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Hannah Beausang, Spring 2014

San Diegans go green at community gardens

Gardening has always played a role in our food system, but with shifts to highly-concentrated urban landscapes, traditional gardens have been slowly phased out in favor of increased infrastructure.

A variety of vegetables are grown in the beds of the Olivewood Garden and Learning Center. Photo by Hannah Beausang.

A variety of vegetables are grown in the beds of local community gardens. Photo by Hannah Beausang.

In San Diego, urban community gardens have began to develop shallow roots in the city, but not without a struggle for space and permits. These gardens are plots of private or public land tended collaboratively.

Judy Jacoby, executive director of San Diego Community Garden Network, has been working to increase awareness about community gardens, and incorporate them into neighborhoods.

“It’s challenging to empower people to make them feel like they can actually accomplish things on their own,” Jacoby said. “To me, that’s one of the great powers of community gardens if you’re successful – it’s a self-contained little world where you can practice taking something into your own hands and making it happen.”

Educators and public officials are using community gardens to promote better nutrition in some of San Diego’s impoverished neighborhoods, teaching adults and children about the perks of healthy eating.

Bringing nutrition to National City

National City has high rates of chronic diseases, according to San Diego County’s Department of Health & Human Services. National City data also shows the mortality rate is 2.3 times greater than the county average and the median household income is 39 percent below California’s median.

To help turn these statistics around, Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center, a non-profit located in National City, houses a community garden and educational facility catered to locals. Nestled in a residential community, the nearly 7-acre property provides access to gardening, science and cooking classes for both children and adults.

The grounds of Olivewood Gardens feature space to grow a variety of fruits and vegetables.

The grounds of Olivewood Gardens feature space to grow a variety of fruits and vegetables. Photo by Hannah Beausang.

Olivewood Gardens Program Director Diana Bergman addressed the growing health needs of National City residents.  She said kids may have more access to junk food than nutritious food, which could contribute to negative eating habits.

“One of the things were trying to do here is get them more aware of different types of fruits and vegetables and how they can prepare them in a healthy way,” Bergman said. “Just like when you plant a garden, you’re in it for the long haul. Olivewood Gardens is in it for the long haul with seeing the positive impacts on health in National City.”

Olivewood partners with three National City schools to organize three visits annually. The organization provides a step-by-step curriculum for third, fourth and fifth graders, educating them about gardening and healthy eating, Volunteer Coordinator Ally Wellborn said.

School field trips to the garden feature cooking lessons showcasing common recipes made with home-grown ingredients substituted for other, less healthy options, Wellborn said.

“We have things here that some people have never had before, like kale or Swiss chard,” Wellborne said. “We’re certainly not expecting a fourth grader to go out and buy those things, but we are hoping when they’re in the grocery store and they see an option with veggies, it’s not going to be as intimidating to them.”

During each visit, students work on different recipes and skill , such as cracking eggs or sautéing vegetables, and will ultimately leave with a full spectrum set of skills to cook nutritious meals with minimal supervision.

SLIDESHOW: Children on a field trip to Olivewood Gardens spent the morning in the kitchen making pizza from home-grown ingredients.

Food security: The growing need for gardens

Communities create gardens to combat the concept of food deserts, which refers to areas with a lack of grocery stores providing fresh, nutritious food within convenient traveling distance, according to James Murren, who teaches a food justice and security class at San Diego State University. Food security means having guaranteed access to healthy food.

Nearly all of the plots at the Mosaic Garden were filled at opening day.

Nearly all of the plots at the Mosaic Garden were filled at opening day. Photo by Hannah Beausang.

The lack of available nutritious food is one reason obesity rates and health issues remain prevalent in neighborhoods such as National City. In the past 30 years, statewide obesity rates in children have more than doubled, and teen obesity rates have more than quadrupled, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Murren said community gardens are just one possible solution to the food security problem.

“Community gardens could contribute to addressing food security situations experienced by impoverished populations through being a source of nutritious food,” Murren said. “However, a garden alone will not completely solve the myriad challenges in overcoming food insecurity.”

Researchers have also found community gardens create collective efficacy and strengthen neighborhood bonds, according to research published in a Health & Place journal article. The same study showed urban gardens promote health with physical activity, improved nutrition as well as mental health.

The challenges of community gardening

Establishing a network of community gardens was challenging for Jacoby, who began working on the project about four years ago.

“Up until a few years ago, there wasn’t a lot related to community gardens here,” Jacoby said. “We thought ‘Where are the community gardens? Why are there none in San Diego?’”

The San Diego community pooled its resources and established several networks and groups to support community gardens. The idea of community gardening became a national phenomenon with Michelle Obama’s backing. The First Lady visited a City Heights community garden in 2010 to promote her healthy eating initiative.

During the last few years,  the City of San Diego has tailored its laws to become more lax about the establishment of urban gardens, making it easier for upstarts, Jacoby said. In addition, smaller municipalities and unincorporated areas have began to welcome the gardens as well.

“It’s still a struggle, but at least now it doesn’t feel like an impossibility,” Jacoby said.

On April 19, Chula Vista residents gathered to celebrate the opening of the Mosaic Community Garden, tucked behind a local church. Before the opening ceremony, Farm Educator Paul Maschka administered a class about the basics of cultivating a successful garden.

VIDEO: Maschka walks both children and adults through the steps of sowing seeds, planting seedlings and maintaining a garden.

Sewing seeds: Establishing a community garden

For community gardens such as Olivewood that are on private property, owners must acquire liability

Community gardens give San Diegans a chance to try out their skills at growing everything from vegetables to flowers. Photo by Hannah Beausang.

insurance. For those on public land, city or county permits are required.

Those permits, however, are issued on a case-by-case basis, and can be sometimes difficult to obtain, according to National City’s Planning Technician Michael Fellows.

He said there are issues with both liability and available space, which can clutter the application process.

Many local gardens are established on church property, which is already insured and has developed communities, Jacoby said.

In order to establish a community garden, access to water and appropriate framework is vital. In addition, committed gardeners must back the project.

“You have to have people with enthusiasm who are willing to dedicate a lot of time, especially in the beginning, when it’s not easy,” Jacoby said.  “Even when you have the garden, the issue is finding enough community and getting enough people there to keep it going.”

Who’s who in the San Diego gardening jungle

San Diego has several networks to provide support and collaboration for local community gardens. These organizations and societies attempt to bolster accessibility and boost the success of startup gardens.



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