Image: Thomas Shea

Ask Bob Randall how he started the nonprofit Urban Harvest, celebrating its 25th anniversary this month, and he’ll stop you in your tracks. “I certainly worked a lot of long hours,” he’ll say, “but so did many other people.”

Yes, it took a village to create and run the fourth-largest community garden program in the country—hundreds of volunteers participated during his tenure as its first executive director, from 1994 to 2008, and the founding board included none other than Houston conservationist extraordinaire Terry Hershey. But Randall, now 77, was its visionary. 

At a time when such things seemed radical—particularly in Houston—Randall inspired Houstonians and their children to grow their own organic food and stop using pesticides. He also increased access to locally grown food through school- and community-garden programs, all while helping to feed the hungry, create a local farmers market, and launch Urban Harvest’s huge annual fruit tree sale. As he says, speaking literally, not metaphorically: “Low-hanging fruit is the best free lunch there is.”

Randall has been interested in sustainable food production for most of his life. He grew up in New Jersey, where he first learned to value local fruits and vegetables, gobbling up both on his grandparents’ farms. During college he was a part-time pesticide research chemist—“I long ago abandoned pesticides for ecology,” he explains today—and eventually got his PhD in anthropology, with a focus on how people interact with food systems, from Berkeley. Along the way he met his wife, Nancy, a nutritionist, and the two made a lot of friends who were running community gardens. “We spent time helping them,” he says, “and started renting places with land.”

It was in 1979 that they both landed teaching gigs at UH. By then the couple had assisted at community gardens in Berkeley and Santa Cruz and planted their own organic home gardens in California and Vancouver Island. For a time they'd even lived on an orchard. “We knew a lot of stuff,” Randall says. They bought their home just outside the South Loop because it was on a double lot—more gardening space.  “And we set about growing things,” Randall says, “so as to get year-round food and flowers.”

During the ’80s, when the economy collapsed, the two started volunteering for the now-defunct Houston Interfaith Hunger Coalition. “650,000 people were missing food at least some days a year,” says Randall. “It was a real disaster.” In 1987 Randall went to work for the group full-time, planting his first community garden in the Fourth Ward alongside neighborhood activists Deacon Malcolm McLemore and Deacon Jean Cameron. In that capacity, Randall would go on to establish 42 Houston-area gardens, donating most of the harvest to area food pantries. But he dreamed of doing more.

In May 1994, at a Chinese restaurant in West University, Randall met with seven other likeminded Houstonians. Together they formed the founding board for a new nonprofit. After some debate, they named it Urban Harvest. They launched their famous fruit-tree sale—which quickly morphed into the largest event of its kind in the city, maybe even the country—in 2000. Their now-famous farmers market got off the ground in 2004, at a time when such a thing was a rarity around here, with just seven vendors. Today it boasts 70 sellers and is the largest, most successful effort of its kind in the entire city.

As for the nonprofit, it now has 11 employees, with thousands more volunteers, and supports 140 affiliate gardens and 25 donation gardens. It expects to serve some 2,000 food-insecure families this year through an incentives program for SNAP recipients at 13 area farmers markets, some in collaboration with the city of Houston. Other efforts include educating the next generation of young farmers while securing land and economic incentives for them—a continuation of what Urban Harvest has been doing all along. “Our main task in the ’90s was teaching people that this could and should be done,” says Randall. “Much of what we did was trying to figure out how to get information to every segment of society.”

Randall officially retired in 2008. These days he’s proud that more Houstonians than ever eat local foods but believes there’s much to be done, which is why you’ll still find him volunteering with the nonprofit, teaching two popular classes on permaculture and organic gardening, where students get to hear his famous zingers: “Want to take care of your roaches? Plutonium. They’ll never come back.” Also: “I have been on the maternity ward in three continents, and I’ve never seen anybody born with a green thumb.”

The twelfth edition of Randall’s bestselling book, Year Round Vegetables, Fruits and Flowers for Metro-Houston: A Natural Organic Approach Using Ecology, just came out, and he also serves on the board of directors of the Permaculture Institute of North America, “trying to figure out how you can put humans in a natural space,” he explains, “without wrecking the natural space.”

And he still maintains his own garden at home: native plants that attract butterflies and birds, along with a dense forest of 140 trees and seven raised beds that supply 90 percent of his and his wife’s diet. “We have tangerine trees in this yard that have produced every year since the ’80s, with the exception of freeze years,” he says. “Figs do the same thing. Persimmons do the same thing. There are a bunch of plants that are hard to screw up.”

Urban Harvest’s 25th Anniversary Sunday Supper—a family-style farm-to-table meal cooked by 25 prominent Houston chefs—takes place November 3 at St. John’s School.

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