Seeds of Change: Farming Hope's Solution to Homelessness in San Francisco

Social Justice

Farming Hope, a new nonprofit in San Francisco, operates under a simple premise: the keys to ending homelessness are employment and community.

"People need to be needed in their community in order to feel part of it,” says Co-Founder Jamie Stark, who founded Farming Hope in 2016 with college classmate Kevin Madrigal. Through Farming Hope, Stark and Madrigal are flipping the model of a soup kitchen on its head: Instead of serving food to homeless individuals, they say, employ them to produce, cook, and serve food. The opportunity provides income, a useful skillset, and, perhaps most importantly, a chance to reintegrate into society through community.

“There’s no better work than growing and serving food, to tangibly see the results of your work,” says Stark.

A Farming Hope employee cuts donated carrots while prepping for a Farming Hope pop-up dinner.

Data from June 2016 suggests there are 6,500 homeless individuals living in San Francisco, ranking the city second only to New York in homelessness. It's no secret that skyrocketing housing prices fuel the problem; in fact, 71 percent of homeless people who responded to a survey were actually living in San Francisco when they lost their homes.

“We hope to be one of the rungs on the ladder out of homelessness,” says Stark. “We can’t solve every piece, but we can create transitional jobs and hopefully a reliable support network. And we collaborate with other nonprofits for everything else, from housing help to social work.”

Farming Hope employees at work at the Tenderloin Community Garden in San Francisco.

The Farming Hope model begins with getting hands dirty in community gardens.

Employees are assigned shifts to garden and farm for a few hours and get paid for their work. Not only do the literal fruits of their labor become ingredients in the kitchen later on, but working in the soil in tandem with other people provides respite from the daily stresses of homeless life.

“[Farming Hope] giving us a skill-set and experience in the kitchen,” said one employee, “But it’s also giving us peace of mind because we’ve seen the results.”

Co-founder and head chef Kevin Madrigal shows a Farming Hope employee how to prep a butternut squash to be used in a soup at the next farmers market.

In the kitchen, employees play an integral part in preparing and serving the food they've helped to harvest. Then, using a combination of fresh-picked produce and other donated ingredients, Farming Hope hosts regular pop-up dinners. Customers buy tickets in the $40-$50 price range to enjoy a high-quality, multi-course meal; the dinners are are open to anyone seeking to enjoy a meal prepared and served by Farming Hope employees.

Farming Hope also recently launched a weekly lunch stand at the centrally located San Francisco farmers’ market, giving their employees reliable work hours every week and, thus, a consistent income.

In addition to the pay and skills gained, both the pop-up dinners and the lunch stand provide homeless individuals with the invaluable opportunities to interact with community members they might not otherwise meet.

The Farming Hope lunch stand operates Wednesdays at the Heart of the City Farmers’ Market at the United Nations Plaza in downtown San Francisco.

Though Farming Hope is an objectively young organization, it's already seen success in turning around the lives of homeless employees. Jesse developed his cooking skills while living at a homeless shelter, and was soon recruited by Whole Foods to work full-time in meal prep.

"Being hungry changed my life," Jesse said while preparing food for a recent pop-up dinner. "Now I'm being the real me... It makes me feel good when I can look out there and see everybody else enjoying my meal."