Tree Rubenstein with the fruits of his labors.
Tree Rubenstein with the fruits of his labors.

Q&A: An urban farmer who gives away food to save the planet

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Every Sunday, people gather in Parque Niños Unidos in the Mission — not just to enjoy the setting, but to patronize the Free Farm Stand. Now in its 11th year, the stand was founded by Tree Rubenstein, 71, who has devoted decades of his life to feeding the hungry and protecting the Earth. The farm stand is open Sundays from noon to 3 p.m. at 23rd Street and Treat Avenue. Produce comes from a community garden in the park (also started thanks to Rubenstein), Alemany Farm, neighbors’ backyards and donations from Ferry Plaza merchants.

J.: Your given first name is Dennis. Why do you go by Tree?

Tree Rubenstein: It’s a long story. Basically, trees speak to you. I had an experience with trees communicating with me about their importance. I’m pretty passionate about planting trees, especially fruit trees. I fill up every space I can find with fruit trees.

You aren’t working at the Free Farm Stand these days, but are you still in charge?

It runs out of my house and we actually have a nonprofit organization which I keep going. We have about 60 volunteers — maybe 15 regulars on Sundays, and people who do food pickups, interns who help harvest produce and learn about sustainable farming and food justice.

Did you ever think it would grow to be so popular?

When I do things, I never really know what’s going to happen. They just take on a life of their own. With the Free Farm Stand, that’s what happened. I’m still surprised to know that it means a lot to so many people.

Who are your patrons? You say about 100 people show up.

There’s a lot of regulars and a lot of neighbors, but I think people come from all over. I try to put out the word that we’re trying to get low-income households. However, we don’t require people to show proof of income. I am interested in making sure that people that are in need get food.

Is there a social aspect as well?

We’re trying to bring people together on a weekly basis and encourage people to learn about where their food comes from and how they can eat healthier, about food and diet, climate change and how we eat. We provide information on plant-based diets, gardening, we give away seedlings. At the farm stand, we give away tickets at noon and give out food at 1 p.m., so people are often standing around and hanging out in the park, or they walk to our demonstration garden down the street.

You also started Mission Greenway, an effort to turn an old Southern Pacific right-of-way into a park. How’s that going?

Not much is happening. We’ve been pressing the city to do something about that, but we haven’t seen any movement forward as far as we can tell. I’m working with pro bono lawyers and trying to get a real estate attorney to get something like “quiet title,” where a judge makes a determination on who owns the land.

Any other projects?

The S.F. Department of Public Works wants to cut down 48 trees on 24th Street, so we’re trying to stop that.

You grew up in a Jewish household in the San Fernando Valley. What was that like?

My parents weren’t very religious, but just before my father died — he was 50 — we started going back to temple. I was kind of rebellious, so I didn’t stay in Hebrew school and I wasn’t bar mitzvahed. I wish I had stayed in it.

Do you consider what you do a mitzvah?

The idea of repairing the world — I believe that’s what we need to do, so yeah. That’s the core of what we do, and that’s why a farm stand is more than giving out food. It’s trying to repair the damage that is being done to the planet.

There is so much food that is thrown out, there’s so much mistrust among people. The more we can bring people together, that’s very important. I think it basically comes down to loving people, yeah. I never say any of this out loud to people; I think actions speak louder than words.

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Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.