By Spencer Robinson '20
In the first post of a 3-part series on local food sustainability, Spencer Robinson investigates the work of an organization in East Palo Alto called Collective Roots.
As you enter the dining hall and grab your plate, you’ll probably stroll around, turn your head, check the labels on the dishes over head. There are a myriad of options: fruits like pears and persimmons, protein foods like turkey and tofu, vegetables like golden beets and broccoli --its clear that the variety of fresh choices prepared for us by RD&E staff is a privilege. Outside the walls of the Stanford “bubble”, however, this diversity of wholesome, healthy food isn’t something you can heap thoughtlessly onto your plate. Just a few miles away, East Palo Alto is what the USDA labels a “Low Access” community in terms of food. Food access isn't just about having enough food—it’s about ensuring access to nutritious options for all the diverse food groups in a healthy diet. The lack of healthy food options is what justifies the classification of East Palo Alto as a food desert. In order to help improve food access, an organization called Collective Roots® , established in 2000, runs a communal garden and other programs for the “growing, sharing and eating” of nutritious foods. To get an idea of the value of growing healthy foods in a community like East Palo Alto, I interviewed Najiha Al Asmar who works as the nonprofit’s Manager of Community Initiatives.
First, Najiha further defined the concept of a food desert. A food desert is a place, especially in an urban area, in which there isn’t steady access to nutritious food. This is very true in East Palo Alto. Up until 2009, there were no supermarkets there at all. Now the situation is marginally better - there is now one supermarket (Mi Pueblo) for the 30,000 residents in the area. Convenience stores don’t really help to improve food access because they mostly sell nutritionally poor, processed foods. Lower incomes are part of the problem. Here, 13% of the population participates in the national Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) - compared to just 1% in Palo Alto. And ack of access to healthy food in East Palo Alto contributes to long-term health problems. Here, the life expectancy is just 62 years - 7 years below that of the rest of the county.
Collective Roots has been a strong agent of change in East Palo Alto by providing programs through which local residents have been able to increase control over their own food access. Collective Roots strives to create, in Najiha’s words, a “healthier, stronger, more connected community” of people in East Palo Alto. They do this by “empowering the people to grow their own food, or be able to purchase it”. Their farmer’s market brings farmers to the community to sell their fresh, organic produce to residents. They also have an incentive program, First Check, in which they allow each household to buy $20 extra of produce a month if they spend $20. Moreover, Collective Roots provides the opportunity for residents to start their own garden plots in either the communal gardens or in their own backyards. The group also conducts “Growing and Sharing” educational workshops for gardening and nutrition education. The organization provides tools, seed sharing programs and compost to help everyone effectively grow more of their own produce.
Collective Roots is making a large impact on the community. Gardening is a social activity, so kids work with their parents and volunteers to maintain the family crops. Given that over half of elementary school kids in this community are overweight or obese, it is evident that growing and eating fruits and vegetables and learning about their benefits could go a long way in improving long term health. Najiha emphasized the importance of fostering an appreciation for healthy foods in kids, in order to stop the cycle of limited food choices and poor health. She sees a lot of community members come in consistently to work in their gardens so it’s become a social gathering place. There is also a lot of cooperation and help from various parts of the community. “About a third of the whole operation here is volunteering,” Najiha told me. “Without them we wouldn’t be able to do a lot of our programming.”
The rewards of the program have been tremendous. Najiha has been personally moved by how happy and healthy people look working in the garden. People are “humbled and proud of what they’ve grown” because the growers are able to share the fruits of their labour with family and friends”. To Najiha, “Seeing people connected has been the most rewarding thing.”
It should be noted that Collective Roots still faces many obstacles in East Palo Alto. Problems involving low food access go along with problems of income inequality, environmental injustice and race. “East Palo Alto is in the heart of Silicon Valley, but a lot of these community members are working two, three jobs because they are lower income and also minorities so being able to outreach and getting these community members involved has been a struggle,” Najiha explained. Not all the community members have time to maintain the gardens. Moreover, “a lot of people don’t actually have access to internet or other technology that we on the outside have access to.” This makes mass emailing and texting somewhat less ineffective. So instead Najiha and her staff often go door to door or use flyers to spread the word. as well. This is apparently “beneficial in the fact that we’re able to be more personal”. Najiha considers it a challenge but also a blessing.
Given the problem of the divide, I asked Najiha if she had any advice on bridging our communities together to overcome some of these barriers. Najiha would love for volunteers to come to gardening workshops and spend more time just working alongside the gardeners with their family plots. Commitment and exposure seem to be the best remedy. Just being there and working with the families in their own gardening plots, learning about their experience and passing on that awareness is a great step.
When I volunteered at Collective Roots in November, I got a taste of awareness and engagement with the community. I worked with some fellow SSS members, Najiha, a volunteer from a nearby tech company and an old couple who had a garden there. We did simple but respectable manual labour - moving concrete rubble and turning over the compost heap. It was nothing spectacular, but it was truly refreshing for me to work outside alongside other people in the area and know that I was playing a small part in preparing the community garden for other residents to grow healthy fruits and vegetables.
Students can come build and install planter boxes, work on the community gardens, manage the compost pile, and more. Official work days are Thursdays and every other Saturday starting in the spring. Go to http://www.collectiveroots.org/volunteer/ for more details.
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