The Green Urban Lunch Box brings creative ways to solve hunger

Story by NINA YU

What started as a school bus converted into a mobile greenhouse, The Green Urban Lunch Box (GULB) quickly has become a local source that challenges communities to look at natural resources right in their backyard. The nonprofit is based in Salt Lake City and has multiple gardens across the Valley.

According to the GULB website, the mission is to “empower people to connect to their food and community by revitalizing urban spaces and building a resilient food culture. We envision a strong network of communities centered on the cultivation of food.” The farm is located on 3188 S. 1100 West.

The nonprofit focuses on allowing people to engage in local food production, urban agriculture, or fruit gleaning by using resources that are available in their community. The GULB tries to connect neighborhoods to the resources and opportunities. At the same time, the organization revitalizes urban spaces that have been neglected by growing food and sharing the crops with the broader community.

The Back-Farms program connects seniors to volunteers, who help with gardening. Photo Courtesy of GULB.

The GULB promotes three programs on the website. One of those programs is Back-Farms, which connects senior citizens with volunteers who help build and maintain gardens in the seniors’ backyards.

“The Back-Farms program is a free gardening program that we do with senior citizens,” said Katie Nelson, the executive director at GULB, in a phone interview. “We partner with seniors who are generally lower or fixed income, who are unable to take care of their yards. We come in with our staff and volunteers and teach people how to garden while gardening those seniors’ yards.”

The GULB shares the gardened produce with the seniors and volunteers. The Green Urban Lunch Box also offers markets at senior centers where the produce is free.

“We have 40 gardens in the Back-Farms program. They’re all over the community,” Nelson said. “We have several in Rose Park, a few in Fair Park, and some in Glendale. With our community partners, the GULB is able to go to senior centers all over Salt Lake County.”

Senior citizens are given a consistent amount of produce throughout the summer so they can rely on fresh vegetables and fruit. Any seniors who have a neglected garden they want to utilize can contact the GULB.

The FruitShare program is a partnership between fruit tree owners and volunteers who help harvest and distribute fresh fruit that would otherwise go to waste. An individual wanting to participate would have to register their fruit trees, request a scout when the tree is ready, and harvest the fruit. The fruit is distributed in three ways: the homeowner, volunteers, and toward hunger relief.

The last program that the GULB runs is the Small Farm Initiative. According to the site, it is “an urban training program that teaches people how to farm in urban spaces using sustainable growing practices and make money doing so.” The initiative is for those who want to learn more about farming and gardening. Prospective students can apply to the 8.5-month Farm Apprenticeship and School that focuses on space-intensive vegetable production. Students are taught organic gardening methods, business aspects of running a farm and hands-on activities from farm instructors.

People who are looking for a less intensive schedule can pick the On-Farm Internship, which teaches participants how to grow a lot of produce in a small amount of space. Successful participants have the opportunity to continue their studies with their farmer training program.

The GULB also recruits volunteers every season. In 2019, Nelson saw hundreds of volunteers coming in to help.

“Volunteers are the foundation of our organization,” she said. “Everyone usually contributes three to five hours a season. They are the reason for how much food we can produce and get into the community. They’re building gardens. They’re harvesting gardens. They’re also learning something in the process.”

This engagement aligns with the nonprofit’s mission statement. The GULB wants volunteers to immerse themselves in connecting with their food and being able to share the knowledge with family and friends. They also hope volunteers are able to teach others how to garden or explain the types of produce to spark interest.

Photo courtesy of GULB.

The farm has a team of staff members who direct volunteers. The team includes garden leaders who have an extensive grasp on gardening and being able to grow food. They also help facilitate events and maintain a good relationship with the senior citizens in the Back-Farms program. They see the seniors twice a week and bring the community to them. This way, senior citizens feel connected even if they are homebound.

In 2011, when Shawn Peterson founded the GULB, he wanted to challenge the way people thought food was grown. He purchased a bus, took the ceiling off and converted it into a greenhouse. The bus went to community events to show people that food can be grown in anything. It was also taken to classrooms to teach children about growing food. Now that the bus is not driven around anymore, it is used to grow seedlings for the farm.

The GULB works with different organizations throughout the county, like International Rescue Committee, Intermountain Medical Center, food banks, and multiple food pantries to help bring fresh produce to them every week.

“We’re trying to help the Latina population right now,” Nelson said. “We’re getting them engaged on our farm and providing them fruits and vegetables.”

The farm starts preparing for the season in spring. In early June, the organization starts producing food so that markets are ready to be opened in mid-July. The growing season usually ends in October, when the GULB members regroup and prepare for next season.