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Transforming the Health of a Community Through Innovative Collaboration

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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.

Standing in the middle of Earthworks Farm it's difficult to get a clear sense of where you're located. Yes, the farm is lush with growing vegetables and the smell of soft wet earth but it is also blanketed by the constant drone from the adjacent 60 Freeway. In the distance the signs from the Ramada Inn and Burger King seem to stand guard over the Farm's orchard and rows and rows of green abundance. Odd perhaps but not unbelievable, this is after all an urban farm. Still, unlike other similar places its representatives are not content with only growing and selling their produce. Earthworks' goal is to engage its neighbors in South El Monte and El Monte and facilitate a transformation in health and nutrition.

Earthworks Farm with the 60 Freeway on ramp on the top left
Earthworks Farm with the 60 Freeway on ramp on the top left
Industrial buildings on Santa Anita Ave. in South El Monte
Industrial buildings on Santa Anita Ave. in South El Monte

The challenge is how to go about doing this. The area has a deep agricultural history tied to the bountiful soil nurtured by the surrounding Rio Hondo and San Gabriel River, but the view from a car window driving through both cities illustrates how detached this history is from the present day. Body shops, construction wholesale, distribution centers, boxes and boxes of industry and small retail outlets now cover the landscape. The brief glimpses of green come through resident's front gates and school's open fields. This is where Earthworks is finding it has an opportunity to make an impact.

KCETLink is partnering with Earthworks Farm to explore how media can collaborate with community partners to highlight important health and environmental issues. KCET SoCal Connected will broadcast a segment on Earthworks Farm and their work with local families and schools while on kcet.org, stories focused on urban agriculture, school and home gardens and issues surrounding healthy food options in El Monte, South El Monte and all of Southern California will be featured. KCET has also been out in the community engaging community members at public events to assess how residents view the healthy food options available in their cities.

Parents and students at Akitoi Learning Center take part in a garden workshop facilitated by Earthworks Farm.  Cara Santa Maria from SoCal Connected looks on
Parents and students at Akitoi Learning Center take part in a garden workshop facilitated by Earthworks Farm. Cara Santa Maria from SoCal Connected looks on
KCET conducting outreach at the South El Monte High School Swap Meet
KCET conducting outreach at the South El Monte High School Swap Meet 

Urban agriculture is best described as growing food in urban environments. This can take place in different ways and in different contexts. It could be community garden, where you have multiple gardeners tending plots within a large space. It could be a commercial farm that's selling what it's producing. It could, like Earthworks Farm, involve community supported agriculture programs (CSA), school gardens or even residents growing food in their front yards. Any place you can grow food in a city would be considered urban agriculture.

Currently there is a surge of interest in growing food locally especially in how it's related to beneficial effects on the health and nutrition of the community where it is taking place. In 2013 the state of California passed legislation encouraging urban agricultural incentive zones that allow for municipalities to lower the property taxes on vacant land made available for agriculture. Just last month the Sacramento City Council passed an ordinance enabling these zones. Local advocates sited the important economic and health benefits the ordinance would make available to low income communities. For cities like South El Monte and El Monte this is critical. According to the USDA both cities are considered "food deserts," a place that lacks places where residents can buy fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy food. Healthy being the key indicator. Both cities have a diverse retail food environment but there is a higher percentage of unhealthy food to healthy food providers. A 2009 analysis of El Monte businesses found that there were over five and a half times as many "unhealthy" as "healthy" outlets and that the retail food environment was weighted heavily towards fast food.

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A recent study found that the environments in which people are raised shape their food choices. If you have healthy food readily available in your home and neighborhood then you're more likely to have that as part of your diet and nutrition. It is quite different if you have to take a bus or drive a distance to access healthy food.

Earthworks Farm is working with the cities of South El Monte and El Monte as well as local schools and families to increase the availability of healthy food choices by promoting and providing resources for the establishment of community, school and home gardens as well as a farmers market. KCET is working closely with Earthworks Farm to deepen the civic discourse around this issue, and empower viewers with information and useful tools to help build a community willing and able to transform the health and well being of their cities.

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