Quick Take:

2021 produced unprecedented hunger in Santa Cruz County. Among those recognized by Second Harvest Food Bank for helping meet the need is the longtime leader of the Homeless Garden Project, Darrie Ganzhorn.

Darrie Ganzhorn

Consider this number: 5,025,166.

That’s the total of healthy meals funded by Second Harvest Food Bank’s fall campaign. The COVID-19 pandemic created unprecedented need, and it created a legion of new “hunger fighters.” Last week, Second Harvest honored them at its 2022 Holiday Food & Fund Drive Awards Dinner in Santa Cruz. (See the full list of winners below.)

Darrie Ganzhorn received a prime award: Hunger Fighter of the Year. The award highlights Ganzhorn’s role in “providing unhoused residents with a connection to farmland and its ability to provide nourishment.”

Ganzhorn directs the Homeless Garden Project, one of the innovative initiatives Santa Cruz has come to be known for.

Since joining the Homeless Garden Project in 1991, she has worked to solve problems of hunger and homelessness on a wide-reaching local scale. She assumed the role of executive director in 2008. The nonprofit’s revenue has increased fourfold, as its reach and impact have markedly grown.

Lookout’s Christian Abraham spoke with Ganzhorn about her work.

Lookout: Congratulations on winning “Hunger Fighter of the Year.”

Ganzhorn: I feel the congratulations should really go to the Homeless Garden Project. I’m just one person of this incredible team that’s been making this work happen over the years. The project is really about the farm and its people; the farms bring out the best in everybody.

Lookout: For those who might not be aware, what are some of the core goals or missions of the Homeless Garden Project?

Ganzhorn: We provide job training, transitional employment and support systems to people who are experiencing homelessness. A direct complement to that is our integration of community education using the farm. The farm is a very healing place to be, and the work that we do there fills basic needs like nourishing people. We’re really working to get people back into society to help make the bridge between the housed and unhoused communities stronger by eliminating stigmas and stereotypes.

Lookout: Partnership has been key to your success — which ones stand out?

Ganzhorn: The main way that we sell the produce that we grow is through community-supported agriculture. We’ve worked with an initiative called Feed 2 Birds for over a decade. They come every week during the 23-week harvest season, where we provide them with 30 shares of produce. They then distribute it to agencies throughout the community who serve people who might not have access to fresh organic produce. We also got to work with this incredible pilot program called Growing the Table. They paid for produce grown by small and mid-sized farms operated by women or BIPOC individuals, and then that produce was distributed back at the Homeless Garden Project to various agencies.

Darrie Ganzhorn (right) with Second Harvest's Willy Elliott-McCrea and state Sen. John Laird (center).
Darrie Ganzhorn (right) with Second Harvest’s Willy Elliott-McCrea and state Sen. John Laird (center). Credit: Via Second Harvest Food Bank Santa Cruz County

Lookout: I’m sure the COVID-19 pandemic has made it more difficult to further the mission of the Homeless Garden Project. What have been the biggest obstacles and what have you learned from those challenges?

Ganzhorn: I’ve learned how adaptable and resilient people are. Initially during the pandemic, we had to really reduce our volunteer program. We’re still working to get back to the level of volunteers that we’ve had in the past. We also had to shut our store in downtown Santa Cruz for a while, and move solely to online sales. As we gradually opened back up, I was really surprised at just how tremendous the community’s support was. I remember watching people line up outside our store in December 2020 when we were finally able to increase capacity; that was really nice. We also really had to put a lot of thought into how to host a meaningful event when we couldn’t be together.

Lookout: What would you like for people who don’t know anything about Homeless Garden Project to know about the most?

Ganzhorn: One of the most powerful ways to really understand our project is to hear from our trainees. When I asked a former volunteer about her CSA experience at Homeless Garden Project, she said: “As I complete my first year as a Homeless Garden Project member and volunteer, I can’t wait to embark on Year 2. Friends, family and people in the community were constantly having conversations about the homeless problem, but not acting on solutions. I wanted to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. Words can’t begin to describe how heartwarming and rewarding it has been working on the farm and in the retail store. I can’t wait for the new season to begin and get my hands in the dirt at the farm.”

There might be this sense that coming to volunteer or getting involved in the project could be a bit of a sacrifice. But what I constantly hear from our volunteers is that the work just adds to their life and to their joy. It’s also just so inspiring to be around people who are working really hard to realize their potential. We have that saying: “Planting seeds, transforming minds,” and I believe it’s made a real difference. Over the past seven years, 97% of graduates secured jobs and 90% secured housing, on average.

Lookout: I’m sure our readers will want to know how can they help further the goals of the Homeless Garden Project? What can they do to improve the situation surrounding food insecurity?

Ganzhorn: Well, they can volunteer at our farm or our store. They can become a CSA member, or they can support our Feed 2 Birds program. They can also join us at some of our upcoming events, including a conversation on Fighting For Housing In America with authors Conor Doughtery and Jonathan Franzen at the Santa Cruz Public Library on April 7. We’re also hosting a Sustain Auction on April 23, where we auction off unique experiences to benefit the Homeless Garden Project’’s transitional employment program.

Follow Christian Abraham on: LinkedIn. Christian Abraham (he/him/his) comes to Lookout with abundant experience in helping local organizations establish an online presence while elevating their brand recognition....