Ideas & Insights / All Grantee Impact Stories / Ideas & Insights Grantee Impact Story

Women-Led Nonprofit Harvests and Shares Nutritious Food To Heal

Lisa “Tiny” Gray-Garcia became houseless at age 11, sleeping with her mother in shelters, on the street, or in their car. They often washed up in a Walmart bathroom.

Food? It had to be cheap and simple.

“We bought something at a 7-Eleven that we could put in a microwave,” recalled Gray-Garcia. “Your ability to control what you eat vanishes when you are houseless. I loved blueberries and strawberries, but there was no way my mom could afford that. So I ended up eating strawberry candy. As young as 12, I became addicted to coffee and sugar.”

In 2010, she began creating an Oakland, California-based movement focused on alleviating poverty. “We started to think deeply about how we were being poisoned by food. We had a lot of relatives die from diet-related diseases.”

Supported by organizations like Deep Medicine Circle, a grantee of The Rockefeller Foundation which centers indigenous perspectives as it advances both regenerative farming practices and a Farming is Medicine approach, Gray-Garcia provides healthy food to her community through her co-housing Homefulness Project and the Sliding Scale Café.

  • Deep Medicine Circle's work advances economic justice, climate justice, and food justice. The Farming is Medicine toolkit they are creating will allow others to incorporate these practices within their own unique contexts.
    Diana Johnson
    Manager, Food Initiative, The Rockefeller Foundation

“And it will greatly benefit from the input of Deep Medicine Circle’s collective of farmers, elders, physicians, healers, herbalists, lawyers, ecological designers, scholars, political ecologists, educators, youth, storytellers, and artists,” Johnson added.

One of every five deaths across the globe is attributable to a suboptimal diet.

High-sodium diets alone contributed to 1.9 million deaths globally in 2019.

Deep Medicine Circle is working to right that within its own community.


It gave away a whopping 36 thousand pounds of food in 2022, and will give away 70 thousand pounds this year, supplying local food-insecure people with free organic fruits and vegetables it grows through regenerative agriculture on both a rooftop garden and a plot of land.

Its Rooftop Medicine Farm also helps offset the urban heat island effect, when a city experiences much warmer temperatures than nearby rural areas. The living roof also provides building insulation, and helps manage stormwater.

Additionally, land farmed with regenerative practices absorbs more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere—up to 30 times more, according to a five-year study. It also reduces water use by about 15 percent and contributes to increased biodiversity.

  • Farmer Zee Husain teaches youth in a summer program how to harvest zucchini (Photo courtesy of Deep Medicine Circle)
    Farmer Zee Husain teaches youth in a summer program how to harvest zucchini. (Photo courtesy of Deep Medicine Circle)

Women-Led and Centering Indigenous Perspectives

The story of Deep Medicine Circle centers on food and land. On how nutritious food grown with care can create thriving and connected communities, and farmers valued as stewards of the land can improve biodiversity and soil health.

It is also centers on Gray-Garcia, now an educator, writer, artist, and activist who calls herself “PovertySkola.” And Dr. Rupa Marya, a San Francisco-born physician, composer, author, and activist whose wide-ranging work sits at the nexus of climate, health, and racial justice. And Charlene Eigen-Vasquez, a lawyer, artist, peacemaker, and member of the Ohlone nation, who believes we must walk gently on this Earth.

It is the story, too, of these women’s sisters and children, their ancestors, and their relationship to the land.

  • Work underway at Deep Medicine Circle's Rooftop Medicine Farm (Photo Credit Alexandra Payne)
    Work underway at Deep Medicine Circle's Rooftop Medicine Farm. (Photo credit Alexandra Payne)

Four Components to Healing Food System

There are men in this story also, of course—those among the farmers and food system activists and allies.

But Deep Medicine Circle, a California-based women-of-color-led collaborative founded by Marya in 2021, is above all the work of grandmothers, mothers, and daughters.

“My feet are rooted to this work,” said Marya, who in 2021 published Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Justice, written with co-author Raj Patel.

She views regenerative farming as more than a set of techniques. “We understand that capitalism and colonialism together have been the root cause of climate change,” Marya said. “You don’t get this kind of breakdown if we prioritize our relationships to one another and to the land.”

Four components, Marya says, are needed to build a food system that begins to heal:

  • Land is valued, and decision-making power over public lands is returned to indigenous communities.
  • Farmers are valued as stewards of both human and planetary health, and fully supported as they take care of land, water, and growing food.
  • Food is de-commodified. Good, healthy food is available to all.
  • Communities are educated in how food is medicine, and in how to prepare it.

