SAN JOSE -- A San Jose man has been helping low-income families plant seeds of self-sufficiency as they learn to grow their own home gardens.
"I enjoy looking at how it's from seeds and sprouting everything until the fruit I can harvest," said resident Chingfen Huang, marveling at how her San Jose backyard has transformed from an empty, wasted space into a beautiful, thriving garden that nourishes her body and spirit.
Huang is grateful to Raul Lozano, who back in 2011 was heartbroken to hear about people struggling in the recession.
"People were losing their jobs, losing their homes. It was just bad," Lozano said.
He began teaching low-income families in Santa Clara County to grow organic home gardens to fight food insecurity.
"I was trying to figure out a way where people could grow their own food and practice food sovereignty," he said.
That's when Lozano's nonprofit, Valley Verde, took root. The program takes on about 100 families each year for one year. They get free seeds, seedlings, soil, planter boxes if needed, and workshops to teach folks what to do.
The program is funded with donations, grants and proceeds from its nursery that also sells to the public.
Kalpana, who didn't want to use her last name, feels empowered, feeding her family healthy produce from her home harvest.
"As you grow, you learn a lot about nutrition growing your own food, and being independent," she said.
And Lozano said families save money on their yearly grocery bill, too: an average $400-$700 a year among participants.
One of the unique things about Valley Verde is that it grows seedlings often used in ethnic foods, such as lemongrass which is commonly used in Southeast Asian cooking.
More than 70 percent of the program's families are immigrants, and early on, they asked Lozano to grow multi-ethnic fruit and vegetables, so he's added items like Thai basil and tomatillos - important ingredients for preserving their culture.
"One of the major things they're able to hold onto, their heritage - who they are, teach their children - is through their food," Lozano said.
Staff member Rita Espinoza, who manages the gardening programs, says Lozano bends over backward to ensure home gardeners have all the resources and support they need to succeed.
"He's very passionate about the work and he cares for families in need," Espinoza said.
Lozano gives people a gift from the ground up. The gardening skill that he learned as a child, and cultivated as a relaxing hobby now sustains local families.
"It's way more rewarding than I ever thought it would be," Lozano said.
So for planting seeds of self-sufficiency for low-income families, this week's Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Raul Lozano.
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