10:14am

Tue January 17, 2012
Health, Science, Environment

Farming in a food desert: East Palo Alto gardens take root

East Palo Alto is considered a food desert: There is little to no access to healthy food, and residents have to rely on corner stores for food. In fact, it had been over 30 years since East Palo Alto had its own full-service supermarket until grocery chain Mi Pueblo announced it was coming to town in November 2007. It was a huge source of controversy at the time; demonstrators flooded the streets and packed city council meetings, carrying signs like, “No to Mi Pueblo” while supporters held signs that said, “Yes to Fresh Produce.” The new store brought in both excitement and anxiety. Another Palo Alto grocer, Country Time Market, saw business decrease by 50%. 

The grocery controversy attracted a lot of attention to East Palo Alto. Usually, though, when people hear the words "East Palo Alto," they just hear: Palo Alto. The Palo Alto that has Stanford. The Palo Alto that has Google, Logitech, Intuit, Sun Microsystems, and Paypal. Oh, and also: Facebook, AOL, Skype. With all those companies around, you might be wondering: what’s the unemployment rate in a place like Palo Alto? As far as unemployment rates go, it’s a nice one. It’s only 1.9%.  

East Palo Alto – which is, actually, north of Palo Alto, not east – has a lot of corner stores, like One Stop Market, La Estrellita Market and Deli, and 7-Eleven. The unemployment rate here? It’s 22%.

East Palo Alto is also, largely, an immigrant community. Over half of the residents are from Mexico. 

Even with Mi Pueblo, East Palo Alto resident Kevin Peralta says he goes outside town to get his food. Another resident, who only went by the name Karen, says that she gets her food from Mi Pueblo, or a taco truck from her afterschool program called Three Brothers (which apparently makes really good tacos). Her mom Elisa also confirms that yes, Mi Pueblo is the main market in town, but if you're looking for other options, you have to head to neighboring Redwood City or Menlo Park. "The Latino stores in here are a little bit pricey,” she explains. 

The fight over access to fresh food takes place in a community that was once a vibrant farm town. Before World War II, all of East Palo Alto was once a farm, complete with a chicken colony. By the 1960s, there was an organized community here of African American farmers. Since then, a lot has changed. Many African Americans left due to violence – in 1992, East Palo Alto had more murders than anywhere else in the nation. Since then, many more have left due to rising housing prices that followed the building of the town’s first hotel, the Ravenswood Shopping Center, and a new corporate headquarters of Facebook. 

But a few of the farmers are still here – farmers like Kris Jensen. Jensen is the Executive Director of Collective Roots, and as such, he's created a program to help residents grow their own food.

The Collective Roots headquarters, which doubles as a community gardening space, is easy to find. It’s just a few blocks away from the Bayshore freeway. It’s no bigger than your typical front yard, but with more tomatoes. The backyard is just a bit bigger, but there’s more chickens and the plants are taller than you are. Jensen also has chickens. He points to 11 hens who are actively laying eggs. "You can have chickens in your backyard. A lot of people don’t realize that,” he notes.

The Collective Roots front- and backyard are set up for people in the neighborhood who don’t have access to gardening space. The chickens were originally kept at a community garden Collective Roots set up at East Palo Alto Elementary School. 

“The kids named them after First Ladies, so we have Betty Ford, the black chicken is Jackie Kennedy,” Jensen says. “When kids first find out chickens lay eggs they get really grossed out by that. They find out eggs aren’t coming from cartons in a grocery store. They actually come from an animal.” 

Jensen grew up with a little garden plot in his home, and his mother’s side of the family were all farmers. His grandparents, who lived through the Great Depression, always saved as much food as they could. “It’s a skill that people have forgotten about," Jensen says, "because it’s so easy to get food from the grocery store. But food tastes so much better and feels so much more important if you grow it yourself.” 

Jensen shares this view with a lot of immigrants in East Palo Alto who come from farming communities in other countries in search of better standards of living in America. Many take on low-paying jobs, and few have time to continue to farm. Others don’t know where to start, if they did have the time.

But the food-growing effort also seeds community. Jensen gave one man in his apartment building a plot of land. Since then, he’s been growing vegetables. Although his English skills are limited, he’s trying to communicate now. “The common thread is gardening, growing things, sharing ideas, sharing seeds,” says Jensen. 

Having so many immigrants in town also means people come to East Palo Alto with different seeds from their home countries. “You can see corn that’s over 15 feet tall, which is corn from Mexico. It’s a flower corn. We have peppers growing from Mexico,” Jensen points out.

What the farmers don’t eat, they can sell at the Farmer’s Market Collective, launched by Collective Roots back in 2008. “We have a gentleman who sold collard greens. He was amazed. On the first day, he made $60 selling collard greens that he grew in his backyard,” Jensen remembers. “When you don’t have a lot of money, that’s a big deal. He was blown away that people wanted to buy what he grew and that they liked the way it tasted.”

Collective Roots also set up something called Fresh Checks so that people can spend their food stamps at the farmer's market. 

With all this in mind, it sounds like people in East Palo Alto have everything they need to access healthy food – if they know where to look. But what about the tools to grow the plants? Where do the tools come from? And the seeds?

Jensen has an answer to these questions: “They can just go to the library and check out seeds. What’s easier than that?” 

That’s right: There’s a seed lending library here in town. Patrick Sweeney, the East Palo Alto Library Branch Manager, partnered with Collective Roots to open the popular library. He says that people don’t always consider starting their own gardens, but when the seeds are right there in front of them, it starts to feel possible.

The seed lending library is, essentially, just a large box from Ikea with smaller boxes inside it filled with assorted seeds. There’s heirloom squash seeds, strawberry seeds, pea seeds, and about a hundred seeds in total. “We don’t care if people return their seeds,” Sweeney says. “We just want them to grow something.”

Sweeney also launched a guitar lending program after he launched the seed library, but he says that, while his guitar lending program has been a huge success, people seem to be transfixed by his seed library. 

“The seed library has more of a metaphorical aspect to it,where people are planting the seeds to change their lives kind of thing,” Jensen says. 

Juvenal Flores, an employee at the East Palo Alto Library, used the seed library to start his first garden. His family always had gardens, but that wasn’t something he had the opportunity to do. But when the library started circulating seeds, he had his eye on the zucchini seeds. 

“I didn’t expect much from the seeds. It’s amazing what nature can produce. I broke two different kinds of tomatoes, along with eggplants,” Flores remembers. “This is the first time I’ve ever planted a garden. I was a first-time homebuyer this year, and this is my first garden.” 

That’s what the seed circulating library and Collective Roots are all about: showing people in East Palo Alto that, if they want healthy food, they can get healthy food. They might just have to grow it themselves.

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