According to the San Diego Hunger Coalition, an estimated 443,000 (1 in 7) people in the County experience food insecurity. Of those, 141,000 are children, and significantly more may not go hungry but lack access to fresh produce and healthy nutrition.

Second Chance Program is a local nonprofit addressing this community need with a Youth Garden program that teaches at-risk kids about fresh produce, nutrition, and healthy cooking. Maureen Polimadei, donor and volunteer engagement manager, shares why their focus is on fresh produce. “High fat and high caloric foods are often a staple in low-income households because those foods are cheaper. Unfortunately, a pound of apples doesn’t make a meal and sometimes, it’s just not affordable. That’s how kids can be both overweight and not have enough to eat.”

Polimadei continues, “Most of the food deserts in San Diego County are in East County. For families who live in a food desert, it may mean limited access to fresh and affordable produce. This raises health concerns, first and foremost, but it also means kids don’t grow up learning about fresh produce. When youth have an opportunity to learn about produce, they learn about food justice, which at its core sees food and access to food as a human right.”

Joe Shumate, director of communications at the San Diego Hunger Coalition, says of local food deserts, “For many who are low-income, transportation becomes an issue and we know from studies that these urban families oftentimes must use public transportation. That can take hours to get to where they are going and limits their ability to purchase in bulk. What you end up with is a large group of people who use the closest stores, which are often convenience stores. The end result is youth who grow up without having learned about fresh produce and healthy eating, not through negligence but necessity.”

Andrea Uraga heard about the Second Chance Youth Garden from her brother and joined the program last year. Uraga was always interested in gardening but couldn’t do it at home due to a lack of both know-how and resources. “In my family, I’m the one who does all the cooking so getting to see the process of how the food is grown really appealed to me.”

Uraga says that she has learned a lot from the program, like about composting. “I didn’t realize how important it was for the garden and how much waste it saves. All of our food scraps, instead of throwing them away and going to a landfill, the process of compost turns it into rich soil which is great for the plants, giving them the nutrients they need.” 

She’s also been exposed to vegetables she had never eaten before, like butternut squash. “I had never tried it before but I realized that I really liked it. We learned to make a vegetarian chili using butternut squash, and of all the recipes we made, that was my favorite. Since then I’ve made that same chili a bunch of times at home for my family.”

Now, Uraga is excited that she has finally started her own small garden. “At home, I’ve started to grow herbs, I planted some basil a few weeks ago and have incorporated it into my cooking.” 

The San Diego Hunger Coalition has seen demand for food assistance increase since the coronavirus crisis. Shumate says, “Since the COVID-19 pandemic, we know that food insecurity has skyrocketed and the demands on our food assistance system are taxing our nonprofits and government agencies.” The increased demand is why community organizations like Second Chance are so vital. 

The pandemic has halted some of the youth garden’s hands-on efforts but they have stepped up to help address the growing food insecurity in the community. Before the start of the pandemic, Second Chance’s farm stand sold produce to the public but now offers boxes of fresh produce to families in need.

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