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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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“They have barbeques out there now; people come into the space rather than ignoring it or trying to stay away from seeing their neighbors. It’s become the focal point of that place. They call it ‘the palms’ now instead of ‘white castle,’” says Aguilera.

The work is not without its challenges. For one, Mason says the sheer diversity of the Sacramento region makes getting out the “green” message (and making it relevant) difficult. The Oak Park area alone is 60 percent people of color, with 23 percent Black, 11 percent Asian and 26 percent other. Thirty percent of residents are non-native English speakers. Ubuntu Green pools together extra resources to make meetings and information materials available in English, Spanish, Hmong and Vietnamese.

Beyond cultural relevancy, the survival of the Edible Garden Campaign would be helped greatly if city zoning ordinances were reformed. Mason says the main objective is to “take away the restrictions and the cost barriers to convert private and public land for community gardens. And then also in the city and county to make it easier to set up farm stands, and then also to make it easier for all these gardens to resell food into the community.”

An example of policy based on successful projects: In 2011, the Sacramento City Council approved an ordinance that allows private, residentially zoned vacant lots to be converted into community gardens where goods are sold on site. However, some advocates warn that the costs associated with converting vacant lots, in order to meet city permit requirements, is still out of reach for many private land owners and thus the community. Plus, the ordinance also does not apply to publicly-owned land.

Mason and Aguilera say that the next step to expand local food production is investment in urban agriculture research. They are both concerned about potential soil contamination in the community and, for the time being, have constructed raised beds with organic soil and compost from outside to avoid any risks.

“We have to be getting out there dealing with how do we clean up this land…Or at least get out there and test them,” says Mason.

Although there is a long way to go, Mason and Aguilera focus on the small changes both in action and perspective that have happened in the community. Gradually, people are accepting more sustainable living as a daily part of their lifestyle and making a contribution to the global effort of environmental responsibility, one garden project at a time.

“When a kid comes to me and says, ‘I’m recycling’ or ‘I’m doing composting,’ they now have made a significant impact on the community and the climate, just with their own efforts. If that is something that we can instill throughout the communities, then we’ll see an impact,” says Mason.


Rachel Morello-Frosch is an associate professor at the School of Public Health and the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at the University of California, Berkeley.  Her research examines the disparate health impacts of environmental hazards and climate change on communities of color and the poor. 


Dr. Manuel Pastor is Professor of Sociology and American Studies & Ethnicity at the University of Southern California where he also directs the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity and co-directs USC’s Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration. His most recent books include Just Growth: Inclusion and Prosperity in America’s Metropolitan Regions (Routledge 2012; co-authored with Chris Benner) Uncommon Common Ground: Race and America’s Future (W.W. Norton 2010; co-authored with Angela Glover Blackwell and Stewart Kwoh), and This Could Be the Start of Something Big: How Social Movements for Regional Equity are Transforming Metropolitan America (Cornell 2009; co-authored with Chris Benner and Martha Matsuoka)