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Posts from the community gardens Category


“More than Just Food” Looks at Role of Community Services Unlimited in Advancing Food Justice

Nina, an intern with Community Services Unlimited, stands in front of the mini-urban farm at Normandie Elementary. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Nina, who interned with Community Services Unlimited in 2012, stands in front of the mini-urban farm at Normandie Elementary. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

“Food is a way in which you can get folks to think critically about their environment,” Lawrence De Freitas, a staff member with South Los Angeles-based Community Services Unlimited, Inc. (CSU), tells researcher and author Garrett Broad in an interview for Broad’s new book, More than Just Food: Food Justice and Community Change. [Broad will be hosting a talk at CSU Saturday, details here.]

“A community that understands how the environment impacts them,” De Freitas continues, “has the ability to think critically to take action.”

It’s a statement that, on the surface, might not sound particularly controversial.

Broadly speaking, food, healthy food access, environmental conditions, urban gardening, and education around healthy choices have been hot topics for several years now.

But the kind of critical thinking and action CSU actively encourages and pursues as a food justice organization, Broad’s work suggests, constitutes a significant break from the typical “magic carrot” approach to programming around food.

The “magic carrot” approach bases programming on the assumption that if kids experience where food comes from and eat the things they grow themselves, it will have an overwhelmingly positive and irreversible domino effect. Namely, the kids will become healthier and they will wish to continue making healthy choices going forward. Consequently, they will engage their families about the need for healthier fare, which will result in their families and, by extension, their communities, all growing healthier together.

It’s a lot to ask of a humble carrot.

And a first grader.

And it’s complete “bullshit,” according to Broad.

Produce is great, but it isn't endowed with quite as many magical properties as some programs assume. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Produce can be super, but it isn’t endowed with quite as many magical properties as some programs assume. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Food itself can’t be disconnected from the larger system that delivers it, he argues. Nor can questions about individual behavior be disconnected from the decades of disenfranchisement, disinvestment, and neglect of lower-income communities of color that has impacted their ability to access it.

A child might be able to grow a carrot at school, but if her family regularly struggles to pay rent, or violence in her community means spending time in a garden is not always advisable, or a history of trauma and/or lack of access to health services impacts her ability or desire to make healthy choices, or the decisions made by those around her are colored by emotional, economic, and/or physical insecurity, or gentrification makes her feel less welcome at a community garden or green space, or she sees no connection between herself and the agricultural practices she is being taught, then growing a carrot at school might mean little more than growing a carrot at school. [See previous articles exploring these issues here, here.] Read more…

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Ron Finley’s Da FUNction Kicks Off Effort to Transform South L.A. Food Landscape

Support for the transformation of the state of South L.A.’s food landscape seems to be gaining some traction.

As we noted two weeks ago, food justice crusaders Community Services Unlimited will be opening an organic produce market, cafe, and community gathering space in the coming months to fill the much-needed gap in healthy options in the area.

It’s a cause that even Aloe Blacc was able to get behind, as seen in the video below.

But CSU is not the only one looking to improve the food landscape in the area.

Self-described “gangsta gardener” Ron Finley — the man whose quest to create a “food forest” in the parkways outside his South L.A. home eventually led to a city ordinance allowing the curbside planting of produce — has his own project targeting the Vermont Square public library.

The library, located at 48th and Budlong Streets, sits on a rather large parcel of land that is underutilized. While the area immediately behind the library is sometimes used as a makeshift soccer field on summer evenings (thanks to the outdoor lighting), the grassy area beyond it tends to be used primarily by homeless folks.

Google maps view of the Vermont Square library. The proposed garden would go behind the library (sitting at bottom, right). The library also sits adjacent to a park which is already a gathering space for the community.

Google maps view of the Vermont Square library. The proposed garden would go behind the library (sitting at bottom, right). The library also sits adjacent to a park. Activation of the library land might help keep the park more active, too.

Hoping to make the space more active and accessible for all, Finley has re-envisioned the space as one hosting a garden, possibly a cafe, and ongoing health-oriented activities. To launch his effort to bring this vision to life, he is hosting (together with the L.A. Design Festival) a day of fun at the site. Read more…

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Community Services Unlimited Set to Launch Organic Market in South L.A.

Students from Lincoln Heights and South L.A. finish up their morning work session in CSU's urban farm at the Expo Center. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Students from Lincoln Heights and South L.A. finish up their morning work session in CSU’s urban farm at the Expo Center. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

When talking with neighbors along south Vermont Ave. a few weeks ago about the potential redevelopment of the lots at Manchester, the amenity residents were most excited about was the arrival of a grocery store.

