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Organic Oasis: Cultivating Community Resilience through Food Sovereignty

June 26, 2024

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Organic Oasis: Cultivating Community Resilience through Food Sovereignty

The Pandemic’s Eye-Opening Lesson

There’s a slight lull between August heat waves on this Monday in Compton and the crew at Alma Backyard Farms is in recovery mode. The day before, an overlong line of cars crawled past on Redondo Beach Boulevard as the Alma team gave away grocery kits to South Los Angeles residents needing food during the pandemic – boxes stuffed with the farm’s organic produce, tomato sauce from Hank & Bean, even pesto from one of the farm’s clients, LA fine dining restaurant Rossoblu. The 250 boxes go fast, and the need hangs like a question over the well-tended rows of purple yard-long beans and tall late-summer stalks of kale.

How can we increase access to this good organic food? Alma co-founder Erika Cuellar and I sit in the produce packing area as a mercifully cool Pacific breeze blows through, talking about how to find healthy food in a neighborhood purposefully left without good grocery stores. “I grew up in Watts, which is the neighborhood down the street in the ’80s,” says Cuellar, speaking through her mask. “In the neighborhood I was in, food insecurity was a big issue, gang violence was a big issue, and incarceration. Having safe spaces was an issue.”

I ask how she feels now that white middle-class people are all screaming that the food systems are broken. “You’re right,” she says, “when you say the white middle-class suddenly has a food supply problem, and so it becomes a problem, or everyone’s aware of it now. But in neighborhoods like South LA County, this has been an ongoing issue before a pandemic even existed here.”

The Harsh Reality of Food Deserts

When the Covid-19 pandemic shut down many of the country’s meat-packing plants last spring and stranded billions of pounds of produce in the fields, voices from food activists to Farm Bureau directors declared that the nation’s food systems were broken. The ruthless Wall Street-driven push for corporate efficiencies among food companies had so thinned the supply chains that they snapped under the strain of the new illness, and farmers had nowhere to go with food meant for our plates.

The country watched in horror as farmers resorted to plowing onions back into the earth, killing millions of undeliverable chickens and pigs, dumping truckloads of milk and eggs, or at best giving away whole warehouses full of potatoes, while grocery store shelves sat empty. The resulting panic over the lack of bacon or pasta or toilet paper was palpable. One marker? Gun sales went through the roof.

But that sort of precipitous panic is also a kind of privilege enjoyed only by those accustomed to having good food readily available in the first place. Cities and neighborhoods such as Compton or Watts do not simply experience food insecurity – they lack food sovereignty. Food sovereignty was codified at an international conference in Mali in 2007 as the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. Basically, it’s the ability to have some agency in what you eat. Many Americans take it for granted, and part of the shock of this pandemic is that it’s the first time since probably WWII that a significant proportion of the white and outwardly middle-class population now facing unemployment and grocery shortages have had to take what they can get from food charities.

In Compton, like a lot of locales in the US, this problem festered like an underlying condition long before Covid-19. “When you have to drive past mile after mile of corner liquor stores and fast-food joints to reach a green grocer, and organic vegetables are non-existent, choices are limited, and those limitations are structural,” says Cuellar. “Few people are growing or selling healthy produce in these communities.”

As a direct result, Compton has the highest obesity rates in the county, skyrocketing diabetes and hypertension and heart disease, poor school performance, and even higher crime rates have been traced back to diet. The term “food sovereignty” was coined in 1996 by an international family-farmer organization founded in Belgium, La Via Campesina, as a declared human right and rhetorical weapon in the fight against the dumping of cheap surplus food – often on impoverished populations where it destroys their native agriculture and negatively affects their health. This doesn’t just happen in third-world countries. It is happening in neighborhoods, urban and rural, all over the US.

Reclaiming Our Culinary Heritage

Richard Garcia, co-founder of Alma Backyard Farms, talks about this as “food injustice.” “Food injustice oftentimes will be referred to as a lack of access to healthy and nutritious options,” he says. “There are more liquor stores on the corners than there are grocery stores. That sounds easy, like ‘Oh, okay. So let’s get Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s in here.’ But the battle we face, the injustice, is one where people in lower-income, impoverished neighborhoods are bombarded with messages that healthy, nutritious food is something for other people. It involves a mindset.”

It wasn’t that long ago that neighborhoods such as this were brimming with fresh food. From 1909 to 1949, Los Angeles was the top-producing agricultural county in the US, and this area was heavily farmed. Even today, parts of Compton are zoned for Residential Agriculture, and there are a fair number of horse stables. One of the neighbors told Cuellar she could remember when Alma Backyard Farms’ location on the former softball diamonds of St. Albert the Great Catholic Church was a strawberry field.

