Quick Take:

As food insecurity worsened during the pandemic, local advocates formed Growing the Table, a pilot program to distribute fresh produce to food-insecure families throughout the Central Coast. Since launching in May, the team has distributed nearly 6,000 boxes — and founder Kat Taylor hopes the organization will endure beyond COVID-19 to inspire further changes for those in need.

The COVID-19 pandemic elucidated the many discouraging ways Santa Cruz County’s least-fortunate residents suffer, from housing insecurity to wage discrepancies.

One issue that often flies under the radar has become more pronounced during the past 18 months as supply chain issues have driven up prices: the worsening levels of food insecurity — especially for farmworkers, their families, and persons experiencing homelessness.

Local advocates took notice, and last spring banded together to create Growing the Table.

The program — made up of partner organizations from Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito counties — kicked off in May, delivering fresh produce to food-insecure families throughout the Central Coast. Thus far, the team has delivered 138,000 pounds of food, with 320 boxes distributed weekly to partners and elementary schools in the area — and organizers have no plans to slow down.

“We recognized that we lacked food sovereignty even before the pandemic,” said founder Kat Taylor, acknowledging the need for a robust and diverse set of farmers and growers. “At Growing the Table, we didn’t want to waste the crisis — we wanted to use it to support emergency feeding for the increasing numbers of food-insecure people.”

Taylor acknowledged that, as of 2021, one in five Californians experiences food insecurity, with greater levels of hunger among the Black and Latino populations. Here in Santa Cruz County, that means many of the farmworkers who help to create such a high agricultural output are often struggling to feed themselves and their families.

Nanyelis Diaz, program manager for Growing the Table, said the program was able to expand this year based on its partnership with the Homeless Garden Project.

“The Homeless Garden Project has a deep network of other organizations that they partner with. We ourselves are not able to distribute 160 boxes per week, but through their network, we were able to connect to a total of 15 organizations,” she said.

Executive Director Darrie Ganzhorn of the Homeless Garden Project explained that the organization has been running a program similar to Growing the Table for about a decade, distributing approximately 690 boxes of produce to 10 organizations throughout the harvest season. Via the partnership with Growing the Table, the groups will have distributed 6,000 boxes by Oct. 5.

“It’s really wonderful that, during last week’s visit, we got to go to sites to see the people receiving the food,” she said. “It’s so inspiring to see the food going from the farm to the actual people eating the meals.”

Ganzhorn also acknowledged how intertwined homelessness and food insecurity are, especially in Santa Cruz County, which leads to less choice of what the unhoused can eat.

Elise Strobel, a graduate of the Homeless Garden Project, was unhoused when she first joined the training program in November 2019. Since bringing her experience to the Growing the Table program, she has been grateful to give back to the community.

“I’ve not only grown and learned myself, but been able to grow and share food with my community,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot about how seeds grow at different rates, and how people grow at different rates, too — it’s been such a wonderful and fulfilling experience.”

Taylor said she hopes the program will receive enough funding to extend through June 2022 to help bridge the gap until California’s free universal school meals program takes effect for the 2022-23 academic year; Diaz mentioned that Growing the Table aims to raise up to $56,000 to continue the program through the end of 2021.

Currently, the group will continue to create the space for 350-plus relationships cultivated through the program and expand on food sovereignty goals.

“We’re just learning a ton as we go — we just hope to continue on this specific pilot,” Taylor said. “We want to help communities come together in networks, and for these neural networks to grow up.”

Grace comes to Lookout from just over the hill, originally from Sunnyvale but with a variety of journalism experience from across the country.After doing her undergrad at Seattle University, Grace earned...