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Organization grows vegetables for homeless shelter

BELL — Many people give the homeless money to buy food, but GrowGood, a local nonprofit organization, goes one better. It grows food for more than 300 residents of the Salvation Army’s homeless shelter here, right in their back yard.

“Every day we bring leafy vegetables into the kitchen of the shelter across the street,” said Jayne Torres, general manager of the GrowGood site at 6500 Mansfield Ave., at the rear of the Bell shelter which fronts on Rickenbacker Road to the north.

The area is west of Eastern Avenue and north of Slauson Avenue.

“We provide about 30 percent of their salad bar and hope to expand that,” Torres added.

Torres said GrowGood was founded in Los Angeles four years ago and almost immediately obtained permission from the Salvation Army to plant gardens on about 30,000 square feet of unused land behind its complex.

The organization’s founders are Brad Pregerson, in memory of his son, Dave Pregerson, who died in 2013 at the age of 23; and Andrew Hunt.

Bell Project Manager Santiago Fernandez said the garden has three main sites. One fenced-in area guarded by two imitation owls grows leafy greens such as cabbage, lettuce, collard greens, Swiss chard, kale and Brussels sprouts, as well as chile peppers, carrots, onions and beets.

They are planted on raised platforms with pipes laid between the rows for drip irrigation, Fernandez said.

A newer area is an orchard where pit fruits such as peaches, plums and avocadoes are planted. Trees are young, but some may bear fruit later this year, he said.

The third and newest field has been plowed and awaits planting, he said.

In 2014, the gardens provided 700 pounds of vegetables that were served at 6,000 meals at the shelter, according to the GrowGood website.

Torres stressed that the garden work is done strictly by volunteers from her group and eight to 10 residents. Residents are not pressed to help out although they are encouraged to do so at workshops. However, some cannot physically be out in the sun while for others, it’s just not their thing, she said.

To brighten up the area, there are flowers and drought-resistant plants. A recent project resulted in the construction of 10 modular homes that contain up to six people each, about one-third of them veterans.

The modular homes are for those who need about two years of transitional living before they find a permanent home, said Steve Lytle, director of the Bell shelter.

Other residents live in the 400-bed shelter and are usually there for short-term emergency relief of several months, he said.

While at the Bell shelter, individual adults, mostly men but about 10 percent women, get food, shelter, clothes, case management, health care, psychiatric care, group counseling and help finding jobs, said Lytle, noting the Bell site was established in 1988.

He said that the shelter has a number of private partners including the John Wesley Health Centers, a nonprofit group of health clinics located in Whittier, Norwalk, Downey, Bell Gardens and other areas.

The Bell Gardens center sends around a mobile unit with doctors each week to treat patients while nurses may staff the shelter at all times, if needed by some patients.

Lytle said his operating budget this year is about $4.5 million and includes a staff of 75. However, the shelter has learned it will receive a $6 million grant from the federal Veterans Administration to help support those with past military service, he said.

Torres said the purpose of the Southeast Los Angeles Community River Fest, planned at the garden sites from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. April 11, is to “get acquainted with our neighbors and let them know what we do.”

Those attending the free program will learn about urban farming, take part in painting murals with two artists, meet community leaders, enjoy food from a Mexican restaurant in South Gate, hear music by the Montebello High School Band and see dancing by an East Los Angeles group.

There will be an area where children may plant their own garden, Torres said.