Having something within walking distance was one reason — most of the folks I spoke with struggled with finding transportation to get to the store and lacked the means to be able to stock up on groceries in bulk when they did make the trip. But the other reason was that they felt the nearest grocery stores tended to have poor produce on offer for unreasonably high prices. So much so that, when they had the opportunity, many would travel miles away to more well-to-do neighborhoods just to have access to better options.

That reality is just part of what will make Community Services Unlimited‘s (CSU) new venture such a welcome addition to the community.

The long-standing South L.A. food-justice organization recently put down an offer on the Paul Robeson Center building and, in line with their motto, “Serving the people, body and soul,” are looking to convert the historic space into a model of sustainability and a health hub for the community.

This weekend’s party/fundraiser is part of their effort to raise funds to cover the down payment and costs of building out the first floor of the building, according to Executive Director Neelam Sharma. Plans for the first phase include a grocery market space to sell organic produce, herbs, jams, and their line of Beyond Organic products, and a kitchen where they can prepare their produce bags and host cooking demonstrations.

Attendees at CSU's Earth Day South L.A. celebrations take in a cooking demonstration run by Heather Fenney Alexander. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Attendees at CSU’s Earth Day South L.A. celebrations take in a cooking demonstration run by Heather Fenney Alexander. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Other plans for the site include an urban farm (where they can continue offering free gardening workshops), solar panels on the roof, a rooftop garden, a community space to be activated with daily health and wellness activities, offices and a gathering space for the youth from their From the Ground Up internship program, a few rooms that could potentially be set aside to serve as shelter for youth in need of a temporary space to stay, and a café. Read more…


CicLAvia Open Thread: It Was a Great Day for South L.A.

Members of the L.A. Real Rydaz and World Riders post up on MLK Blvd. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Members of the L.A. Real Rydaz and World Riders post up on MLK Blvd. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

“I am such a terrible reporter,” I texted my boss as I left Leimert Park around 4 p.m. yesterday. “All I did was talk to everyone I’ve ever met in the last three years…”

It was true. Instead of just taking in the event or snapping photos of happy participants, I went from pit stop to pit stop, seeking out the folks who were working to make sure L.A.’s re-introduction to South L.A. was a fantastically positive one.

If they weren’t busy behind the scenes, they were riding with their group, supporting the community organizations, acting as unofficial ambassadors for the area, and helping local youth access the event, as the East Side Riders Bike Club did by “picking up” students from Fremont High School on their feeder ride up from Watts.

South L.A. youth that rode with the East Side Riders and Los Ryderz to CicLAvia. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

South L.A. youth that rode to CicLAvia with the East Side Riders and Los Ryderz take a break at the Free Lots! site and chat with Sondrina Bullitt of CHC. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

And true to South L.A. advocacy fashion, just about every conversation I had assessed the day’s events, the turnout, and the work that was left to be done.

At the Free Lots! site (hosted by Community Health Councils, TRUST South L.A., Esperanza Community Housing, the Neighborhood Land Trust, Kounkuey Design Initiative, and the Leadership for Urban Renewal Network (LURN)), I talked with LURN Senior Associate Luis Gutierrez about both their efforts to see vacant lots transformed into community assets and the possibility of a cross-cultural dialogue on strengthening communities like South L.A. and Boyle Heights from within (see photos by LURN’s Rudy Espinoza, here)

Over at the Jazz Park Hub, I spoke with Reginald Johnson of the Coalition for Responsible Community Development about CRCD‘s effort to put together a Business Improvement District along Central Ave. and about the challenge of communicating South L.A.’s needs and aspirations to agencies that have little connection to the area or are reluctant to shed old stereotypes, either about its people or the community as a whole. Read more…

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A Pocket Park Begins to Take Shape in South L.A.

A parklet under construction. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

A pocket park under construction. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

My, my, what have we here?

I pulled up at Avalon and Gage to survey the change happening at what I had always considered a terribly depressing island with great potential.

In case you’re not sure what that category of traffic island looks like, here’s the “before” shot:

The previous configuration of the island at Avalon and Gage. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

The previous configuration of the island at Avalon and Gage. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

The intersection is one that marks the boundary between the industrial and residential sections of Gage.

It’s a busy transit stop, with bus stops on both Avalon and Gage. And there had clearly been an attempt made to create pleasant environment by putting in nice seating areas featuring tables with checkerboard tops.

