The term “urban farm” might sound like an oxymoron.
But the 1.5-acre GrowGood urban farm across the street from the Salvation Army’s homeless shelter in Bell, California, demonstrates that healthful edibles can thrive in a once derelict patch hemmed in by businesses, railroad tracks and the Long Beach Freeway.
In late 2009, well before tomatillos, Thai basil and Malabar spinach sprouted, Andrew Hunt (’10) visited the Bell homeless shelter while completing his master’s in social enterprise at UCLA Anderson. The software entrepreneur learned about the facility from a fellow intern at Global Green USA, a nonprofit group dedicated to curbing climate change and promoting global sustainability.
Hunt was surprised by the shelter’s plentiful unused land and warehouses. Over the next few weeks, he and Brad Pregerson, the Global Green friend, who is now a deputy Los Angeles city attorney, hatched a plan: They would use shovels, hoes and soil enhancements to bring the weedy patch across from the shelter back to life. In the process, they thought, they could enrich shelter residents’ diets, career prospects and mental health by providing work opportunities and a therapeutic space for spiritual and emotional healing.
In 2011, GrowGood was born.
Early expectations were far from grand. Hunt and Pregerson had the enthusiastic support of — but no written agreement with — the Salvation Army. And they had a bit of pocket change, mostly their own. The parties agreed to start small and see what happened.
“It started as a garden,” says Hunt, 38, who grew up in Salt Lake City. “We didn’t write a business plan, but we knew that with land, labor and capital we could do something self-sustaining and big.”
The city-bred friends brought in compost to heal the depleted soil and installed a couple of raised vegetable beds. They consulted with the Los Angeles County UC Master Gardener Program. Goetz Wolff, a lecturer of urban planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs who specializes in equity and economic development issues, became an early proponent.
“Random people started to emerge,” Hunt says. “We always found a way to get volunteers.” His enterprising approach reflects UCLA Anderson’s growing emphasis, through the school’s Impact@Anderson initiative, on educating the next generation of leaders to be social change makers.
One might say that Brad Pregerson had come to the idea organically. Judge Harry Pregerson, his grandfather, had cleared bureaucratic hurdles three decades ago to get the Bell shelter up and running.
The judge, a longtime member of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, was known as a tireless advocate for homeless people. (He died in 2017 at age 94.) In 1987, when a downtown Los Angeles homeless shelter closed during a spate of frigid weather, Pregerson invoked a little-used provision of federal law that allowed the government to make surplus federal property available to indigent people.
It took all of his powers of persuasion, but eventually Judge Pregerson won over the federal government and Bell city officials. The Salvation Army opened a homeless shelter, in January 1988, at the 134-acre Federal Supply Service Center, with the mission of serving the homeless population of Southeast Los Angeles.
Thirty years on, the Bell shelter continues to provide transitional care for about 475 homeless men and women, 37 percent of whom are veterans. Services include emergency shelter, transitional housing, substance abuse rehabilitation, on-site health care and medical referrals, access to computers for job searches, vocational assistance and life skills classes.
Two years ago, Walmart, the retail giant, gave the Salvation Army a $150,000 grant to begin a culinary arts program. GrowGood offered to prepare the curriculum. The 12-week program trains shelter residents for jobs in commercial kitchens.
“It has really taken off,” says Pilar Buelna, divisional director of social services with the Salvation Army California South Division. “These are skills that will last them forever and sustain them after they leave.”
After much work by outside volunteers and shelter residents (some get paid, others volunteer), the farm now boasts 71 fruit trees, 14 raised vegetable garden beds, half an acre of in-ground row crops, a chicken coop (built by a shelter resident who was a carpenter) and a California native plant garden with more than 300 flowering, drought-tolerant plants that attract abundant bees and butterflies.
On a tour, Mary MacVean, a master gardener who started as a farmhand and is now GrowGood’s executive director, points out purple long beans, amaranth (an ancient grain whose plant leaves are also tasty in salads) and ashwaganda, a “super herb” said to reduce cortisol (the stress hormone).
“Who has a farm in the middle of an industrial jungle? It takes dedicated people to do this type of work. They have to have heart. Andrew is one of those people.”
She strolls by mounds of farm-brewed compost and indigo-hued tomatoes known as blueberries. She briefly tries to herd the 20 resident hens and roosters; the hens lay 15 to 20 eggs a day, which GrowGood sells for $5 a dozen.
At least twice a week, MacVean says, a farmworker rolls a cartful of produce to the shelter kitchen, which formerly served more than 6,000 meals a week with a weekly fresh produce budget of $200. Offerings tended toward iceberg lettuce and carrots. Last year, the farm provided 8,000 pounds of produce to the shelter; this year, it’s on track to supply 10,000 pounds.
GrowGood’s co-founders have been making hay on the social enterprise circuit.
In 2014, GrowGood joined the UCLA Social Enterprise Academy, which teaches nonprofit leaders how to develop their operations. At the academy’s boot camp, GrowGood pitched the idea of selling microgreens to restaurants and won first place, worth $12,000. A separate $100,000 grant subsidized construction of a spiffy, 1,440-square-foot greenhouse where farmhands plan to grow the microgreens.
GrowGood has also received donations from the USC Marshall School’s Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab and local foundations, including Diane and Guilford Glazer, S. Mark Taper, Ralph M. Parsons, Weingart and Riordan. In 2016, GrowGood applied to the My LA2050 grants challenge, aimed at making Los Angeles “the best place to learn, create, play, connect and live.” Although it did not win, it caught the attention of the Roy and Patricia Disney Foundation, which has provided two $100,000 grants.
GrowGood satisfies Hunt’s dual ambitions to be entrepreneurial and socially conscious.
Hunt earned his bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 2003, then worked in technology before beginning his graduate studies at Anderson in 2008. After earning his MBA, he worked as an energy developer. In 2013, he launched a $20-million technology venture capital fund. Once those funds had been invested, he worked for a software startup. In February 2018, he joined Mercury Protocol, which builds software for privacy-related apps. Hunt is head of strategy and president of the company, which is backed by Mark Cuban, the self-made serial entrepreneur and billionaire who owns the Dallas Mavericks basketball team.
Hunt devotes two to five hours a week, all pro bono, to GrowGood. He manages the finances, business strategy and donor relations. He and Pregerson hope eventually to expand the model to other shelters.
One problem looms large. A cement company is seeking Bell’s approval to turn nearby property into a gravel yard and run 500 gravel-filled trucks daily on the road between the shelter and the farm. Hunt fears that the resulting dust would pose a risk to shelter residents and the GrowGood farm.
Hunt’s devotion has impressed “Farmer Mark” Anderson (’02), a GrowGood board member who abandoned investment banking to cultivate tomatoes and operate farmers markets in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
“He did not come from the food world, and he has many other pursuits on his plate,” Anderson says. “He is able to succeed at all of them.”
The Salvation Army’s Buelna agrees.
“Who has a farm in the middle of an industrial jungle?” she says. “It takes dedicated people to do this type of work. They have to have heart. Andrew is one of those people.”