This is part of a series of multimedia stories curated through a collaboration between Earthworks Farm and KCETLink. Watch a segment from KCET's "SoCal Connected" and visit the project hub for more information.
Amabilia Villeda, a mother of three, was recently at a community workday at the 24th Street Elementary School in the West Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles. She was out there on a Saturday with 80 to 100 other volunteers, tending a lush garden space in the middle of the school and surrounded by blossoming fruit trees and beds of kale, broccoli, and fava beans.
On the same day, Villeda also participated in the workday's cooking demonstration, learning how to make healthy smoothies using raspberries, strawberries, kale; sweetening the drink with sugar cane. At the 24th Street Garden, it's a place for students and their parents to learn not only about growing healthy fruits and vegetables, but also how to incorporate it into a healthy diet.
KCETLink is looking at how communities in "food deserts" find access to healthy and nutritional foods. Much of the focus has been on the cities of El Monte and South El Monte in the San Gabriel Valley, 15 miles east of 24th Street Elementary School. Families living in the dense West Adams neighborhood find it almost impossible to tend a home garden, but a one-acre garden within school walls has made a world of difference for students and their parents.
"I was one of the first parents to volunteer at the garden when it first started ten years ago," she says. "I grew up in Guatemala and grew up around land that we would grow food on. My children don't have that experience here. This garden has been beneficial to them in learning about where food comes from."
Villeda is especially attached to this garden; all three of her children have tended this garden since it was first established in 2005, including her son Angel, who is the last in the family to attend the K-4 school.
At 24th Street Elementary, which is a block away from million-dollar Craftsman homes, 98% of students receive Title 1 funding, which means that almost all of the children who attend the school live below the poverty level. Many of the children live in the apartment buildings that line up side by side along Western Avenue. Villeda lives in one of these 10-unit apartments with her family. And while she grew up in Guatemala, surrounded by agriculture, she's now unable to grow anything edible at home simply because of the lack of space.
That's not to say that Villeda or the families here are any less engaged or concerned about what they feed their children. The history of the 24th Street Garden started in 2003 when Proposition BB gave the school money to repave its playground. However, instead of pouring on concrete, the parents and several teachers made the push to create an open, green space. It took years to fully develop and thrive, as the school would be going through some of its own growing pains.
The school itself was the center of some controversy in the middle of all this. In 2013, parents, frustrated with the low performance of the school, enacted the Parent Trigger Law, voting for a partnership between L.A. Unified and Crown Preparatory Academy and rehiring an entirely new staff to give the elementary school a fresh start.
Through all that, the Garden School Foundation, a non-profit organization, continued to work closely with parents and the school to use the space in a thoughtful way by cultivating the garden into an outdoor classroom. Their "Seed-to-Table" curriculum used today is designed in tandem with outside learning. Most of the 120 lesson plans are science-based, and students are engaged through a process of planting, harvesting, and cooking simple meals. Often, the children just enjoy spending recess sitting around the garden "classroom."
Being the keepers of a beautiful, edible garden give students a direct connection to nutritious foods and make them want to consume more of it. Cassie Martinez, the Executive Director of the Garden School Foundation says, "It's made such an impact. I've had administrators come in here saying they've never seen kids eating such healthy lunches before."
Some of the students, led by Garden Coordinator Abigail Orosz, recently learned to make Swiss chard quesadillas, tzatziki, and vegetarian won ton soup. Orosz says the children especially love making smoothies. "They're always asking for the recipes to take home!"
But as much as the garden provides an occasional lunch for each student, the crops don't sustain the community, nor is that the intention.
For Villeda, she doesn't have many options when it comes to shopping for groceries; being resourceful is key. She walks several blocks to a local corner shop called Lupita's that offers basic, but very limited, groceries. If she goes to the nearest Ralphs, which she does about once every three weeks, she has to take an inconvenient bus ride. She tries to buy organic produce for her household, but with her limited budget of about $250 a month from EBT, this isn't always possible.
She'll occasionally take home a bag of groceries from the garden after the monthly volunteer community workday, but what she does bring back -- sometimes cilantro, mint, tomatoes, or pumpkin -- is used to supplement the dishes she makes for the family.
She says knows this kind of "shopping" is secondary to the garden's mission to make connections between education, health, and community-building. "The number one thing is that the community benefits. The children are from immigrant backgrounds from agricultural countries. They learn so much from the garden. It gives them a hands-on experience and it goes beyond [traditional] teaching tools. It connects my children to their agricultural roots and where their family came from."
Along with the native California gardens and orchards, Martinez's organization sourced vegetables native to Latin America to plant in a plot called the Latino Heritage Garden. Martinez points out a tree spinach plant native to Guatemala. "Amabilia was so excited when we showed her this." Tree spinach, a commonly grown vegetable in Mexico and Central America, is also called chaya, and the pointed leaves must be cooked down and boiled or steamed before it's eaten, much like nettles.
Villeda has discovered many more new vegetables since becoming involved with the garden. It was here she discovered kale for the first time. "I steam it, make juice with it," she says. "I never used it before. The garden has really changed the way my family eats."
Parents are now certainly more aware that there are healthier options out there, but being able to access these foods easily and affordably remains just out of reach. One issue Martinez continues to tackle is the need for more corner store conversions so that families aren't limited to buying their food in liquor stores. And she hopes that future workshops can include educating parents on how to tap into food banks and choose wiser food options if they receive benefits such as CalFresh.
"The garden is really more than a teaching tool," says Martinez. "It's really about making a safe, nurturing, and engaging space for students. When you live in poverty, the stressors are so traumatic that we can't relate. The garden impacts their lives so much. In the garden, the children are angels. And the ones that really need it most really thrive in this environment."