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Drive down Roosevelt street in the Sacramento neighborhood of Oak Park, and you’d never guess that the modest homestead facing an elementary school is headquarters to a revolution.
No, it’s not really a political action. Rather, Chanowk Yisrael’s “Homegrown Revolution” is a revolt against ignorance and isolation and a stand for self-sufficiency and hope — in the garden.
Actually, the mission of the Yisrael Family Farm is to “educate, inspire and demonstrate … the benefits of growing your own food” to the local community and beyond. From his half-acre plot Chanowk, his wife Judith, and their eight children are the foundation of an urban farm that’s inciting health and gardening know-how in a neighborhood where fast food burgers are much more familiar than broccoli.
Chanowk’s revolution began when both his parents developed cancer and he was determined to break an all-too-familiar cycle.
“They say these things can be hereditary. But what I’ve found is that eating habits are what is hereditary,” he says. “Most of the diseases that we’re facing, especially in a disproportionate amount in the African-American community, are based on eating habits.”
Transitioning over time to a primarily plant-based diet, Chanowk made sure his growing family had good quality, organic food. But at one point the cost of groceries became prohibitive.
“I realized that even though I had a good job, the money to buy food and was able to buy organic, I was still in a food insecure position,” he says. The economic collapse in 2008, along with health scares caused by E. coli and other foodborne illnesses, made him think: “At any time anything can happen and I don’t have access to food that I need. So I went and started to grow food in my back yard.”
Thinking back to his early efforts at gardening, Chanowk chuckled at his ignorance of the process. Like many Americans, his father and grandfather had kept gardens. His family’s agricultural roots spanned generations in the South where most everyone was involved with agriculture.
“How hard can it be?” he remembers thinking. “You get a plant, you put it in the ground, you water it and it grows and you get food out of it. … And I killed everything.”
Realizing there was more to the process, Chanowk attended a 3-day class by John Jeavons, author of “How to Grow More Vegetables.” With a firm foundation in soil science, organic methods, intensive planting, composting and other principles he learned from Jeavons, Chanowk returned to Sacramento and began growing the food he needed for his family.
“But then I started to do research. I started to find out about the urban farm movement,” he says. “I also started to find out about food justice, environmental justice, what a food desert was and realizing that I’m in a food desert.”
So he joined forces with other urban farmers in Sacramentans for Sustainable Community Agriculture — an effort to win a city ordinance allowing residents who grow food in their yards to sell their produce.
In the meantime, the Yisrael Family Farm has itself earned farmers market certification and contracts with other local farms on farm-related work. In addition, the farm welcomes volunteers to learn and help maintain the gardens and orchards, holds workshops and seminars on health and healing, soap and jam making, and educates those in the community about food deserts.
Ultimately, the Yisrael family is about much more than gardening.
“While we’re known for urban agriculture, we’re a family,” Chanowk says, excusing himself periodically to help his daughter with her school work.
“In order to affect the eating habit change that’s necessary for health,” he continues, “it requires a whole entire paradigm shift and mental change of how you view food, of how you view family. It’s all of these different things that are working together that actually create the Yisrael Family Farm — not just the fact that we go in the back yard and grow food.”
Community leadership is clearly part of Chanowk’s calling. Last year the Yisrael Family Farm held its own “Farm to Fork” dinner during Sacramento’s festival because his neighbors would never be able to afford the $175 ticket price for the official event.
Recently, the farm was part of the Farm to Every Fork event that brought together homeless and less fortunate members of the community for a communal meal.
The family invites local youth into the garden to get their hands in the soil and “get back to nature.”
“It does something to your mind,” Chanowk says. “From agriculture you learn all these other skills that are not necessarily quantified. You have to learn project management. You have to learn how to plan. You have to learn that you have to work first before you get the results.
“In this community, when you see the stigma that’s attached to south Oak Park and you see the crime, you’re dealing with people who have not learned those lessons. So they become prey to criminal elements and the underground economy.”
Soon, Chanowk plans to offer classes for 7-10 youth in the 95820 zip code: “The idea is to teach them how to grow their own food: go through all of the seed preparation, bed preparation, seed starting, composting, everything.” Then students will join their families at the farm for a culminating event, complete with demonstrations and a communal meal from the garden.
Chanowk hopes the first group of graduates from Project GOOD, or Growing Our Own Destiny, will return as team leaders in future workshops. Seed the interest of future “members of the revolution,” you might say.
Applications are being accepted now. Contact Chanowk Yisrael at 888-487-9494, ext. 777, or firstname.lastname@example.org.