“Deep Medicine Circle’s model re-imagines farming as medicine through a food systems approach that bridges the urban and rural and is centered on justice – for the farmer, the ‘patient,’ and the community,” said Alexandra Payne, Senior Associate, The Rockefeller Foundation’s Food Initiative.

Valuing Land

Eigen-Vasquez, a trained lawyer who applies her skills as an artist, peacemaker, and Chair of the Confederation of Ohlone People, believes as part of a regenerative system, we must walk gently on this Earth and build bridges to change our hearts.

“Be thoughtful with your words. Give back as much as possible, and leave the place better than how you found it,” said Eigen-Vasquez, Director of Deep Medicine Circle’s Landback Program. “And share the knowledge about how to walk gently, so that you are in a growing network of people who understand this idea, and generations from now, it doesn’t even have to be said.”

Maintenance on the drip irrigation system at DMC’s Rooftop Medicine Farm (Photo Credit Alexandra Payne)
Maintenance on the drip irrigation system at DMC’s Rooftop Medicine Farm. (Photo credit Alexandra Payne)

When you walk gently, “you also clear space, getting rid of invasive species, and letting native species grow. There is a natural rebalancing of the ecosystem. The indigenous plants come back almost immediately, then the insects follow, butterflies and birds you haven’t seen in such a long time. I’ve seen miracles, so I’m optimistic for our planet, but it takes education and re-education.”

  • Jumia Callaway of Deep Medicine Circle tending crops (Photo Courtesy of Deep Medicine Circle)
    Jumia Callaway of Deep Medicine Circle tending crops. (Photo courtesy of Deep Medicine Circle)

Valuing Farmers

Eigen-Vasquez grew up eating from the gardens her parents and grandparents tended. “In the summer, I did a little work in the orchards with my grandparents when they were babysitting us. I remember the heat of the summer, and I got to witness how people were treated and paid.”

It taught her early on that farmers were not being given proper support. The World Bank estimates some 500 million smallholder farms globally are tended to by some 2 billion people who make up a significant portion of the world’s poor, living on less than $2 a day.

Deep Medicine Circle farmers grows lettuce, arugula, rainbow chard, kale, collard greens, mustard greens, radishes, turnips, beets, carrots, cilantro, parsley, fenugreek and 27 different varieties of garlic.

“We see our farmers as stewards of health,” Marya said. “They should be supported to care for the soil and the water and grow food using agroecology. They should be paid like healthcare workers, receiving full benefits. They should be getting professional development stipends. They should be supported fully to do this work.”

Decommodifying Food

“The commodification of food exacerbates inequities,” says Marya. “We don’t think a food system based in capitalism can be regenerative. So we liberate the food we grow from the market economy. And we are trying to innovate policy ideas and tools that can shift the food system into a framework we call Farming is Medicine.”

Among those Deep Medicine Circle supplies with fresh organic and free food is Oakland’s Food Farmacy Program, which supplies food to the community twice a month and is very explicit about the healing property of healthy food.

Members of the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland pediatrics clinic team pick up fresh produce from Rooftop Medicine Farm (Photo Courtesy of Deep Medicine Circle)
Members of the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland pediatrics clinic team pick up fresh produce from Rooftop Medicine Farm. (Photo courtesy of Deep Medicine Circle)
A strawberry grown by Deep Medicine Circle farmers (Photo credit Deep Medicine Circle)
A strawberry grown by Deep Medicine Circle farmers. (Photo credit Deep Medicine Circle)

Educating the Community

When Gray-Garcia began offering healthier food choices to houseless community members, she found that “a lot of the food requires education to eat it.”

“People who are used to eating weenies in a can or Chef Boyardee don’t understand how to make leek soup or even why we should eat that,” she said.

“We learned how to make salads cheap, and we taught that to folks who had never eaten a salad before, and now they are avid salad eaters.”


Deep Medicine Circle offers community visits to its farm, educational opportunities like classes in food and medicine cultivation, and a paid fellowship to urban indigenous young adults to learn agroecology in their Farming is Medicine program.

Eigen-Vasquez recalled during one of the farm tours, a 15-year-old girl stood awkwardly. “I said ‘Don’t you like strawberries?’ She said, “Of course I do, but there are bugs and dirt on all of them.’ I picked a strawberry and dusted it off and told her there were no contaminants in this soil. She ate the strawberry and, convinced, asked immediately for a basket so she could pick some.”

Eigen-Vasquez believes this type of education is crucial as more of the world becomes urbanized.

“I don’t have any grandiose ideas that those who visit us will move to the country and start creating farms,” she said. “But maybe they will look at their own homes and make space for vegetation.”


  • It’s not about big numbers; it’s about your relationship to plants and the healing they offer us.
    Charlene Eigen-Vasquez
    Director, Deep Medicine Circle