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Cultivating Food Justice for Social Justice

These five nonprofits look to create lasting change

July 17, 2020

Hunger and the lack of healthy food have disproportionately burdened communities of color for generations. These same communities are now ravaged with the highest number of individuals facing COVID-19. A June 2020 SANDAG report analyzed the correlation between COVID and unemployment and found, “It is the Black and Hispanic communities that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and have been the hardest hit. This is in sharp contrast to White and Asian communities where respectively only 14% and 24% live in the high unemployment and COVID-19 case areas.”

Jen Nation, Executive Director of Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center states, “Many of the areas being impacted the most, also are most impacted by chronic health and diet-related conditions like type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity. COVID-19 has exacerbated diet-related health disparities that already exist. Healthy food distribution and access are critical to helping people maintain their health.”

From San Marcos to Chula Vista food distribution organizations report double the amount of need in the same time frame prior to this crisis. Feeding San Diego has served 7.9 million meals since March, plus a 15% unemployment, and one in four kids throughout the county experiencing food insecurity.

The stories behind the numbers inspire activism. Offering more than charity, food justice work addresses racial and socio-economic inequalities by offering transformative, collaborative change within communities. Read on and learn how you can support these five local organizations to grow healthy food in all communities so every San Diegan has the opportunity to thrive.

Photo Credit: Project New Village

Land Ownership, a Farm Truck, and a Market

In Southeast San Diego a bold dream continues emerging. Project New Village runs the Mt. Hope Community Garden on Market Street. In December 2019, the group purchased the land allowing the community to take a step closer to its goal of a local, consistent source for healthy food.

In May, the organization launched the Community Pantry Project encouraging locals to grow to produce on their properties. Project New Village is working to purchase a refrigerated farm truck, enabling neighbors to become certified producers and sell their fruits and vegetables with stops in Lemon Grove, Spring Valley, and National City by year’s end.

Managing Director Diane Moss says, “This low investment can provide a steady revenue stream to families giving them the freedom to determine their own futures.”

The organization’s long term goal is to open a neighborhood market, a network for local growers to buy and sell their produce and serve as a community hub for wellness.

How to help: Donate or volunteer in the garden or office. Moss is also seeking a partner to help write a business plan.

Since the coronavirus pandemic, Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center has increased its weekly pay-what-you-can produce bags from 10 to 60 households, 75% of the produce stand visitors are repeat customers. Photo Credit: Mary Ann Beyster
Between 250–300 pounds of produce is harvested, cleaned, and distributed every Thursday morning at Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center’s Produce Stand. Photo Credit: Mary Ann Beyster

Growing a Healthy Lifestyle

Olivewood Gardens’ renowned Cooking for Salud program teaches healthy cooking and eating habits addressing disproportionate diabetes in the Latinx community. Its gardening programs also build leadership skills among youth.

Since the COVID-19 crisis, Olivewood Gardens is feeding six times more families and supplementing organically grown produce with dried goods and seedlings for residents to plant.

To keep program graduates connected, organization leaders provide personal outreach through webinars, phone calls, and handwritten notes. Graduates and their families are invited to a weekly donation-based produce stand and meal delivery in partnership with Craft Meals SD.  

“We've used this opportunity to determine what it takes to move things virtually—allowing us to serve more people. By using a hybrid model combining online and in-person programs, we may be able to get people off the waiting list and keep our community engaged,“ says executive director Jen Nation.

How to help: Volunteer for garden clean-up and maintenance or donate to invest in programs and garden growth.

ProduceGood volunteers glean fruit from trees, collect excess produce at farmers markets and transport fruit to partner agencies. Photo Credit: Produce Good
During the pandemic, ProduceGood has partnered with 17 additional small local agencies to meet increasing demands and distribute healthy food to families. Photo Credit: Produce Good

North County Neighbors Share Fruits of Labor

In Valley Center, 800 trees laden with oranges surround volunteers committed to sharing the bounty with those in need. “It’s not a lack of food we’re facing. It’s moving the food from its source to where the need is,” states Nita Kurmins Gilson, one of ProduceGood’s founders. The organization gleans excess citrus in backyards and large orchards and recovers unsold produce from farmers’ markets each week, diverting food from landfills.

During COVID, ProduceGood has doubled its citrus donations to about 7000 pounds per week ensuring its many partner agencies distribute healthy food to families in need. The group’s “quick pick” program is its shining star of sustainability. Volunteers within a community pick the fruit, then take it directly to their local pantry for distribution. “We’re involving communities in their own solutions,” says Gilson.

Many ways to help: Donate fruit from your own tree, volunteer to pick, or donate $10 to provide 38 servings.

Aquaponics’ Symbiotic System Grows 570 Pounds of Produce Without Soil

Through aquaponics, a method of food production combining aquaculture and hydroponics, Ecolife promotes conservation and healthy eating to youth throughout the county with classroom growing systems and hands-on curriculum.

Ecolife’s Aquaponics Innovation Center in Escondido showcases the incredible potential of aquaponics which uses 90% less water than conventional soil farming, especially pertinent to our drought-ridden region. Since March, the Innovation Center has donated more than 570 pounds of cucumbers, tomatoes, kale, and lettuce to North County agencies including the Salvation Army Escondido Corps, Produce for Patriots, Interfaith Community Services, and Greater Love Ministries.

The organization’s newest endeavor is a fish-breeding project. According to founder Bill Toone, “The catalyst that pushed us into action was the urgent call to meet the needs of food-insecure households. By incorporating fish breeding, we aim to donate 300 pounds of tilapia each year and increase our vegetable production by 30%.”

How to help: Donate to help match a generous donor through July 30th up to $25,000.

Photo Credit: Lindsay Kreighbaum

Culinary job Training Provides Second Chances and Community Solutions

Kitchens for Good does it all: diverts food waste, provides paid positions and culinary training for those with barriers to employment such as the previously incarcerated, and prepares healthy meals for food-insecure households.

The culinary job training program creates a newfound quality of life and cultivates economic justice for those who otherwise might face a lifetime of poverty. Since 2015, the program has trained 270 graduates with a high success rate of industry employment.

"It is such a pleasure being a part of something that is helping and inspiring the community. Before my training at Kitchens for Good, me and my son were experiencing homelessness, which was very dark at times. Coming to a place that was so positive and making a difference has allowed me to gain confidence and get back on my feet to launch my career,” says Geannie Hyacinth, an apprentice that graduated with the 18th class.  

During COVID-19, Kitchens for Good has distributed more than 125,000 healthy prepared meals through partnerships with the San Diego Food Bank and Jewish Family Services. They also distribute food in partnership with My Brother’s Keeper to about 700 households a week, including the families of program graduates.

How to help: Donate or volunteer to help package and label meals. There are two volunteer shifts a day. All volunteers work at least 8 feet apart, equipped with masks and gloves.

Leafy greens grow best in an aquaponics environment. plants absorb nutrients provided by fish waste and return clean water to the fish in a recirculating, pesticide-free system. Photo Credit: Ecolife
Photo Credit: Lindsay Kreighbaum
Cherie Gough
Cherie Gough is a San Diego native and freelance writer. She is passionate about writing stories that explore food equity, gluten-free eating, outdoo
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