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Communities Take Food Justice Into Their Own Hands, One Plot at a Time

In some neighborhoods, home gardens are a way to improve food security, environmental responsibility and community engagement one plot at a time.

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Another sort of agriculture is also needed because of the way that fertilizers and other climate change impacts are resulting in contaminated water and lower water tables across the Central Valley. The Community Water Center and the AGUA Coalition, based in Visalia, are working to ensure reliable and affordable access to clean water in the face increasing contamination from large produce and livestock farms and decreased snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada Mountains. While Ubuntu Green works to reduce our reliance on industrial-scale agriculture, CWC and the AGUA Coalition are pushing for major agricultural polluters to clean up their act. The organizations’ work complements each other in confronting the climate challenge. 

As for Ubuntu Green, its campaign has not merely improved the health of the community by reducing its carbon footprint. It has also helped households and communities combat the fluctuation in food availability and affordability. Sacramento County produces over $300 million of agricultural goods, yet over 40 percent of low-income adults in Sacramento County cannot afford enough food, ranking it 48th out of California’s 58 counties for food security.

Ubuntu Green works closely with Sacramento Yard Farmer, a business created by Sacramento native Rafael Aguilera, to build garden boxes across the region. He started Sacramento Yard Farmer when he realized the discrepancy between food abundance and availability in the region.

“We grow 90 percent of food for export, when there are people hungry and starving in this area. So it would be one thing to increase the amount of food that we eat locally, it would be another thing to increase the amount of food that people who don’t have food eat locally,” says Aguilera.

To address the issue of food security, the Edible Garden Campaign will dedicate 150 of the 350 target gardens for low and moderate-income families and include additional educational and technical assistant services.

Aguilera also coordinates an events series called Liberation Permaculture to provide a forum for discussion around the community’s relationship to food and larger environmental issues. He says that while issues of climate change can sometimes seem “out there” for some people, issues of food are fundamental.

Though the campaign has created greater consciousness about climate change and the benefits of local food, it has helped locals make healthier choices about the food they’re eating.

Mason has witnessed this change most notably in the youth in the community. When he began the Ubuntu Green’s Green Leadership Team (a.k.a. G-Squad), which involves local youth in creating community gardens, the attachment to junk food was apparent. But, he said, with access to alternative, healthy foods a shift occurred in their eating habits.

“In the beginning of the summer, they were walking into meetings with candy bars, and chips, and sodas…In a 3-month period they stopped badgering me to have junk food and hamburgers, and they started eating different foods,” says Mason.  

Beyond the more obvious health benefits of local gardens, the campaign has created a sense of ownership in the community. The Green Leadership Team has created a community garden behind a store that used to sell liquor and now sells local produce instead. Mason says they are turning a “potentially bad space into a green space.”

Aguilera says he has already witnessed the positive effects of these community gardens first hand. One garden, built in an apartment complex was especially striking to him. The complex was known as “White Castle” because of its notorious reputation for drug use. When a new property manager took over and wanted to improve the space, Aguilera assisted her and the residents in building garden beds in the middle of the complex. A space that was once remembered for a fatal stabbing now stood filled with life: sunflowers, tomatoes and squash. Aguilera said the garden has inspired a new communal life in the complex.