When ordinances passed in the early 1900s evicted all existing cemeteries from San Francisco’s city limits and banned the construction of new ones, the deceased were relocated about 10 miles south—and Colma, California, was born. Today this two-square-mile Bay Area town remains three-quarters cemetery—the dead outnumber the living 900 to one. It is also home to the largest local produce supplier for the San Francisco Food Bank.
Since 1995, the Congregation Emanu-El Temple has devoted part of its 25-acre Home of Peace cemetery to growing food for the hungry. The one-acre garden beside the mausoleum is named Pe’ah (Hebrew for “corner”—Leviticus:19 instructs farmers to reserve the edges of their fields for feeding the poor). Pe’ah provides 12,000 to 20,000 pounds of organically grown vegetables, including broccoli, rainbow chard, spinach, zucchini, cauliflower and root vegetables, to the food bank annually. “We choose hearty vegetables that do well in the cold,” says Sandy Rechtschaffen, the temple’s social justice coordinator, “because it’s not always sunny here.”
The congregation also hosts gardening workshops and offers Victory Garden-style planter boxes to anyone who will give some of what they grow to the food bank. “We couldn’t call them ‘plots,’” says Rechtschaffen, laughing. “This is, after all, a cemetery.”