MARTINEZ -- If Carolyn Phinney's dream comes true, students will soon plant and harvest vegetables on Central Contra Costa Sanitary District vacant land along Highway 4 between a quarry and an airport.
"I've been working to bring this about for two years," said Phinney, a research psychologist and community organizer. "This county happens to have the nexus to turn this into something really spectacular, if Central San has the leadership to make it happen."
Sanitary district officials are interested, but there are a few hurdles, not the least of which involves getting the land rezoned for agriculture and testing the soil to make sure it's safe.
"It's a wonderful idea, but it's a lot of things to think about it," said Ann Farrell, general manager of the sanitary district. "It's certainly heartwarming to hear everything they talk about, but we really want to get all the information."
Phinney got her inspiration for a sustainable farm from Michelle Obama, who champions healthy eating and physical fitness. Phinney said she established a Michelle Obama fan club in 2007, which includes a Facebook fan page and group.
She envisions a large, organic garden on 33 acres that could help provide salads and other vegetables to low-income students in many schools, as well as to the local food bank, while providing outdoor education to teens tending the crops.
As she spoke to more people about her idea, it grew to include a community
Students in the Vicente Continuation High School's "New Leaf" sustainable learning collaborative in Martinez got so enthusiastic about the possibility of working the land that they recently visited the site to pull weeds and get a feel for it.
Student Isaac Ramos said he was excited by the possibility of participating in something that has the potential to help many people.
"I could say that I had a part in that -- that I did something that changed my community," Ramos told the board at a meeting last month.
The project has garnered support from Cindy Gershen, founder of the nonprofit Wellness City Challenge, and Larry Sly, executive director of the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano, as well as elected officials.
At the meeting, Orinda school board trustee Sarah Butler read a letter from state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, who praised the project as a "living science laboratory."
"It will give our students an opportunity to see how their lessons are relevant to real-world applications, provide opportunities for creative problem-solving, and help foster collaboration and teamwork," Torlakson wrote.
Sly said locally grown produce would help cut down on the food bank's carbon footprint, because trucks now bring vegetables from the San Joaquin Valley to a warehouse that is down the street from the proposed farm site.
The Earth Island Institute in Berkeley has agreed to provide the nonprofit umbrella for the project because it fits with its environmental mission, said Susan Kamprath, director of project support.
"We liked a lot of aspects of this project, not the least of which is Carolyn's drive and enthusiasm," Kamprath said. "There are food system issues throughout the Bay Area, and we're really looking for people who are doing creative things to address some of those needs, particularly in underserved communities."
Farrell said her staff is studying the proposal before bringing it to the board for a vote. The county would need to rezone the land from industrial to agricultural, and the Airport Land Use Commission would need to approve the farm use before the district could act on the proposal, she said.
Also, Farrell said the district had been considering leasing the land to generate revenue. It may hold focus groups to find out whether ratepayers would approve of the farm, and whether they might support the idea of providing recycled water at no cost or at a reduced rate.
Phinney said she would write grants to get funding to plant the produce, and she could potentially plant and harvest alfalfa to cover rent charged by the sanitary district.
Board member Mike McGill said he would like to see the project placed on an agenda for discussion before the study is completed, to see how the rest of the board -- which includes two new members -- feels about it.
"In concept," McGill said, "I think it's an absolutely fantastic idea."
Board President Jim Nejedly also likes the idea but said many issues need to be worked out.
"You have a nice farm next to the freeway, and we're feeding the food bank and everything's hunky-dory, in a perfect world," he said. "But, you've got a concrete plant with dust and a creek where we've had a homeless problem that could be an issue on the farm."
The public can send comments about the proposed project to the Central Contra Costa Sanitary District board of directors in care of Elaine Boehme by email to email@example.com or by mail to 5019 Imhoff Place, Martinez CA 94553.
To see the project proposal and a video describing the project, go to ContraCostaTimes.com. For details, read the On Assignment blog at IBAbuzz.com/onassignment.