It’s been 40 years since Dr. Ghia Xiong lived and farmed in Laos, but he says this seven acre community garden in Sanger always reminds him of his childhood.
“Going to the farm with my parents and seeing how beautiful it is and then being able to come to this garden just takes me back home like that,” he says.
Xiong says being here out in the open provides a sense of peace.
“The plants, the corn, the lemongrass here tells you where the wind flows,” he says.
Xiong is director of the Living Well Center at The Fresno Center and has developed mental health and wellness programs for more than 20 years, including prevention and early intervention services like this garden.
“Right now, it’s good to farm a lot of corn,” he says as he trudges between a row of tall corn stalks, making his way toward a gardener weeding her plot.
The garden looks like a small farm with neat rows of crops. The woman named See is not growing corn but instead herbs, cabbages and onions.
“About all the vegetables that I have to go buy at the store, now I don't have to because I farm it here,” she says in Hmong. Xiong interprets for her.
The food she grows feeds her family of seven. Xiong says that’s about the average size of a Hmong family, all of whom benefit from each gardener’s participation.
Right now, this garden serves 100 farmers like See with $48,000 a year in funding from the Fresno County Department of Behavioral Health. The money comes from the state’s Mental Health Services Act, or MHSA.
The gardens are part of a Prevention and Early Intervention MHSA program that funds eight gardens across four organizations including Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries, West Fresno Family Resource Center and the Fresno American Indian Health Project. More than 200 gardeners are a part of the program overall.
But this year, there are new state regulations that require more concrete data showing the program serves a large population. In a draft of its submission to the MHSA Three Year Plan for 2020-2023, the department says there was a “lack of clear impact or outcomes” that align with prevention and early intervention programs.
Dawan Utecht, director at the Department of Behavioral Health, says it was a difficult decision to cut the program.
“It’s not that we see no benefit to these gardens and we know that for individuals involved in the gardens, they see a lot of benefit,” she says.
But because there’s no uniform collection of data from each organization that gets funding, Utecht says calculating how many people actually benefit from community gardens was very hard to do.
“The gardens are in different parts of our community, targeting different ethnicities and cultural populations and each one is run by a different entity. We really struggled to get consistent data collection, really consolidated reporting and efforts,” Utecht says.
Utecht says another challenge was being able to show the impact on a larger number of people with limited space at the gardens.
“Most of them have waiting lists and so for a prevention program, they have a pretty low number of participants,” she says.
But Xiong says that’s not the approach the state should take.
“You know, just like in therapy, you don't just push somebody through because you have people on the waiting list,” he says.
He believes the garden offers benefits that can’t be measured through numbers and reports.
“This is a way for a lot of these folks here to be able to have meaning back to their life. Farming is always a way of life for a lot of Southeast Asian,” he says.
In the draft for the MHSA Three Year Plan, the department writes that it is, “willing to explore the viability of an actual therapeutic gardening program in the coming years as part of a program re-design, which would ensure the gardens have both cultural components, but also clear therapeutic components and measurable outcomes…”
Utecht says she understands why it’s important to preserve the gardens. She encourages the community to express their concerns, which could determine funding in the future. But money is limited and cuts have to come somewhere.
“If there comes a time where our community tells us that the best way for the department to support our community is that, then we’d also have to ask our community again, ‘OK so what would we cut?’ And we’re willing to do that. I don’t say that lightly,” she says.
Pao Yang, President and CEO of The Fresno Center says his team does a lot to maximize the garden’s budget which pays for a drip system, supplies, staff and maintenance. As he scans the rows of crops, he says culturally appropriate programs are vital to mental health.
“The farming itself from start to finish is the therapy session that this group needs and if we take that away, they’re not going to go and play bingo, they’re not going to go and play black jack. They’re not going to go and do arts and crafts. That’s a different group,” he says.
Yang says he’s looking for other ways to keep the garden going.
“We’re trying to see how we can fundraise, we’re trying to see if we can even cut some of our pay so that we can fund this and continue this. We’re not gonna have any disruption and I made a promise to these farmers,” he says.
Other organizations involved in the gardening program are also planning to keep the gardens open and are currently looking at alternative sources of funding.
Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries, or FIRM, hopes the city of Fresno will approve a community development block grant for $50,000 to keep the program running for another year starting this July. FIRM runs five gardens with 81 participants.
The West Fresno Family Resource Center will look for donations and volunteers to keep its garden open and available for 32 seniors and their families.
And the Fresno American Indian Health Project plans to apply for grants and move current funding for other mental health and health programs to cover the cost of its garden.
Funding for the community gardens ends June 30th.