palo alto religious

Faith Communities as Sowers of Sustainability? 

The seeds of sustainable economies may be sown in surprising places, I thought as I toured a church-run project in East Palo Alto, California that is designed to promote home gardens. That project, and other religious activism on sustainability issues, made me wonder: Could religious congregations be important catalysts of sustainability practices?

Maybe. But let’s start with the garden project.

Last year, a group of priests, including the church’s pastor, Father Larry Goode, brainstormed about how to respond to the poverty (a rate of 20.7 percent) and unemployment (7.8 percent) in East Palo Alto. The socioeconomic stepsister to wealthy Palo Alto, which sits across Highway 101 and is home to Facebook, Skype, Hewlett-Packard, and other Silicon Valley titans, East Palo Alto is an expensive place to be poor and jobless: the cost of living registers nearly 56 percent higher than for the United States as a whole. From a socioeconomic perspective, the city is a huge sustainability challenge, and the priests wanted to do something about it.

One night, one of the group, Father Joseph Fessio, woke up with an inspiration. The parish could form a company—Nanofarms—to help people grow food in their backyards. The company would be a worker-owned cooperative, with the profits distributed among its laborers, that would build raised-bed gardens at parishioners’ homes and teach sustainable, biointensive cultivation techniques. Nanofarms would franchise its model to parishes anywhere. It would be not only environmentally, but also economically, sustainable, charging enough to customers to pay the firm’s expenses. In sum, the company would promote sustainable, locally produced fresh food, create jobs, and improve nutrition—at the smallest scale of production.

The vision became real when Nanofarms was established in 2015 with three full-time and three part-time workers. Gardens have been set up in a handful of homes in and near East Palo Alto. The priests hope that the idea will spread: the nearby seminary features a 10,000 square foot training plot in which seminarians can gain experience with biointensive gardening, a practice that they ideally can apply later to their parishes. Already, a version of the Nanofarms model has been adopted in the Chicago area.

I have written over time at Worldwatch about the potential of faith traditions worldwide to create more sustainable societies. Their many assets—billions of adherents, a network of communities that meet regularly, values that are often in line with the demands of sustainability, and powerful rites and teachings that embed these values deeply—position faith traditions to be sustainability catalysts. Nanofarms is just one glimpse of what religious activism in service of sustainable economies could look like.

Indeed, what if the idea were to spread broadly among religious congregations nationwide? Across the United States alone, congregations of all faith groups are estimated at 345,000. That is a cornucopia of potential gardens, jobs, and healthy food.

And what if congregations’ commitments were expanded beyond gardens to include socially responsible investing, renewable energy, and purchases of fair trade goods (such as coffee for weekly social hours), among other sustainability activities?

Fledgling but significant faith efforts on these fronts already exist. Some 13 major religious organizations and denominations collaborate with Equal Exchange to feature fair trade coffee in their congregations. Impact investing—avoiding investments in social “bads” such as arms vendors, or targeting socially and environmentally beneficial firms—is now promoted by faith-based groups such as the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility. And Interfaith Power and Light works to leverage the buildings and other facilities of congregations to advance and showcase sustainability practices, for example by promoting congregational investments in solar panels and efficient lighting and heating. Imagine if these efforts were to ripple out to a majority of the 345,000 congregations in the United States—and to the millions worldwide.

The priests in East Palo Alto were simply trying to make parishioners’ lives better. Could their effort be a sliver of a much larger faith community contribution that jumpstarts the creation of sustainable economies?


Gary Gardner is co-director of the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World: Can a City Be Sustainable? He has written on a broad range of sustainability issues, from cropland loss and water scarcity to malnutrition and bicycle use.

Banner photo: NanoFarms USA

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