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When Georgina Rivas attended her first Farming for Health class in 2014, she suffered from high blood pressure, inflammation and general body pains. She went to the class, at Roseland’s Bayer Farm, at the behest of her best friend Isabel, who thought the two seniors could benefit from more time outside. Having grown up in an agricultural family, Rivas, 85, missed living close to the land. Farming for Health brought that closeness back.

“It’s brought me to a place of peace,” said Rivas, who moved to the United States from her native Peru three decades ago.

Farming for Health, which is held outside at Bayer Farm — a 6-acre urban farm and city park — began four years ago as a community-driven effort to actively address health issues like diabetes and explore healthy plant-based recipes and remedies. As the defacto founder, Angeles Quinones Bravo, wife of Bayer Farm’s program director Jonathan Bravo, began coordinating weekly gatherings for exploring and sharing ideas about growing vegetables, herbs and other medicinal plants. The group also developed two farming plots dedicated to medicinal herbs, labeling each plant with nutrition and health information. In addition, they held workshops on healthier recipes and cooking.

“One reason we’re so proud of the program is that it grew directly out of the community and the garden,” said clinical herbalist Jocelyn Boreta who joined Farming for Health in 2015. “It was very organic. It just started happening.”

On a recent Friday morning, eight women gather at picnic tables, shielded from an unseasonably hot March sun by umbrellas. They pass around a tray of organic graham crackers to munch on as Boreta starts the session by asking the women to share their herbal solutions for upper respiratory infections.

A woman in a floppy flowered hat says she uses chamomile drops. Another likes to drink warm lemon water with salt. Boreta then launches into a brief lesson on cleavers, a member of the bedstraw family. It turns out the highly sticky garden weed has known healing properties.

“This is not a bad herb,” Boreta said to the class. “This is medicine. It’s not an antibiotic, but it will kill an infection and strengthen your immune system.” After a short explanation of how cleavers interact with the body, and some light plant science, Boreta describes how to consume the plant. She recommends an Agua Fresca made from a blend of pineapple, cleavers, water, and ice. The women write down the information, asking questions along the way.

“The mission is all about empowering people to feel good in their bodies — and to create leaders who feel pride and value in their indigenous knowledge,” said Boreta, after the class comes to a close. “They know these plants and they know how to use them.” In 2018, Farming for Health will partner with Farmacopia, an integrative health clinic and natural apothecary in Santa Rosa, to develop a nonprofit organization to promote culturally relevant and holistic health education within the local Latino community.

Farming for Health has become even more crucial in the wake of the North Bay fires. In October, Georgina Rivas’ friend Isabel was hospitalized at Kaiser Permanente for complications related to cancer when the Tubbs fire threatened the hospital’s main campus. She died a day after being transferred to another hospital during the emergency evacuation. The loss hit the close-knit community in a big way.

“We can’t talk about Farming for Health without talking about Isabel,” said Boreta, tears welling. For Rivas, in the aftermath of losing her best friend, the group provides something beyond remedies and recipes — a sense of belonging. What’s more, her blood pressure has improved and she feels empowered to use food as medicine.

“This is an amazing and fantastic program for people my age — though I’d like to see more youth get involved,” said Rivas in her native Spanish. “The warmth and vibrancy of this community makes me feel really happy to be here.”

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