Seeds of Prosperity. Grow. Healthy.

Kids Curbside enjoying the fruit of Ron Finley’s labors. Photo © Ron Finley. Used with permission.

There are some quiet, powerful seeds of prosperity sprouting up in some of the most unlikely communities these days. From Compton Gardens to South Central Los Angeles to Berkeley and beyond, individuals are transforming food deserts into oases. This practice is something that can go a long way toward putting extra money into the pockets of vulnerable families and reducing the chronic problem of obesity (and healthcare costs) in America. Below are highlights from three community gardens.

The Edible Schoolyard at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School, Berkeley

The Edible Schoolyard spans one acre where you’ll find apple trees, vegetables gardens, and even a beehive — all organic. The “classroom” is an open-air makeshift wood gazebo, with bales of hay for seating, constructed by students. Messages on a colorful whiteboard remind the students to be safe, respectful, responsible, open-minded, to collaborate and work together, and to use the right tool for the right job. A few students who have been through the curriculum are now teacher aides and were assigned to show me around.

“What’s the favorite thing you’ve eaten here at the Edible Schoolyard?” I ask one of the aides, as we walk into the kitchen.

“Kale pesto,” she responds, licking her lips at the sumptuous thought. Kale pesto! That’s really the last thing I expected to hear. However, I soon learned in my makeshift survey of budding gardeners that sophisticated palettes dominated.

Inside the school’s kitchen, the kids are making harvest soup, another of their favorites, using cooking tips from Alice Waters (Chez Panisse’s beloved visionary is the founder of Edible Schoolyard). I’m a little alarmed at the size of the knives. However, the kids are comfortable cooking with blades and heat, working collaboratively to chop, season, and double-check the recipe. There’s only one sound I’m hearing that is rare for classroom learning, and it’s not the yelp of a wounded cook. It’s laughter.

Daniel cutting cabbage. Photo © EdibleSchoolyard.org. Used with permission.

“Our education system has become memorization of very specific factoids. What we lose in that is the process of how to learn,” according to Kyle Cornforth, the Director of the Edible Schoolyard campus at Berkeley. Tasting one sample of their delicious soup is my proof that hands-on learning works!

This isn’t the only upside to having an organic school garden. The ultimate goal at the Edible Schoolyard is to reform the school lunch “reheat and serve” program with healthier, nutritious options.

“Edible education is a pillar of social justice. We owe it to our youth to introduce them to the connections between food, power, sustainability and oppression, so they can help create access and opportunity for all,” Janet Levenson the Principal at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School, wrote to me in an email. These lofty goals are easier to learn, and more profound, when the students dig their fingers in the dirt.

Food Deserts, Poverty, and Dialysis

That’s exactly what inspired Ron Finley to grow organic food in South Central Los Angeles. It’s virtually impossible to find a fresh carrot in South Central, but the area is teaming with drive-through fast food joints, liquor stores, and countless diabetes clinics. Ron began drawing the connections between chronic disease, toxic food, institutionalized, drab schools, and high incarceration rates. He wanted to beautify his life and his neighborhood. It’s easy to find Ron Finley’s house. It’s the only one with a banana tree, sagging with ripening clusters of fruit, in the road verge. He takes meetings in his reed gazebo in the space between the sidewalk and the street.

“Growing your own food is like printing your own money,” is one of Ron’s most quoted messages. His inspiring TED Talk has been viewed almost three million times. He believes that gardening is the most therapeutic and defiant act you can do and invites us all to “plant some shit” and become “gangsta gardeners” too.

Ron Finley. Gangsta Gardening with kids. © Ron Finley. Used with permission.

Compton Gardens

Dr. Sherridan Ross (a retired surgeon) and the Metro Community Development Corporation are also growing organic produce in a food desert — in Compton, California. By working with the city, they were able to place garden beds in an abandoned lot. Individuals can purchase a 4’ x 8’ bed, which can feed a family of three for an entire year, for only $50. Better yet, kids actually love the food. Dr. Ross shares how he often puts sweet peas into the palm of a recalcitrant kid, who later, after sneaking a bite, saunters back to ask for more. The Compton Fire Department even has a few garden beds, ensuring that Compton’s Bravest stay in tip-top health.

“There’s a lot of obesity here,” Dr. Ross told me. His community wants to improve health, and they are also interested in winning over hearts. Local gang members were invited to tag the garden boxes with graffiti, with one caveat. They had to use words that they found in The Bible. A few started hanging around after that, to learn Biodynamic French Intensive Gardening and sample the first fresh greens they’d tasted in their lives. The Compton Unified School District has given the green light to set up gardens at their schools, and arrangements are being made to have the fresh food available for lunch.

Compton Community Organic Garden. © ComptonGardens.com. Used with permission.

It’s incredible to think that a few seeds can truly transform a community. When you add up the amount of money spent on health care in the U.S. (almost $3 trillion and 18% of our Gross Domestic Product) and the high percentage of obesity (36.5%), and then divide that by healthy food and exercise (gardening), you’ve got an easy, cost-effective solution, which is already demonstrating results. In 2010, childhood obesity had hit a heartbreaking high of 15.9% in low-income children in the government’s WIC program. Recently that trend has been reversing. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “During 2010–2014, the overall prevalence [of obesity] decreased significantly to 14.5%.”

Another positive outcome of growing your own food is that we reduce our reliance on plastic — something that has become a massive problem accumulating in our oceans. Kiss the Ground and other soil experts are raising awareness about the potential for carbon sequestration. Learn more about Kiss the Ground in their upcoming documentary and at https://www.kisstheground.com/.

Thank you Alice Waters, Ron Finley, Dr. Sherridan, and the teams behind Edible Schoolyard and Compton Gardens for transforming lives by planting seeds of prosperity. There are so many other heroes in this flowering, biodynamic space, including Kerri Eich-Reiner at University High School in West Los Angeles, the Community Healing Gardens in Venice, and more. If you’d like to plant seedlings of your own, take the advice of Principal Levenson and dig in. The Edible Schoolyard has been around for two decades, and they have standards-based curriculum, resources and best practices available on their website to share.

Natalie Pace is the co-creator of the Earth Gratitude Project and the bestselling author of The Gratitude Game, The ABCs of Money and Put Your Money Where Your Heart Is. The Earth Gratitude project urges all of us to honor Mother Earth on April 22 by powering up the gratitude and powering down the grid, getting as close to personal net zero for at least an hour. Get additional information at earthgratitude.org. Learn more about Natalie Pace at nataliepace.com.

This article first appeared in LA YOGA magazine.

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