But the lack of shade, empty tree boxes, and removal of the tree at the center of the island (made worse by the fact that the stump was left behind, as if the tree had been decapitated), meant that people tended to eschew the seating areas in order to take refuge from the sun alongside telephone poles.

The island from above. The central tree was removed after this 2012 image was made. (Google maps screen shot).

The island from above. Gage runs east-west. The central tree, visible here, was removed some time after this 2012 image was made. (Google maps screen shot).

Thankfully, that’s all about to change. Read more…

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St. John’s New Health and Wellness Campus Promises Good Things for South L.A.

St. John's Well Child and Family Center celebrated the grand opening of a new Health and Wellness Campus across the street from its current facility at 57th and Hoover. The expanded facilities should serve as many as 30,000 new patients. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

St. John’s Well Child and Family Center celebrated the grand opening of a new Health and Wellness Campus across the street from its current facility at 58th and Hoover. The expanded facilities should serve as many as 30,000 new patients. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

“Is that yours?” a surprised 9-year old had asked me as I had unlocked my bike from a post at the Martin Luther King Jr. Rec Center in South L.A. last weekend.

“Yes,” I had said. “Girls ride bikes, too.”

He gave me a high five and flashed me a toothy grin.

Much to my horror, I saw that at least five of his front teeth were completely capped in silver.

He’s not the first kid I’ve come across with a mouth full of silver baby teeth. Dental hygiene is a significant issue in lower-income communities like South L.A.

Which is why it was wonderful to see the grand opening of St. John’s Well Child and Family Center’s new Health and Wellness Campus yesterday. The new site, located across the street from their existing clinic on 58th and Hoover, will not only be meeting the medical needs of as many as 30,000 new patients, but will also offer dental care for young children.

White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas were both on hand to celebrate the grand opening of the new center, encourage people to enroll in Covered California, and underscore the notion that health care is a right, not a privilege.

What I believe makes St. John’s an important community center, however, is not that they can serve so many patients. It is how they do it.

They have built important partnerships with community organizations active in the area.

Yesterday, for example, you could get help signing up for health insurance with Community Coalition, an organization that has actively worked to educate hard-to-reach populations about the Affordable Health Care Act.

If you wanted to learn about bike safety, staff from the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC) were there. Colin Bogart, LACBC Education Director, had also recently dropped off a donation of several bikes to the center, as they are looking to launch a bike club for their patients. (If you’re interested in volunteering to help out with monthly maintenance of the bikes, please contact Colin at colin(at)

Community Services Unlimited was also there, offering healthy produce for sale. They normally have a stand there Monday mornings from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., providing patients with a reliable source of organic produce and offering them the potential of attending gardening and cooking workshops.

Community Services Unlimited offers fresh produce at St. John's every Monday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Community Services Unlimited offers fresh produce and smiles at St. John’s every Monday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Beyond the partnerships, the way St. John’s works to treat the whole patient is key in a community where understanding residents’ daily struggles is important to addressing the root causes of their health problems. Read more…


Dear Santa, Please Bring Us an Active Transportation Corridor Along Slauson. But Don’t Forget the Community in the Process.

The Slauson corridor that runs through South L.A. is not as empty as we imagine. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

The Slauson corridor that runs through South L.A. is nowhere near as empty as people passing through might imagine. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

If you’ve ever driven or ridden the bus along Slauson Ave., you are familiar with how much of a wasteland the corridor appears to be.

Flanked by industry or warehouses on either side for much of its trajectory, and running parallel to defunct and unkempt railroad tracks that are liberally adorned with debris, graffiti, and enormous mud puddles when it rains, it doesn’t seem like the most human-friendly place.

And, if you’ve ever felt reckless enough to ride the street on your bike, you would probably attest to that observation. There is no shoulder, traffic moves fast, regardless of the time of day, and on the north side (along the tracks), the road can be rough on your tires and quite dark at night.

Empty and desolate as it may appear to be, however, Slauson actually slashes its way through a series of neighborhoods that are chock full of families. You just don’t see much evidence of them thanks to the 30,000+ cars, buses, and trucks that rumble through there daily, lack of mid-block crossings and other pedestrian infrastructure, poor lighting, graffiti, and general filthiness of the corridor. The unhealthy and unsafe conditions serve as yet one more strike against community cohesiveness by discouraging residents from being out and about in their neighborhoods.

