In 2002, Richard Kim, the son of a Pentecostal minister at the church, partnered with WORKS to renovate the property. The adjacent Christ Faith Mission church remains today.

Since Pisgah Village was completed in 2007, the cozy beige homes trimmed in brick red have received Governor's Historic Preservation and L.A. Conservancy awards, among other accolades.

But as essential as decent housing is, the developers determined, it's just the start of building a community. To make their ideas work, the pieces have to fit together.

"Even if we offer cooking classes, if people couldn't easily find healthy food, it doesn't matter," said Jolie Sheppick, development director for WORKS.

All together, the Pisgah programs that comprise the efforts to link farmers, urban agriculture, nutrition, health and community are called Earth Cultures. There's hope that eventually projects return the investment, perhaps through a line of food products made from what's grown at the community.

Last summer, Pisgah introduced a produce market that is, with the gardens, perhaps the most visible sign of the integration of food and home. It was slow going initially, taking in only $25 or $30.

"First, I tried to build relations with the seniors. I went door to door, to get to know them," said Mariana Negara, manager of the market and program coordinator at Pisgah.

Negara made juice from some vegetables that older residents had difficulty chewing. For a community festival, the staff made almost 300 quesadillas using kale, which went from being an unknown to a popular food.

"Word spreads," Negara said. "They would say, 'Did you try those quesadillas? Those are so good.' "

Today, the market is popular, with shoppers filling up red and green baskets with produce and often sticking around to chat or to try the bow-tie pasta with zucchini, or whatever is being made for sampling. Recipes are available in Spanish and English. The market also has about 160 subscribers for a weekly box of produce for $15 to $18.

No farmers work at the market. Instead, food is purchased in advance and resold by WORKS staff. Recently, Fuji apples, zucchini, oranges or peaches were selling four for $1 for seniors, and three for $1 for everyone else.

Dorsey negotiates prices with the farmers and queries them about their labor practices and pesticide use.

One of the challenges, she said, was to educate people about the value of food that's grown locally without chemicals, especially when they might be able to buy a sack of potatoes for 99 cents at local stores.

"We are building a trust, so that people will transfer their dollars," Dorsey said.

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