In a way, the pandemic has evened the playing field, showing all Americans that we are no longer connected to our food sources. When the grocery stores are empty, where do you turn? The need to reconnect to the land led to a gardening frenzy in 2020, with nurseries and seed companies running out of stock, and some got involved with gleaning operations, pulling produce out of unpicked fields. But most people who could just went online, scouring Amazon and eBay and other sites for sundries to fill their pantries.

Low-income neighborhoods live with this paucity of access all the time, and that disconnect destroys community and exacerbates environmental problems. Alma Backyard Farms started in 2013 with a mission to reunite the community via the intimacy and earth-sense of fresh vegetables. “Alma” means “soul” in Spanish, and Garcia, whose family is Filipino, and Cuellar, whose family is Mexican, were working for Father Gregory Boyle’s Homeboy Industries when they started inviting formerly incarcerated people to work on urban farms. Their purpose was to reunite their community by empowering those released from prison to give back, to feed their neighborhood organic food. They started in backyards and built this main farm at St. Albert in 2016, opening a stand to sell to the public. They now have a second space in San Pedro, and they have seen these farms transform the neighborhoods.

“This space does what a grocery store cannot do,” says Cuellar. “Walking down a grocery store aisle isn’t going to bring you that sort of sense of belonging, that sense of ownership, the sense that we belong to each other and that your well-being depends on my well-being. It’s love, in other words, that you can eat.”

Garcia adds, “The transformation of mind and heart has to do with the transformation of your palate. Persons in low-income neighborhoods, persons of color, Black, Brown – too often the mindset is one where these better, nutritious foods are not relevant to the culture.”

Reclaiming the Land, Reclaiming Our Health

Choking smoke from the Bobcat Wildfire just east of Los Angeles pours through my little office as I write this, a stark reminder of what’s at stake in that transformation. Industrial agriculture is a major driver of climate change. Make the connection: those same industrial food systems that are destroying the health of our low-income neighborhoods and leaving grocery stores bare in times of crisis, while hanging the cost on farmers, are also setting our world on fire. Bad food not only expresses itself as obesity and diabetes, but also as conflagration and lung-scarring smoke.

Food sovereignty is thus also the right to control your climate future. Don’t look for that sovereignty in big technological solutions or a new app or corporate salvation. Look to policy, to your neighbors, and to the dirt under your feet. That’s what my wife Lauri Kranz and I have been doing at our small urban farm in Northeast LA, where we grow organic vegetables and edible flowers.

As farmers, our goals are the same as those at Alma: to reconnect people to the land and thus to one another. When Angelenos eat the modest amounts of food we grow in a local delivery system that has proven resilient during the pandemic, we want them to feel connected to us and the soil right here where they live. We also want them to reflect on our farming methods and why they matter.

Building on Lauri’s work for the past 15 years growing food in backyards, schools, and institutions, we focus first on restoring soil health, meaning we can grow in perpetuity without relying on the fossil fuels and the chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, pharmaceuticals, and other dangerous additives – many of which are also made from fossil fuels – that define industrial methods. We also don’t have to process or ship this food using supply chains that break down.

The food coming off such a small-production farm not only bursts with flavor, it’s a reclamation of our own health. Without it, we are all at the mercy of Nestlé, Oh, you haven’t served any Hot Pockets during quarantine? and Yum Brands and PepsiCo and whatever it is they decide to feed us, which as Michael Pollan so definitively demonstrated in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, is mostly derivatives of fossil-fuel-drenched industrial corn.

The pandemic made the choice between good food and just plain food real stark and real quick.

Building a Resilient Local Food System

Lauri and I had only been working our little 13-acre farm for about six months when Los Angeles issued its Safer-at-Home order. Right away, people started contacting us about receiving home deliveries of produce. Since, as Wendell Berry wrote, borrowing a line from E.M. Forster, “care for people and the land all turns on affection,” we said yes and started scrambling.

Our first winter planting had produced an overwhelming amount of a particularly delicious arugula and borage, and some decent amounts of mustard greens, radishes, lettuces, and fava beans, but nowhere near enough to make a righteous farm box. So we got on the phone with some of the legendary farmers who supply LA’s high-end restaurants – whose unreal tastes and unreal prices are rooted in small organic production. Lots of them sell at farmers markets, but when dine-in restaurant service was halted, these farmers lost 60-70% of their income overnight. They needed a kind of food hub which aggregates and distributes food to get their produce to new buyers. There wasn’t one to fill this particular gap in LA.

