SAN DIEGO — Jim Usita didn't have to pay for anything he used to build his community garden — his sink, flower pots, drip irrigation system, white picket fence, even his American flag décor.
"That wood came from McDonald's. McDonald's was renovating, so I asked if I could take that plywood and I made a flag out of it," he said, chuckling.
The irony isn't lost on the 59-year-old contractor from Chula Vista, who advocates for a slower, healthier way of life away from the hustle of the city and fast-food chains. Usita uses apps like OfferUp to find discarded items, and his work in the construction trades as a painter gives him access to material his clients are throwing away.
"I wanted to show people that you can build a garden for free and have it look really nice," he said.
Usita is one of the hundreds of people who have staked out plots in the Tijuana River Community Garden, San Diego's largest community garden. It is located within the larger Tijuana River Valley Regional Park, in the southernmost portion of San Diego.
Strolling between the trellises of the 25-acre community garden, you are likely to hear many languages: Spanish, Filipino, English and Vietnamese.
The crops these community gardeners are growing are just as diverse. Nopales. Cilantro. Tomatoes. Calabaza. Bok Choy. Sunflowers. Inside his 30-by-30 foot patch of earth, Usita — who moved here from Guam as a child — grows sugar snaps, beets, butternut squash, potatoes, cauliflower and mini-Chinese cabbage.
The garden is a reminder of the Tijuana River Valley's long agricultural history. Dating back to the 1860s, farmsteads once freckled the valley. Its rich and fertile bottom soil still makes it a perfect place to learn gardening.
It's also located in a place where access to fresh, healthy food is lacking — a gap the gardeners aim to help fill.
The garden is open to the public from dawn to dusk and is surrounded by walking and horse-riding trails. It contains 210 large plots for individual use — the largest allotments available in any community garden in San Diego — and 10 quarter-acre plots that are "incubator farms" for education and demonstration.
"We certainly think of it as a safe and healthy activity to be doing during COVID," said Andy Williamson, the manager and farming and gardening program assistant. "It's a safe place to walk. There's plenty of open space to practice social distancing and it's always nice to get some fresh air."
The 30-by-30-foot gardening plots go for $235 a year with a waiting list of more than 120 people. Williamson estimated it will take about four years for someone on the waiting list to get a spot, which are only available to South Bay residents. "We go through about one or two new people a month," he said.
The garden is managed by the Resource Conservation District, which is where someone can get on the waiting list for a spot. Although the Tijuana River Valley community garden is currently full, there are spaces and lots available at the nearby Sweetwater Community Garden in Bonita, according to Williamson.
Erik Rodriguez found serenity in gardening after he was furloughed from his job at the YMCA when coronavirus shut the world down. Rodriguez, 41, has so enjoyed working on his garden and at Pixca, a community-supported urban farm operating within the community garden — that he didn't return to his 9-5 job when they called him to come back after they reopened.
"I didn't like that uncertainty," he said about the on-again, off-again COVID restrictions. "Even though it was hard leaving my job of 15 years, we're doing such a good thing here, feeding the community."
Community-supported agriculture connects local food producers and consumers by allowing the customer to subscribe or pre-pay for the harvest from a specific farm.
University Heights resident Amber Guisti, 31, was among dozens who went to the Pixca farm on a recent Saturday morning to pick up a bag of fresh produce.
"I eat a lot of veggies and produce anyway and I love the idea of strengthening the community and finding people near me who are also doing that work," she said.
Rodriguez, who grew up on a farm in Rosarito, said he sees urban farming and community-supported agriculture as something aimed not just at cultivating fruits and vegetables, but also justice and equity for the region.
International organizations define food insecurity as when people lack secure access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food for normal growth and an active, healthy life. In 2017, an estimated 443,000 — or one in seven — people in San Diego County experienced food insecurity, according to data with the county and the United States Department of Agriculture.
"Try to find a grocery store here," said Rodriguez, referring to the 92154 south San Diego ZIP code where the garden is located. "You have to go two or three miles that way or two or three miles the other way to find fresh food. ... And it's fresh, but it's also from far away."
Living in a so-called food desert has been linked to poor diet and greater risk of obesity, a risk factor for complications with COVID-19. According to the San Diego Hunger Coalition and San Diego County's 2019 State of the Food System report, there is disproportionality when it comes to the food-insecure population. Forty-three percent of low-income African Americans and 42 percent of low-income Latinos in the San Diego region experienced food insecurity, compared to 39 percent of low-income Whites and 33 percent low-income Asians, the report says.
"I remember one time I was at Vons and I looked at this bell pepper, and it said it was from Hungary. It had the sticker from Hungary. And I thought, 'Dude, this bell pepper has been farther than I have in my life. Why am I eating a bell pepper from Hungary?'" said Rodriguez. That prompted him to change his life and pursue a certification as a master gardener from the University of California system.
"I don't know how it happened, but I just started falling back in love with plants," he said Saturday.
Rodriguez said his group is actively looking for more land to grow even more food for the local community.
Cousins Edwin Rendón, 46, of Tijuana and Israel Pichardo, 31, of San Ysidro meet every weekend in the community garden to work the land and spend time with their families, bringing along their small nieces and nephews.
"I could ride my bike over here in 15 minutes if I could go through the border wall," said Rendón, who lives about a mile south in Tijuana's El Mirador neighborhood.
The pair first began gardening on a smaller lot and then upgraded to one of the quarter-acre plots. Pichardo estimates they could feed up to 20 families a week off the land, if they maximized its resources. They use some of their land to grow flowers, which are "healthy for the soul," they said.
"We take a lot of pride in our sunflowers," said Rendón, as a Monarch butterfly landed nearby.
The cousins said they donate to FoodShed, a City Heights organization working to enhance the quality of life there.
"Around July 2020, we donated weekly boxes of tomatoes to an impromptu home distribution food site in Sherman Heights called La Mesa de la Justicia y Esperanza," said Rendón. Because he works as a teacher during the week in Tijuana, Rendón's mom started helping out dropping off veggies during the middle of the week.(c)2021 The San Diego Union-Tribune Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.