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

Editor's Note: This is part of series, Facing the Climate Gap, which looks at grassroots efforts in California low-income communities of color to address climate change and promote climate justice. You can read the whole series here.

This article was published in collaboration with

While in some neighborhoods, home gardens are a novelty that contributes to the local food movement; in others they are a way to improve food security, environmental responsibility and community engagement one plot at a time.

3.7 million Californians lack basic food security, which is defined as reliable access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food. This is despite the fact that 400 agricultural goods and nearly half of all fruits, nuts and vegetables in the U.S. are grown in California.

The effects of climate change are expected to make access to food increasingly problematic. Crop and livestock production is expected to decrease as extreme weather causes decreased water supply and increased risk for disease and pest invasions. Global food prices have already risen in recent years due to climate change.

When Charles Mason, Jr. looked out at his Sacramento neighborhood, he realized there was an opportunity to meet the community’s needs for improved food access and environmental quality by planting home and community gardens. “Most people don’t think they know how to change such a huge thing. But to the contrary if everyone did one thing, you would start seeing a significant impact to mitigate the effects of climate change,” says Mason.

In 2009, Mason founded Ubuntu Green in the Oak Park neighborhood in Sacramento. Mason set forth to help “green” Oak Park and to educate and empower community members around issues of land use, environmental health justice, transportation, energy efficiency, and access to healthy food. Since then the non-profit has partnered with Sacramento Yard Farmer to create the Edible Garden Campaign, whose goal is to create at least 350 edible home gardens by 2013 to foster more healthy and sustainable eating while also reducing the community’s carbon footprint.

The campaign is based in low-income and communities of color in the Sacramento region where the effects of increased food prices and food scarcity is felt the greatest. In 2010, almost 15 percent of U.S. households experienced food insecurity. Within that demographic, it is African-Americans, Latinos, children and low-income and single parent households bear the brunt of this.

One of Mason’s primary goals has been making the issue of healthy, sustainable food and climate change relevant to the communities Ubuntu serves. This, he says begins by creating a conversation about the issues.

“People start talking about climate change, but unless it is making you sick and you know it is making you sick, [they think] what the hell does it have to do with me? And what can I do about it?” says Mason.

Ubuntu is an African humanist term that is defined by a sense of world community and accountability to one another. The Edible Garden Campaign was inspired by, a global organization dedicated to reducing carbon dioxide emissions worldwide. The number 350 was chosen because some scientists conclude that we must reduce our current carbon level from 392 parts per million to 350.

Growing and consuming local and organic food is reported to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as it reduces vehicles miles traveled (and gas consumed) and provides alternatives to food produced with industrial-scale farm equipment and fertilizers that rely on fossil fuels and pollute our air and water.  It’s showing that another type of agriculture is possible even among those with the lowest of incomes.

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.

“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.

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