Within about 48 hours of the first requests, Lauri and I started buying up produce from farms familiar at farm-to-table restaurants – Schaner, Weiser, Finley, Coleman, Flora Bella, TD, Tehachapi Heritage Grain Project, Windrose, Milliken, Bub and Grandma’s Bakery, and others – and making contactless deliveries to people’s homes. We became a small hub. Since March, this is what we do, five days a week, 12-14 hours a day. We lug arm-deadening crates of heavy flavor, from Reed avocados to radicchio, and put together farm boxes delivered by the hundreds all over the county.

It’s backbreaking labor, but I was struck immediately by the fact that we didn’t have to work nearly as hard as Alma or the other food activists toiling to change low-income foodscapes. Our market – the community of people who eat locally grown organic food – was already on board. Our delivery service fell together in two days because these relationships were already established. Lauri’s clients and contacts had known her for years. When Covid-19 disrupted the world, these people said, “Oh, I know a farmer who can get us the most delicious, healthy food.” And they called us.

The key to a resilient food system is relationships and community. The pandemic has shown us that growing new healthy food systems means using food to grow new communities. The bigger that community is, the more local food is available, and the more we can drive the prices down.

The Importance of Solidarity

Hungry Americans turning to food pantries and food giveaways across the country are discovering that healthy options are rare. “If you’re looking for apples or lettuce, you’re just as likely to get donated potato chips or a plastic tray of pastries,” says Susan Lightfoot Schempf, Associate Director at the Wallace Center, a national nonprofit widely recognized for its support of good food as a tool to build stronger communities.

Schempf takes some issue with my assertion above. “I want to be careful of assigning some particular value or goal to communities that I don’t live in,” she says as we talk on the phone. “What I believe is food sovereignty is that every person and every family, every community has the agency and the ability to determine their own food future. And if that means having an ethnic market that’s importing stuff from Mexico because that’s what people value and that’s what they want, I am not going to say that that’s not okay. For me, it’s about self-determination.”

In other words, sovereignty means we have the right to grab a plastic tray of pastries or an imported bottle of French wine if we want. But if collard greens are our culturally relevant green, and climate-friendly, locally grown organic collard greens are healthy options, those need to be within reach too.

Even though the massive array of food giveaways around the country has freshly exposed the lack of food sovereignty, there is some great and interesting work being done to fill those gaps. Asian Pacific Islander Forward Movement (APIFM), for instance, a nonprofit focused on public health and environmental justice, runs a program called Food Roots that provides access to culturally relevant produce for LA’s Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) communities.

The group started in 2007 and was originally called the Asian Pacific Islander Obesity Workgroup, which puts a fine point on the need for healthier food. “One of the main things we are trying to do with that program is really reach folks who have a hard time accessing fresh and local food – whether that’s an issue of accessibility or price point,” says Program Manager Kyle Tsukahira. “Especially folks who live in food desert communities, areas that don’t have a farmer’s market or grocery stores where they can get these items.”

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)-styled farm boxes have sometimes been available to his constituents, but they were usually full of vegetables that AANHPI don’t eat. Food Roots addressed this by working with Hmong growers at LA-area farmers markets to source sustainably grown bok choy, gai lan (Chinese broccoli), daikon radish, Napa cabbage, Japanese sweet potatoes, taro root, and other essentials in AANHPI cooking – originally delivering them as free or pay-what-you-can farm boxes. The boxes were popular, but in order to get off the endless cycle of grant funding, APIFM switched to a hub, aggregating similar produce from five different farms and selling it to LA-area restaurants, schools, hospitals, and other nonprofits that were distributing to their constituents.

The current list of participating farmers includes Dream Farms in Fresno, Yao Cheng Farms in Camarillo, Ken’s Top Notch Produce in Reedley, Rancho La Familia in Santa Maria, and Fair Hills Apple Farm in Paso Robles. AANHPI are enjoying increased access to the food, and APIFM turns the profits back into programming.

Tsukahira notes that Food Roots is once again distributing food boxes during the pandemic, but they’ll go back to the hub. “As Lauri and I discovered, the hub is a powerful tool for increasing the availability and demand for specific food items,” I say. “Farmers are encouraged to put more crops in the ground, knowing the hub has multiple market outlets and thus expands their reach. A reliable buyer can even convince new farmers to start up.”

It’s worth noting that some of the farms participating with Food Roots make a five-hour drive to LA, which stretches the notion of even regional eating. But the same issue exists in LA’s Black communities, Latinx communities, Indian, Vietnamese, Thai, Persian, and most of the other 224 language groups that reside in LA County, while they may have thriving ethnic markets, their market suppliers can be disrupted, and their farmers and producers are often hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

The Power of Street Food

The Village Market Place Food Hub, a grocery and café set up by longtime LA action group Community Services Unlimited, offers fresh organic produce at the Paul Robeson Community Wellness

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