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Renewing Agricultural Life in South Central Los Angeles

This story originally appeared on Onearth.org

Too often, the same people who work our fields during the day, planting and harvesting fresh produce, spend their evenings in line at the local food bank. As large, centralized corporate companies increasingly mechanize their production and conceal it behind closed doors, what actually happens in our food system is hidden from us. With each generation, our communities continue to be stripped of our farm land, cultural heritage, and know-how. In a dystopic future we can imagine an agricultural landscape that is forbidden from ordinary humans; merely because of their anthropogenic pollution. Will it all be fenced off and mechanized?

That scenario may just happen if harmful trends in industrial agriculture pervade, but it’s also exactly why the South Central Farmers Health and Education Fund (SCFHEF), a grassroots nonprofit based in Buttonwillow and Los Angeles, California, is working to build equity and opportunity. With the goal of creating self-reliant communities through sustainable, community-supported agriculture, SCFHEF is bringing back organically grown fruits and vegetables to the diets, lifestyles, and livelihoods of Latinos and other low-resourced neighborhoods.

Like so many others in the South Central Farmers’ movement, I come from multiple generations of farmers. My grandfather is still alive, working the land in Jalisco, Mexico. I learned subsistence farming techniques and most importantly, an appreciation for the land and for growing our own food from my forebears.

As part of the Green Revolution, my dislocated family ended up in Los Angeles in the 1970s. Much like today, South Central L.A. was riddled with inequality back then. Following the 1992 Rodney King riots, the community battled over (and won) 14 contested acres of land on 41st and Alameda. With many families struggling to put food on the table each night, local residents transformed the land into a thriving community garden and popular neighborhood connector. My father, who had recently become disabled and could no longer work, visited the garden often, engaging with community leaders, helping to grow fresh, healthy food for our family, and building a system to help those suffering from some of the worst poverty in the area.

But it was what happened next that spurred our tightknit group of families to strive for even more. In 2003, we were given notice that the land on which the community garden sat was going to be sold. Without involving or consulting the community at all, the city quietly passed the land on to a self-interested developer who then refused to sell it back to us -- even after we had raised $16.3 million in funds in an effort to buy it back. We fought for three years, ultimately realizing we had no choice but to move on when we were violently evicted in 2006. Bulldozers destroyed the gardens we had diligently grown and fought to save. Those of us who remained, began farming and immediately established a nonprofit so we could attract the resources we needed to create grassroots economic opportunities for our community.

In the politics of impossibility, you win by losing. We won by losing. And we continue to win, planting hope all along the way. Today, the South Central Farmers Health and Education Fund has a five-year track record of successfully addressing food access in communities of color and creating grassroots economic opportunities. Our worker-owned agricultural cooperative in Buttonwillow, California, has grown from 15 acres to more than 80 acres, so we can grow even more healthy and organic food. We’ve empowered would-be entrepreneurs to start their businesses through organic agriculture. We developed community gardens, where people can grow and sell their own organic food. And, in partnership with other organizations doing community economic development (such as the Center for Race Poverty and the Environment) and impacting investors (like the Northern California Slow Money Chapter), we conduct extensive educational outreach to teach young and old about healthy food choices and healthy lifestyles.

New Latino and minority farmers face a host of issues that hinder their chances for success. Threat of entry retaliations, pressure from land developers, language barriers, little access to credit, a lack of marketing skills, production management problems, government regulations, and a lack of organization among farmers are only a few of these. In order to help individuals overcome these challenges, SCFHEF serves as a holding company, helping new farmers establish their farms, providing complete technical assistance, and gradually transitioning them over to self-sustaining operations.

Some of SCFHEF’s other exciting projects include:

  • Culturally-Sensitive Farmers' Markets:
    While our communities have a strong Mesoamerican heritage in growing and cooking food, the free market rarely provides culturally-sensitive, organic options. SCFHEF identifies farmers within Los Angeles County providing these culturally necessary food products, connects them with local farmers’ markets, and engages individuals at the farmers’ markets to talk about food choices and preparations.
  • Community-supported agriculture (CSA) in low-income urban areas:
  • SCFHEF brings the farm to the table to encourage healthy diets and lifestyles among low-income communities in Los Angeles. Food gown on SCFHEF’s 85-acre farm is distributed through CSA packages to community centers, workplaces, and other convenient locations, where people can not only pick up fresh produce but also connect with others in their neighborhood around healthy eating options. We offer CSA shares on a sliding scale to those who self-certify as below the poverty line, as well as to students.
  • Conservation of heirloom crop biodiversity:
    SCFHEF actively works to protect the stocks of heirloom land race varieties, which are plants that are native to North America and adapted over time to local conditions. Our conservation focus is native Mesoamerican fruits, vegetables, and medicinal herbs.
  • Marketing and distribution channels as services:
  • SCFHEF creates distribution and processing services for future Ag cooperative incubations. We understand that in today’s agricultural economics more than 50 percent of the ag dollar is in processing and alternative marketing channels. These channels will allow us to bring on new Ag Cooperatives and plug them into an existing distribution market for their products. With the help of Northern California Slow Money Impact Investors we have kicked off our new commercial kitchen that will offer co-processing, co-packaging, and distribution for existing and future Ag cooperatives.

We are truly humbled to receive the NRDC Growing Green Food Justice Award. With this recognition of our collective work, we’re expanding our efforts and encouraging others to engage in agricultural incubations, cooperative marketing services, technical training for new farmers and underserved communities, and community gardens. By creating new economic opportunities right in our own backyard, we hope to strengthen communities with access to fresh, healthy food, and help them reconnect to the priceless cultural heritage behind it.

You can help! Visit SCFHEF at www.southcentralfarmers.com, or contact us at southcentralfarmers@hotmail.com or (800) 249-5240 for more information.

This guest post is one of four by the winners of NRDC's fifth annual Growing Green Awards, which celebrate the farmers, business owners, and bold thinkers who are making America’s food system healthier and more sustainable. See posts from all of the winners here.

After the city of Los Angeles shut down his community garden, Tezozomoc started an 85-acre organic cooperative farm in Buttonwillon, California, and founded the South Central Farmers Health and Education Fund (SCFHEF), a grassroots nonprofit that provides a rich, culturally-relevant variety of organic produce to Los Angeles CSAs, farmers markets and underserved neighborhoods. Tezozomoc is NRDC’s 2013 Growing Green Award winner in the Food Justice Leader category.

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