Water exchanged for veggies from Hmong garden

Vang Yang stoops in a dense vegetable patch on a breezy Friday morning in west Modesto, snapping a cucumber from its stem and tossing it to her husband.

The couple gardens in this four-fifths of an acre lot behind Central Baptist Church a few times a week, growing food for their family and congregation. They say the fresh veggies and outdoor work keep them healthy.

"I like to exercise," said Yang, grinning beneath a floppy sun hat.

The farm they share with half a dozen other Hmong families nearly went dry this summer when Modesto determined it no longer could offer the church congregation a de facto subsidy to irrigate the garden.

The city used to charge the church a flat rate of about $60 a month for water. A switch to a meter would have driven that cost to about $600, and out of the reach of the small congregation.

But a west Modesto nonprofit stepped in to keep the water flowing and the Yang's vegetables growing.

The West Modesto Neighborhood Collaborative is offering to pay the water bill in exchange for some of the Hmong growers bringing their fresh food to a new farmers market at the King-Kennedy Memorial Center on Thursday afternoons. It fits into the scope of a grant the collaborative won from Kaiser Permanente to encourage healthy living in west Modesto.

"It's in the neighborhood. It's grown by neighborhood folks. It's a win-win for everybody," said Carole Collins, the collaborative's program director.

The partnership developed when Central Baptist Church pastor Wayne Bridegroom approached the City Council's Finance Committee about keeping the garden's water bill on a flat rate. The Hmong Alliance Church is one of four Asian congregations that holds services out of Central Baptist on Sutter Avenue.

Bridegroom didn't expect much from the city, knowing council members didn't want to be in the position of giving a subsidy to one group while denying it to others.

Julie Hannon, Modesto's deputy parks director, proposed the tie between Collins' nonprofit and the Hmong church.

"So instead of being all dry, it's all green," said Bridegroom, standing in the garden and smiling while Yang's husband offered the pastor a few cucumbers.

The Rev. Cher Teng Vang, who leads the Hmong church, said he has a few i's to dot and t's to cross to make sure the collaborative can cover the garden's water bill. He said it's well-used by the church's older members.

"It helps them," Teng said. "It keeps them busy, keeps them doing some exercise. It's good for them, and also it's good for the church, because once they grow, they share it with everybody, so we all get a taste from the garden.

"I really want this to continue."

So does Yang and her husband, Lee Vang. They're immigrants who fled Laos in 1978.

They moved to Ceres about six years ago from Long Beach. They didn't have much room to grow their food in Southern California.

They have corn, cucumbers, lemongrass and beans at the church garden. The Yangs also keep fruit trees at their home.

"I want to work," Vang Yang said. "I don't want to stay home."

For more information on the King-Kennedy Memorial Center farmers market, call 577-5355.

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.