The bike and pedestrian paths would run along the Harbor Subdivision tracks, starting just north of Vernon, at Washington, heading south parallel to Santa Fe, heading west at Slauson, and taking a turn southward near Western. It would end at the Crenshaw Line stop at Florence. (map taken from 2008 Harbor Division study)

The bike and pedestrian paths would run along the Harbor Subdivision tracks (in black), starting at Washington, heading south parallel to Santa Fe, turning west at Slauson, and taking a turn southward near Western. They would end at the Crenshaw Line stop at Florence (map taken from 2008 Harbor Subivision study).

So, it is incredibly exciting to know that plans are slowly moving forward on the proposal of County Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Gloria Molina to convert the 8.3 mile corridor between Huntington Park and Crenshaw into an active transportation corridor.

Not just because transforming the right-of-way along the tracks into bike and pedestrian paths would make passage safer for the thousands of people who want to connect to transit in the area (i.e. the Vermont/Slauson stops see more than 3700 boardings per day).

But because, if built with the surrounding community in mind, it could be a tremendous boon to those who must traverse the corridor on a regular basis and who have few safe and welcoming recreational spaces available to them.

With those aspirations in mind, I attended the first public briefing announcing Metro’s feasibility study for the project last Thursday.

I came away with somewhat mixed feelings. Read more…

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Community Services Unlimited Can Help You Get a Jump On Your New Year’s Resolution to Garden and Eat Healthy

CSU's produce stand outside their urban farm in Exposition Park. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

CSU’s produce stand outside their urban farm in Exposition Park. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Every time an email from Community Services Unlimited (CSU) lands in my inbox, I am always inspired by how much a handful of people can accomplish when they are dedicated to the cause.

Whether it is stocking corner markets with produce, hosting food justice conferences, or building gardens, running classes, and celebrating the environment at local schools, or putting together a new program with Hunger Action LA to reach those who are dependent on government assistance, they have rolled up their sleeves and gotten down to work.

Instead of complaining about the lack of grocery stores (although they do that, too), for example, they set up several produce stands in under-served areas of the city.

Depending on the day of the week, you can find them peddling in-season fruits and vegetables sourced from local farmers and their “Beyond Organic” products at Exposition Park, St. John’s Clinic, the Magnolia Place Family Center, LAC USC Medical Center, or, my personal favorite, the parking lot of a liquor store on Western adjacent to the Ralph’s that recently vacated the neighborhood.

At the Expo stand or the newly created Grand and 3rd St. site downtown, you can stop by to pick up your weekly pre-ordered produce bag. The subscribers’ bags, filled with seasonal fruits, veggies, and herbs sourced from local farmers and CSU’s own urban farm, are a really good deal, according to USC business students. (see schedules/locations here)

Comparing the local “Beyond Organic” carrots, ginger, apples, cabbage, grapes, red onion, and asparagus found in the $10/$12 CSU bag with that of the same, but non-organic/corporate-farmed products at local Superior, Ralph’s and Fresh & Easy markets, the students found that the chain grocers were generally more expensive. While a comparable bag at Superior came in under $10 at $9.67, a similar bag at Ralph’s cost $10.36, while one at Fresh & Easy cost $14.14. And none of the chains do what CSU does, which is turn around and use the revenue to hire local youth to work on the urban farm and learn how to run a small market.

This weekend, they will be holding the last Garden Gateway workshop of the year, where they will teach participants basic organic techniques, prepare a healthy dish using some of the produce featured in the workshop, and send you home with gardening supplies and produce to get you started.

The class is free and runs from 9 a.m. to noon this Saturday, December 14th at the CSU Urban Farm, located at 3980 S. Bill Robertson Lane. For more information, please RSVP or contact:


Gardening Students in South L.A. Use Their Skills to Build Garden Beds for Local Families

The students' garden classroom at All Peoples Community Center. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Sandwiched between 110 fwy on the west, the 10 fwy and the Blue Line tracks to the north, and an industrial area to the east, the All Peoples Community Center sits in a densely packed neighborhood in Historic South Central that seems to have been forgotten by the city. You know things can’t be great when a gang can take the liberty of drawing enormous hand signs in the middle of an intersection (below), for the benefit of anyone in doubt about whose territory they are in. And, every time I roll through there, I feel like I and everything around me are being liberally coated in layers of grime.

A clique marks its territory in the middle of the street. The signs have been there in various incarnations for years. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Yet, the hardworking folks at All Peoples have somehow managed to bring a bit of green hope to the area.

