An interview with founder Mia Vaughnes and her daughter, Siena.
How did Good Neighbor Gardens come to be? How did you realize there was a need for this project?
Good Neighbor Gardens (GNG) started from a gift of love. When my dearest friend and co-founder offered to build a garden for me in 2008 as an expression of his love. Our garden was producing much more than we could eat ourselves so we composted the surplus because we did not have a network of people to share the harvest with, which would have expanded the love offering. Thus, we developed the model we have today of neighbors feeding neighbors and sharing their resources to build community through healing the land. The simple act of growing food at home and encouraging others to, mitigates so many persistent issues that we experience within our communities today. It brings people outside to interact with nature and take an interest in stewarding their own relatively small portion of our beautiful earth. It is a way to create an abundance of fresh, local, and organic food that can be shared thereby bringing people together in a friendly and neighborly way to restore a sense of true companionship in this current environment where folks are feeling disconnected from each other and from the land. It is a way to create hope for a healthier future. We are building one big farm one garden at a time in an attempt to heal the land that has been stripped of the necessary microbes to keep the food alive and we developing stakeholders to take an interest in the longevity of the earth and humankind.
How exactly does Good Neighbor Gardens work? Can you describe a CSA model for those who may not know or understand?
The heart of Good Neighbor Gardens is the Gracious Neighbor. Their private home yards are the space where we grow the food, and their willingness to share it is makes it accessible to others. Gracious Neighbors are not only willing to share their yards, they are also willing to pay for the cost to install the edible garden installation and a weekly maintenance fee. This allows us to create jobs! We hire people who are qualified food growers and the maintenance provides them a livable wage for their stewardship in progressing the garden forward on a consistent weekly basis. They serve as the home owner’s edible garden consultant as well. The conscious relationship between the Gracious Neighbor homeowner and their farmhand is critical to cultivating interest and benevolence. The Gracious Neighbors get first pick of the harvest in their yards. And instead of composting the surplus, we aggregate it from all the gardens bi-weekly and distribute through a CSA model. We designate a portion of the money we earn from the CSS harvest distribution to support school garden education and sustainability.
CSA stands for Community Shared Agriculture, where people who want a share of the harvest pay for it in advance thereby becoming stakeholders in the success of the farm. In the case of GNG, those people are called Good Neighbors. They pay a monthly subscription fee to receive a harvest box every other week that includes 12-16 items that we aggregate from all the surplus harvest from our gardens that the homeowners are willing to share. We harvest in the morning and distribute the same day in the evening, and we are committed to doing this every other Wednesday throughout the year. Typically, subscribers are those who don't have the space to grow a garden or the money to pay a farmhand to maintain one, yet they pay a relatively smaller fee to access to the healthy food. Whenever we have more harvest than CSA orders to fill, we donate the remainder to local organizations that have food banks or pantries like the Western Service Workers Union and Jewish Family Services.
Can you share one of your happiest memories from the Good Neighbor Gardens journey so far? Any moments that made you realize "yes, we've really got something amazing going on here!"?
In 2016 we hired 22 yr-old Dave Druze to work as a farmhand and multiple school-site garden educator. Dave was a bright light in the Sharecrop and grew an enormous amount of food for hundreds of people in his designated schools and neighborhood home gardens close to his apartment. Dave was beloved by all of his assigned Gracious Neighbors and elementary school students, so we all were quite sad but supportive when he and his fiancé decided to move back to New Jersey to be closer to family. We were so delighted and proud to learn just a few months later that Dave continued his practice of growing food in private yards in his New Jersey hometown. In less than 2 years, he even purchased a small farm and began a garden education program at a local elementary school. Dave is a living example of this program’s potential to inspire young people to continue to do this good work and to build food security and environment stewardship and sustainability.
What has been the biggest challenge you've had to overcome? How did you do so? Advice to others who may want to start a similar project but don't know where to start?
