UCR's Garden Coordinator Fortino Morales III Addresses the Importance of Food Access
We can’t fix all the problems, but it’s really also about starting to ask deeper questions about the food system, sustainability and food access. The work is both theoretical and experiential. The garden provides a tangible answer to some of these things. – Fortino Morales, III
Fortino Morales III is making a big impact on raising awareness about food access on the UC Riverside campus. His work is part of the University of California’s Global Food Initiative (GFI), which seeks to harness UC’s resources to address one of the most compelling issues of our time: how to sustainably and nutritiously feed a growing world population.
Fortino joined the GFI team when he was an undergraduate student studying environmental sciences. He’s since become manager of UC Riverside’s community garden – R’Garden – an enterprise he helped launch as a student activist. Learn more about the contributions of the UC Riverside campus to the Global Food Initiative here.
Most recently, Fortino has been named one of UC’s 30 Under 30 award winners, for his significant contributions to improving the food system.
I recently caught up with Fortino to learn more about his journey.
What was the original purpose of the garden in 2009? How did this community garden represent a partnership between the students, UC Riverside and local Salvation Army looking for local fresh food for its clients?
The garden began as a student-led effort in 2007. The idea was to get a garden going to provide a unique place to learn about sustainability, the food system and hands-on growing. My involvement began with a student organization called Sustainable UCR. We got a petition going to see if the UCR administration was up for something like this.
During the process we got good reception from the entire campus community: faculty, staff and students were all interested. At the same time, the Salvation Army approached UCR to develop a partnership around a food program. It was during the Economic Crisis and the Salvation Army was seeing a huge increase in people utilizing their food box program. There were lots of families coming out to the food box giveaway, but the Salvation Army could only provide canned and dry goods. They wanted to give fresh produce, to meet the nutritional needs of children. UCR is of course a land-grant institution…part of the campus’ mission focuses on agricultural research. There are hundreds of acres of agricultural fields here. A partnership seemed natural.
That’s where the first initial two-year pilot program on ¼ acre started.
What’s been cool is since the very beginning, there has been an understanding of the importance of sustainability and how it links with the social needs within the local community. We’ve also explored the global implications of food security. All of these things are at the core of what we do in the garden.
We can’t fix all the problems, but it’s really also about starting to ask deeper questions about the food system, sustainability and food access. The work is both theoretical and experiential. The garden provides a tangible answer to some of these things.
How has the garden grown over the years? How is the garden teaching students and the community about local food?
The work has grown in a lot of ways. One of the more immediate ways is my personal involvement [as coordinator]. I was a student then and we were all in a learning mode. Many of us were from Southern California and had little information about agriculture…we didn’t know how to grow fruits and vegetables. We got a lot of help from faculty, from staff, from community members and outside organizations. We developed an informal education program that included plant biology, gardening basics and more. We began to formalize this work into an urban garden seminar series. It was student-led, in conjunction with the campus; it became a 1-unit seminar on the food system and growing food. So we began a process of utilizing the garden as an instructional space as well as a food production space.
Before this student-initiated course, UCR didn’t have that. We carved it out ourselves as students. It’s really cool, and it’s evolved into official R’ Courses. It’s provided a template for student-led/organized courses in other areas. We went through the Academic Senate. It’s been amazing to see this and be involved in the process.
In terms of the physical space…we’ve had changes there, too. We had to find a new location after the pilot program…a more permanent space. The garden course continued without an actual garden space; the students at the time focused the course on locating new space. It got a bit contentious for a couple of months.
Dr. Peggy Mauk, a UC ANR Cooperative Extension specialist and Director of UCR’s Department of Agricultural Operations, came in and said they had space for our garden on the Agricultural Experiment Station. That unit manages about 500 acres of ag research land on the campus. She offered an area to students. That’s when we got the new space. It’s 3.2 acres in total, and the campus also funded a staff position, which is where I came back into the picture.
We opened about four years ago in this location. We’re still developing it and offering new courses. Other classes are incorporating the space in their coursework. Students have to provide a certain number of volunteer hours. It’s really interesting, because the classes utilizing the space are not just limited to environmental science or botany/plant sciences. We also have gender and sexuality studies and engineering students doing projects over the summer.
I still pinch myself. I feel like I have one of the greatest jobs running a campus garden. I feel like we’re only getting started…there is so much potential with a space like this. We’re thinking and dreaming about the next big thing.
How has the garden spearheaded cross-discipline projects and collaboration?
It’s part of the fun and part of the struggle. We’re developing a solar water heater and dehydrator in an energy efficient way. We’re installing a solar greenhouse. The film on the greenhouse is transparent solar panels. This is a research project and collaboration with a professor at UC Santa Cruz. He’s developing solar-transparent panel technology, we’re collecting solar energy and working completely off grid.
How can community gardens such as this help address food justice and food access issues in other areas of the nation?
The Salvation Army partnership ended after the pilot, more because of changes in that organization’s personnel. The ethos of the garden continues to be food justice/security. We’re working with the neighborhood next to UCR, which is considered a “food desert” per the USDA. UC Riverside is a large land-grant university doing agricultural research and the opportunities are tremendous.
We’re trying to work with community organizations. There’s the Heal Zone initiative, which is a great program that brings an after-school youth program to tour the garden and see what it likes to grow and eat just-harvested food. The kids will have strawberry on their faces and dirt on their shoes.
Food security is vital. More recently we’ve been partnering with our campus food pantry to look at the food security question at UCR. Like other college campuses, we have students skipping meals. Among the UC system we have the highest number of students indicating that they skip meals often to save money, it’s about 1 in 3 students, according to a University of California Undergraduate Experience Survey.
Even with 3.2 acres, we can only make a small dent in food production for a campus community of 20,000+. But we are teaching the importance of maintaining a healthy diet in situations even where you don’t have much money. We have space to grow food…students can sign up for individual plots and larger communal plots. Students can volunteer and get a bag to harvest for themselves, at no cost. It’s a service we provide for students.
How is the garden addressing cross-cultural communication in this bilingual area?
There has been the work done by UC Riverside student and Global Food Initiative Fellow Claudia Villegas. She collaborated with others to offer and develop gardening and nutrition workshops in Spanish and English. She worked with the UC Cooperative Extension office in Riverside to develop nutrition education courses for Latino families. The East Side neighborhood is predominantly of Latino heritage, so it was a real service to the community to be able to provide these workshops.
What surprised you most about the garden? What do you find most inspiring about the garden project?
I was surprised at how interdisciplinary it is. Gardening has a wide appeal. People grew up on a farm or remember their mom’s garden. They are drawn to it in personal and academic ways. It surprised me in a good way.
It’s hard to go around there and not see the value of the work. Food is something we all interact with on a daily basis. I have a newfound appreciation for what it takes to produce food.
What does the future hold for you?
I was just accepted to UCR’s School of Public Policy for master’s work. I’m looking to do work in community organizing and city level policy. I’m interested in looking at food policy in this unique community. There are 5,000 acres of ag land in the Riverside city boundaries being preserved as a result of a measure passed in 1979. I think there are about 800 acres that are currently underutilized or lying fallow. Simultaneously, our community has what the USDA refers to as “food deserts.” So the community has a need to increase food access and security and we have all the necessary components…but they need to be brought together….
About receiving the 30 Under 30 Award…so many people have been supportive and put in time and energy of their own to see this project through. I would love to be able to give them all recognition for that…I don’t do this all alone.
Editor’s Note: Photos for this piece were provided by Carlos Puma, UC Riverside and former R’Garden intern Tracey Walters.