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Quenching the Thirst in a Food Desert at Earthworks Farm

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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.

One school is challenging the current model of school lunch. Watch the five-minute California Matters episode about it here.

 

Chard and chicken, it was the perfect combination. One afternoon after her finals, 16-year-old Mariam Arutyunyan mixed a batch of chard, chicken, and cooked onions with a delectable cheese sauce. Covered with breadcrumbs and olive oil, the casserole came out of the oven piping hot. These weren't just any vegetables - they were organic and picked straight from Earthworks Farm, a local farm located in Whittier Narrows Recreation Area in South El Monte. The high school junior is just one of the individuals reaping the benefits of visiting the 4.9-acre farm, which aims to provide the community with access to affordable and organic food.

"The more holistically you can eat, the better your body and mind will function," said Marianne Zaugg, Earthworks' farm program and development director, who has past experience in health and wellness coaching.

Earthworks Farm sits on land that's owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and leased to the County of Los Angeles, Department of Parks and Recreation. Just as South El Monte's demography reflects a mix of cultures and ethnicities, the farm grows a variety of produce, including Mexican and Asian crops. During the different seasons, there is an array of vegetables to sample, including beets, fennel, chard, broccoli, and cauliflower. The produce is available to the community via donation and, for a nominal monthly fee, through the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. With CSA, participants can receive a fresh box of produce a week.

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"The mission we would like to see is that El Monte and South El Monte move away from being a food desert and that there is more done with healthy eating and active living," Zaugg said. "We're hoping to help the community cook in a healthful way so that we can reduce health issues."

BASE Landscape Architecture, a creative design studio that aims to design productive landscape, defines food desert as "a geographic area where affordable, fresh, healthy, and nutritious food is difficult to obtain." In particular, communities that are considered food deserts are usually rural, low-income, and have an abundance of fast food restaurants and convenience stories in the area. The organization worked with the city of El Monte to establish an Urban Agriculture Initiative Program, with the aim to understand key aspects of urban agriculture in the community, after the city received funding from the State of California's Strategic Growth Council.

According to the Public Health Institute, one in six Latino children between ages two and five are obese. In particular, the organization stated that El Monte has a prevalence of stores selling junk food; 28.3 percent of El Monte's children and 27.9 percent of the city's adults are obese. In 2011 Streetsblog L.A. reported that the city of El Monte lacks a supermarket, and residents must choose between driving to a shop with healthier food options or shopping from a local convenience store.

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Earthworks Farm has collaborated with a number of organizations in furthering its mission. They worked with nonprofit TreePeople on a planting event and provided special dishes made from produce harvested from the farm that morning. They also reach out to local restaurants via their farm-to-table program, where they offer organic produce for chefs.

"The emphasis for me is getting people involved, seeing how much natural beauty is out there," said Teresa Wong, Earthworks' chef and volunteer coordinator, who first became involved with the organization through her love of gardening. "We have so much control out there to grow our own food from the earth, to nurture it, to feed it, to watch it grow, to harvest it. You have a new perspective and respect for the food you put on the table."

Along with her work producing recipes for the Earthworks Farm's Farm-to-Fork blog, Wong has enjoyed the experience of growing plants, especially her luffa. "My culinary background and culinary experience all came together once I started volunteering at the farm," said Wong. "I realized the dynamic relationship of being a chef and getting my hands in the soil and growing my own food was just absolutely beautiful, an inherent relationship that's been there all along but I was fortunate to discover it there at the farm."

Education is also an important component of Earthworks Farm. This past year, local schools from Hancock Park and downtown Los Angles, as well as Youth Voices participants from local high schools, have completed field trips. The farm also offers Healthy Harvesters, a six-week program that teaches high school students the skills needed in organic farming.

The farm also partners on a junior farmer program, a paid internship where individuals learn about soil, composting, weeding, and harvesting. The program, housed under the San Gabriel Valley Conservation Corps, outreaches to the community through harvest tours and volunteer opportunities. During the tour, attendees can walk through the grounds, learn how the plants are grown, and go home with a souvenir pot and seedlings. The tour provides a peek of the colorful produce and fruit trees, including apple and fig trees, on the grounds.

Those who volunteer their time have the opportunity to have a bed in the farm's garden section. For example, teen volunteer Arutyunyan helps out every Saturday, and has her own bed planted with vegetables such as arugula, snap peas, cilantro, and parsley. "I learned how when you see food at the grocery store, supermarket, everywhere, a lot of food, you take it for granted," said Arutynyan. "When you actually plant it yourself and you see people planting it, when you bring that food home, the last thing you want to do is throw it away or waste it ... you gain more of a sense of purpose and connection with your food and community, and you feel like you know what you're eating, what's around you."

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Photos: Rubi Fregoso