We designate a portion of the money that we raise from the Good Neighbor subscribers to supporting school garden sustainability and education programming. That's a good thing, right? But sometimes we are putting good money into an unsustainable situation because most school gardens are traditionally grant and parent volunteer dependent. Volunteers have varying degrees of expertise and time to commit to the garden maintenance and education programming. When the grant dries up or the child of the parent volunteer ages out, the garden can suffer or worst, sit fallow. We believe that in time with enough subscribers, the subsidy from the harvest share can cover the lion’s share of the cost to keep school gardens adequately staffed with paid farmhands and/or educators to keep the garden thriving and feeding folks - but this will take some time to cultivate and market. We most recently began a relationship with a school where the principal is a real garden champion and is dedicated to making sure that 100% of the students are involved in the garden as a part of their curriculum. She is excited to allow their students the opportunity to run a Good Neighbor Gardens harvest distribution and farmstand on campus as a community service outreach. By running a distribution operation at the school directly, we are collaborating to create a hub for interested community members who will be able to support the students by subscribing to the harvest share and some may even chose to become Gracious Neighbors. We are hopeful that this will expand the network of subscribers in this neighborhood to ultimately raise more money for this particular school’s garden sustainability. This dedication to local operations is one we want to replicate in every neighbor in the city. So far we were able to designate a financial subsidy from the CSA distribution revenue to refresh the current garden space and build them a new one. This new garden can now serve more families than before. It is a true partnership where our missions are well aligned.
We are still facing an overall challenge with funding to scale the program. We would like to hire a full time support marketing and development staff to make the program accessible to more families, thereby allowing us to hire more farmhands, feed more people, foster more supportive relationships, and build an even strong community. We welcome any interested donors/investors to reach out to us.
What motivates you to keep going every day? Any mentors, playlists, podcasts, books, docuseries, etc. that have inspired you along the way?
I'm motivated every day to get up and rush off to one of our Gracious Neighbor home gardens. Each garden is a sensitive ecosystem of love and life that surrounds the generous people that live there. I'm dedicated to fostering those relationships that I've created with these folks and cultivating more bounty in them. Their gardens give them hope that they are part of the solution to correct many imbalances in our ecological, health, social, educational, and food systems that support us.
This program is successful because in the daily course of cultivating food organically, we are organically developing and nourishing conscious relationships with everyone involved. It’s just par for the course. Conscious relationship begins first with the relationship we have with ourselves. It is important to be deliberate and reflect on what we put in our bodies, how we interact with our environment, and how we engage with others. At Good Neighbor Gardens there is a strong bond between the Farmhand and their route of Gracious Neighbors, there is a bond between the Gracious Neighbor and the Good Neighbor subscriber that they feed, the Good Neighbor makes provision for school garden sustainability and thereby engages many young students, and the students are learning how to grow food and serve it to their families to close the loop in the “circle of life”. Truth be told, we are the garden - so we all stand to benefit when we function interdependently and supportive like one. That's why this is a community development project. It is not just about food. It is about love.
List of inspiring things:
Teaming with Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels
The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben
What a Plant Knows by Daniel Chamovitz
Jeong Kwan - Seon Buddhist monk and chef of Korean cuisine. She lives in the Chunjinam Hermitage at the Baegyangsa temple in South Korea, where she cooks for fellow nuns and monks, as well as occasional visitors
The Dirt Cure by Maya Shetreat-klein
Matt Powers - permaculture instructor
Great Grandfather - Professor of Agriculture at Lincoln University in Missouri
Do you have a favorite recipe or two, perhaps featuring produce from the upcoming fall season? Any kitchen "hacks" for those who may just be getting started on their cooking journey?
We don’t focus as much on cooking and kitchen hacks, but there is a great tip for creating an edible garden cost effectively. Half wine barrels are a great way to start because they are a material that you can reuse and repurpose and they are relatively affordable. You can grow quite a bit of food in them as well.
[Editor's note: Find fun recipes on the GNG website here!]
Where do you hope to see Good Neighbor Gardens in 5 years? Do you have a greater, perhaps global, goal to ensure more people have access to healthy, fresh, affordable foods? How can readers help in this mission, even if they live outside of San Diego?
In 5 years I hope to see the number of Gracious Neighbors quadrupled in San Diego. I want to see urban sharecrops of the GNG model popping up all over California and more regions in the future. I’d like to create more jobs, more farmhand positions. I'd like to train people from all over the country and the world to become compassionate stewards of the land. Readers are invited to “get in where the fit in” and/or donate to our cause. If you live in San Diego area, visit our website, register to share your yard or subscribe to the harvest! We welcome all schools to register as well.
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