Community is Key to Creating Lasting Change in the San Diego County Food System

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September 10, 2018

As Wendell Berry pointed out decades ago, “To be interested in food but not in food production is clearly absurd.” Because food production is a community issue, building a strong food system requires community participation.

Local nonprofits Olivewood Gardens, Humane Smarts, and ProduceGood know this—these three organizations built engagement into their mission. As a result, they’ve created ambassadors who share their knowledge with friends, families, and neighbors.

Courtesy of Olivewood Gardens

Ambassadors for Health

“We’re very much community-driven,” says Claire Groebner, Olivewood Gardens’ development director. Olivewood Gardens serves the National City and South Bay communities by empowering students and families from diverse backgrounds to be healthy and active citizens.

“We do our best to create programming based on what our community’s needs are,” Groebner says. “[Residents] don’t have a lot of access to education around health, nutrition, and the environment—and they want it.” In response, Olivewood offers organic gardening, environmental stewardship, and nutrition education initiatives.

Perhaps the nonprofit’s most inspiring example of working hand in hand with the community is Cooking for Salud. This bilingual English and Spanish program equips parents (mostly Latina mothers with chronic health issues in the family) with the skills and knowledge needed to turn their kitchens into healthy food zones. Through training from professional chefs, doctors, and program alumni, participants learn how to bring nutrition back home.

Upon graduating, each Cooking for Salud participant is crowned with the title kitchenista.

These kitchenistas become advocates for health in their communities by rallying friends and family to eat well and by conducting presentations in schools. National City and South Bay are now home to 174 kitchenistas—a substantial force for health in local neighborhoods. Groebner says that this kind of grassroots change is exactly what Cooking for Salud hopes to spark: “We want to empower leaders in the community and lift them up to become advocates for change.”

courtesy of ProduceGood

Collaborative Community Farming

In the heart of downtown San Diego, an urban farm occupying 16,000 square feet, connects students and adults over a shared interest: growing nourishing food. Run by the nonprofit Humane Smarts, SMARTS Farm offers a place for collaborative community gardening, where residents connect to the land and their food.

Through relationships with schools and neighborhood residents, SMARTS Farm invites San Diego’s urban population to learn about food through hands-on experiences. Thousands of kids have visited the farm to harvest their own salads, learn about soil amending, and compare GMO and non-GMO seeds. Founder Susan Madden Lankford says that the kids carry this knowledge home with them: “Without being told, they experience [gardening] first hand and they pass it along.”

While kids get their hands dirty, downtown residents work alongside them in raised garden beds. SMARTS Farm leases garden boxes to neighbors who live in high-rise apartments that might lack outdoor space suitable for growing. For a small fee, residents receive a cedar box, soil, water, sunlight, and the freedom to grow organic crops ranging from avocado to mango to passion fruit.

“One resident even planted cotton,” Lankford says. “Now that resident is teaching the kids about growing cotton. It’s a total thrill to see this type of community interaction take place.”

“At the farm [children and adults] blend naturally,” Lankford says. By inviting diverse residents to engage with each other, the SMARTS Farm plants seeds of collaboration in its garden and beyond.

courtesy of ProduceGood

An Army of Gleaners

“Being a nonprofit with a paid staff of 2.5, we absolutely need citizen engagement to power our programs,” says Nita Kurmins Gilson. With partners Jerilyn and Alexandra White, Gilson co-founded ProduceGood, a gleaning organization that combats food waste and hunger by harvesting San Diego’s extra bounty and delivering it to those in need. Just as impressive as the 425 tons of edible food diverted from landfills is ProduceGood’s volunteer force.

Kitchenistas courtesy of Olivewood Gardens
Kitchenistas courtesy of Olivewood Gardens

Dozens of dedicated gleaners join ProduceGood every week to pick fruit in North County residential orchards. Another group recovers and transports rescued produce from farmers’ markets to feeding agencies, while others glean veggies from Coastal Roots Farm. With a database of over 750 local volunteers, the organization has tapped into a powerful form of community engagement.

“Many of [our volunteers] are ambassadors of our program, spreading our gospel of gleaning to any interested parties,” Gilson says. “Once they pick that first orange, upcycle that first box of zucchini, meet the farmers that grow their food, they are energized.” After all, unlike reading statistics, actually picking up boxes of unsold fruit at a market makes food waste real.

“Food waste and food insecurity know no age limits, and both of these issues affect all of our community,” says Gilson. “Understanding that these are issues they can actively help solve empowers our volunteers, from age two to 82.”

While their programs are diverse, Olivewood Gardens, SMARTS Farm, and ProduceGood share a spirit of empowerment. The collaborative approach equips community ambassadors to plant seeds of health in their own kitchens, classrooms, and neighborhoods. Because a healthy food system begins with the people who grow and eat the food, each one of us has a role to play.

*Cooking for Salud inspired the short documentary The Kitchenistas of National City, which  you can watch on online. A full-length documentary is in early production and slated for release in 2019.

Editor’s Note: This is the final story in a three-part series that takes you inside the inspiring world of San Diego’s food-based nonprofits. You can find the first two stories covering social enterprise and food access organizations in the 2018 January–February and March–April issues and online at While we were unable to highlight every organization worthy of mention in this series, our website also features a regularly updated directory of local food-based nonprofits.

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