Santa Ana River Trail Native Food Project


Lisa Tucker
Independent Artist


Biking to work along the Santa Ana River Trail has given me time to consider some of its quirks.  The entrance I take is on Waterman Avenue in San Bernardino, with a path that winds around the 215 and 10 freeways and along a rather barren, sandy bed with little vegetation.  What I find amusing are the concrete tables and benches for picnickers, where I have yet to see anyone sit because the climate is so hot, dry, and windy.  In fact, the part of the trail I travel is an arid deserted stretch of Southern California, with an occasional stream of water appearing, and then disappearing into the rocks.  None of the benches are near the few trees along the path– just miles and miles of sandy, predominantly plant-free soil.

Other inhabitants, or just plain “the other.”

The homeless who live in or near the Riverbed are another curious presence.  They usually clear out by 6 or 7 o’clock a.m., but periodically I ride early enough to meet some of them.  One morning on the way to work, I was reminded of the homeless folk who attend art openings at the gallery and museum where I work in Downtown Riverside.  Since security officers have been hired for receptions, I haven’t seen as many of the downtrodden, but when they come there are a few who line their pockets with cubes of cheese and other buffet fare.   Why would someone who gets free food from community services want squares of cheddar?  There are two reasons.  First is the thrill of taking something that is not yours, or in this case taking more than is socially acceptable.  The other is variety.  I pondered the luxury of food diversity.  Riverside and San Bernardino County food banks and soup kitchens don’t have the resources to keep large quantities of refrigerated goods stocked, which means less fresh milk products, fruits and vegetables.  Food found on the shelves is most likely processed, dry packed or canned, according to Catherine Mailliard, director of family outreach at the Community Food Pantry.  It’s been hard for local pantries to keep up with demand for even the non-perishable items.  Donations are down and the number of residents receiving food stamps in San Bernardino and Riverside counties rose considerably last year and continues to rise.  Food stamps are rarely adequate and many recipients rely on the generosity of other organizations in addition to what is provided by the county.

Riverside County Food Stamp Recipients

May 2007 31,017
May 2008 40,590

San Bernardino County Food Stamp Recipients

May 2007 46,123
May 2008 57,962

Source: Riverside County Department of Public Social Services and San Bernardino Transitional Assistance Department


Contemplating the empty picnic tables, rarity of vegetation along the bike path, and need of novel fresh food, I devised a plan.  Why not plant gardens of native edibles and trees along the trail?  I enjoy plant propagation and could easily harvest seeds of existing California flora to plant.  Even more interesting to me is the notion of a guerilla garden, enlisting the help of cyclists and those who live along the river.  An unauthorized reclaiming of county land by those who live or use the site in order to bring back native growth, which will in turn feed those in need, appeals to me. The project could begin as soon as the heat will allow seeds to germinate and we get some fall or winter rain.  A plentitude of native plants in other locations will make the process practically cost free.  Romantic scenes of nearby residents and cyclists sitting at shade covered tables, eating fresh greens floods my mind.


The practice of molding the environment has its roots in earthworks, and collaborating with non-art entities is an important component of socially engaged art. Affecting the environment both physically and socially appeals to me on a conceptual level as an artist. The changes made to the river trail create the artwork, along with the process of building and maintaining the gardens by local cyclists and other residents.  The California College of the Arts in Oakland calls this ‘new genre’ public art, where the community and formal art practice overlap. I see it as a type of performance that works better in out-of-gallery spaces.  This type of work usually annoys people who try to define it as either activism or art.  It’s really a hybrid activity, involving those inside and outside the art establishment.  Critic and art historian, Grant Kester, and art programs like Oakland’s California College of the Arts underscore the changing perception of art in their new programs and critical writing.  The Santa Ana River Trail Native Food Project is part of this new and evolving geography.

Source for Riverside and San Bernardino food stamp statistics:


Lisa Tucker is an interdisciplinary artist, writer, and curator. Recent projects include Food Forever, an installation exhibited in the University of California, Irvine Art Gallery and Bioneering: Hybrid Investigations of Food, an exhibition and symposium interrogating food production and consumption. Both collaborations were in partnership with scientists, plant pathologists and artists at three University of California campuses. Lisa serves as assistant curator of exhibitions at the UCR/California Museum of Photography and teaches courses in the history of photography, multimedia, and art appreciation.