Last February, I stopped by the center to learn more about their garden projects. With the help of Crystal Gonzalez, a Peace Education Coordinator from American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), youth at the center’s continuation high school and parents of kids in the center’s after-school programs built two small gardens. One is a learning site for students of the gardening and cooking class and the other has plots which are allotted to parents on a rotating basis. Students reported feeling like they had managed to create a little oasis in their neighborhood and parents enjoyed being able to share recipes with others and teach their children about health and where their food came from.

All Peoples sits in a densely populated area surrounded by freeways, trains, and industry. (Google map screen shot)

So, I was really excited when Crystal got in touch to tell me that students from the gardening class would be spending the morning building raised garden beds in the homes of two families in the neighborhood. The recipients were parents who had spent a year picking up gardening techniques at the center and who would now be turning their garden beds there over to a new set of parents so the cycle of learning could continue.

It wasn’t all going quite as planned, Crystal told me when I arrived to meet the students this morning. They didn’t have the key to access the room where the soil they had purchased for the project was being stored and police were hanging around one of the home sites, apparently looking for the male friend of a neighbor.

Undaunted, Crystal and the other mentors split the students into two groups and we all headed out.

My group, consisting of Austin (an intern with AFSC), Cathy (a former teacher and volunteer), and students Oscar, Melissa, Luk, and Leslie, walked about 5 blocks east over to Doña Mari’s home.

As we walked, we talked about what might have brought the police poking around so early in the morning. Oscar declared he was tired of being harassed by the police.

Gangs were obviously a problem in the area, he noted, but not everybody was a gangster and the police needed to do better than stop and hassle people like him all the time. He especially didn’t like them getting intrusive and asking him to lift up his shirt so they could check him for tattoos.

“Oh, yeah!” Melissa chimed in, saying that the same thing happened to her friend a lot, too.

Doña Mari, at right, looks on as students work in her new garden and teacher Elly drills holes in the lumber. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

So, it was a relief to find the only people waiting for us at the house were Doña Mari and her one-year old son, Elly (the gardening teacher), and Jorge (a volunteer and former student) who were busy preparing the lumber for the beds.

As Elly put the students to work leveling the soil, I sidled up to Doña Mari to get her thoughts on the project. Read more…


Weekend Events Prove South L.A. Can Be an Amazing Destination, While Also Highlighting the Challenges that Remain to be Overcome

A girl at the Watts Day of the Drum festival. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

As I walked toward the new garden beds at the West Athens Victory Garden, I felt a little tap on my shoulder.

I turned around to see a young boy of 10 or 12 standing there.

He wrapped his skinny arms around me in a big hug.

“Well, thanks for that!” I said, surprised.

I was attending the first of three community events in South L.A. that day, and it was kind of nice to be getting random hugs so early on in the process.

“What was the hug for?”

“You’re leaving,” he said.

Looking at me again, now a little less sure of himself, he pointed to the corner of the garden and said, “You just interviewed me over there…?”

“Hmm. No, that wasn’t me,” I told him. “But, that’s OK because it means I get to interview you now, right?”

It turned out that he was one of the many young kids that had come to celebrate the new garden launched this past Saturday at 105th and Normandie as part of the Little Green Fingers initiative, a collaborative of the L.A. Conservation Corps, the L.A. Neighborhood Land Trust, the Better World Group, and several consultants, architects, and educators, and funded by First 5 L.A.

As we walked around examining the plants, he explained his family didn’t have a garden bed there but that he liked to come by and hang out. It was a nice, quiet place to play and he didn’t have too many other places he could go.

He wasn’t kidding.

If you live near the 110/105 interchange in South L.A., besides the vacant lots, there is almost nothing in the way of publicly accessible greenspace in the 3 1/2 miles that lie between Jesse Owens and Ted Watkins parks. I’m aware of one other garden, located at 104th and Vermont, that is always locked and isn’t kid-friendly, and that’s about it.

In case you wanted the visual: A is Jesse Owens park, B is the new garden, and C is Ted Watkins park. There is only one other small garden at Vermont and 104th (that is always locked up every time I go by it) that qualifies as publicly accessible greenspace in that entire area south of Century. (Google Maps)

Other residents had said the same thing. A man walking around the beds with his adorable two year-old was so pleased to see such an asset in his neighborhood that he asked if he could sign up to volunteer there. He had grown up in housing projects and had been limited in his mobility as a kid. He was going to school and wanted something better for his son. And a more positive memory of his neighborhood than the large, tagged-up vacant lot that sat just down the street. Read more…