Foto de Lourdes Espinoza

In a move that it says will “expand access and improve programming,” White Memorial Medical Center announced Friday that the East Los Angeles based Lucille and Edward R. Roybal Foundation will take over operations of a disputed community garden in land owned by the hospital. But Proyecto Jardín, the grassroots organization that has managed the garden for over 15 years, says its members are still holding out for a long term lease on the Bridge Street parcel owned by White Memorial.

“We are excited at the opportunity to partner with such a well-respected community-based organization,” said John Raffoul, President and CEO of White Memorial Medical Center, in a press release. “We look forward to working with the families currently participating in the garden to transition to the new leadership and continue their involvement in working the garden.”

The hospital said in the release that the foundation is expected to take over operations of the garden immediately and that families who are currently working in the community garden will not be affected by the change and will continue to be given access to their plots as usual.

The release included a statement from the Roybal Foundation, which runs the Lucille Beserra Roybal Mother Garden at the foundation’s community center in East Los Angeles.

“One of the main goals of the Roybal Foundation is to improve access to healthy produce and nutritional programming to the residents of East Los Angeles,” said Crystal Torres, Executive Director of the Roybal Foundation, in the release. “Our longstanding partnership with the Latino Diabetes Association has enabled us to encourage healthy eating, education and programming for the Lucille Beserra Mother Garden, and we are excited to now be able to expand our support to the local residents of Boyle Heights through White Memorial Medical Center’s own community garden.”

The release does not mention White Memorial’s ongoing dispute with Proyecto Jardín, a community based group that leased the garden through December 2015. At the end of last year, White Memorial said it was unhappy with Proyecto Jardín’s management and productivity and would seek two other nonprofit groups to run the community garden.

When the hospital and Proyecto Jardín were unable to reach an agreement on a new lease, the community group said it would remain on the White Memorial parcel 24 hours a day until a deal was worked out. Last month, White Memorial released a statement saying it would meet with Proyecto Jardín to inform the group of its plans.

In an email to Boyle Heights Beat, a spokesperson for White Memorial said hospital staff met with Proyecto Jardín director Irene Peña and an unnamed community gardener on Thursday “with the sole intent of clarifying the hospital’s position on the future of the community garden.”

The spokesperson added that there will be an initial transition period for the Roybal Foundation to be brought up to speed with the management of the garden. The spokesperson did not say whether the garden would be renamed or rebranded, but confirmed that the Roybal Foundation was the only group that would be brought in to manage the parcel at this point.

But in an interview with BHB on Saturday, Peña said that only she and board member Aldo Picón were allowed to meet with César Armendáriz, vice president of business development at White Memorial, and that no farmer member was present at the Thursday meeting.

Peña said that Armendáriz informed them of the decision to bring in the Roybal Foundation and said that the community garden would benefit from the organization’s expertise with an agroponics system it has successfully installed at its East Los Angeles garden.

In the interview, Peña said that her group was “open to partnering with organizations whose mission, vision and programs are compatible with our own. We feel Roybal has a lot to offer to Proyecto Jardín, to our organization. The Roybal Foundation has a lot to offer to our members.”

While she said Proyecto Jardín welcomed a partnership with the Roybal Foundation, Peña insisted that its members were not willing to give up their autonomy to manage the garden. She said that at the meeting her group reiterated their petition to have White Memorial rescind the 30-day notice to vacate it was given at the beginning of the year, to provide an automatic six-month extension of a temporary lease and to negotiate for a long term agreement.

“I asked them ‘what are your next steps?’ and they said our next step is to bring in our new partner,” Peña recalled of the meeting. “And then they asked ‘me what are your next steps?’  I said our next step is to go and tell the community that you don’t want to renew the lease and that  you are denying the three asks that we came in to deliver on behalf of the people.”

The group planned a community meeting on Sunday morning, where members would be able to react to Friday’s announcement.

During the interview Saturday at the Proyecto Jardín site, Peña pointed to the new crops being tended by member gardeners, as volunteers prepared food for the workers and visitors and musicians played in the background. She said that part of those crops are intended for their mobile farmstand, a pilot eight-week project funded by an USC Good Neighbors grant that would deliver fresh produce to the nearby Ramona Gardens housing development.

Peña said she would be in touch with the Roybal Foundation on Monday and invite them to tour the garden and seek to initiate a conversation about a possible three-way partnership with White Memorial.

She pointed out to the ample community support her group has received since initiating its “24-7 Plant-On Plantón” standoff –including a recent resolution from the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council– and said members would continue to camp out in the garden until a favorable agreement was reached.

My response [to White Memorial’s announcement] is we’re going to go back to do what we have been doing for 17 years, as caretakers of the land,” Peña said. “We welcome partners that want to work with us and we expect to have a lease with White Memorial sooner than later, so that we can work effectively without the threat… people are not going to stop camping until the threat of eviction is gone.”

This post was edited on April 3 to include statements from Irene Peña.

Photo above: A gardener tends his plot in the Proyecto Jardín community garden on Friday near a sign that reads in Spanish: “The garden lives, the struggle continues.” Photo by Antonio Mejías-Rentas

Antonio Mejías-Rentas

Antonio Mejías-Rentas is a Senior Editor at Boyle Heights Beat, where he mentors teenage journalists, manages the organization’s website and covers local issues. A veteran bilingual journalist, he's...

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