Good food is an investment in our future. Learn about three local programs that address access, education and opportunity surrounding food.
Longtime doctors, like Donaldo Hernandez, MD, have watched from the front row as our nation has ballooned at the waistline over the years.
“You can see the shift—it’s not subtle,” says Hernandez, a hospital physician for the Palo Alto Medical Foundation and past president of the Santa Cruz County Medical Society. “I see the effect of it every day in the hospital, when people get admitted with respiratory abnormalities, sleep apnea, diabetes, coronary disease, pulmonary disease, and other things related to obesity.”
The fact that a quarter of kids between 5 and 19 years old are obese in Santa Cruz County, according to the Centers for Disease Control, doesn’t bode well for those individuals, but it also spells bad news for the community as a whole.
As they grow up grappling with diet-related health problems, school performance can suffer and, ultimately, so can work opportunities and performance.
“What it means is you don’t do well in school, it’s more difficult for you to get a job, to keep a job, and, in addition, you have high medical costs,” explains Willy Elliot-McCrea, CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank (SHFB). “The costs of managing diabetes, asthma and heart conditions that come from obesity are very expensive. It’s one of the big things that is driving poverty and family bankruptcy. It creates a cycle of, and sets up the next generation of, hunger and poverty.”
One in three Americans born in 2000 will be diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, which can lead to renal failure, blindness, and other complications, by the age of 25 according to the American Diabetes Association. This figure goes up to 50 percent for Latinos and African Americans.
Last year, the Association reported a 41 percent increase in the total costs incurred by diabetes in the country from $174 billion in 2007 to $245 billion in 2012.
The price for our communities is high—and increasingly ominous, says California Sen. Bill Monning.
“In addition to the healthcare costs that local economies must absorb, obesity-related conditions have indirect costs, such as decreasing worker productivity,” he says.
Health-related issues in the workforce lead to $100 to $150 billion lost annually in the United States, says Workforce Investment Board of Santa Cruz County Director David Mirrione.
“Productivity gains can result in higher profitability for businesses and can create both the need and means to increase the size of their workforce,” he says, noting that he believes implementation of the Affordable Care Act, by increasing healthcare coverage, will aid in this.
Healthy food is the ticket to preventing these problems from worsening, says Hernandez, who is part of the SHFB-organized Business Leadership Forum, which gathers leaders from the business community to focus on the issue. There are colossal forces at work that make this sensible solution far from simple. (Think: federal subsidies for “all the wrong foods,” in Hernandez’s words; massive junk- and fast-food advertising campaigns targeted at children; ubiquitous food deserts barring those who need healthy food from accessing it; and Congress’ inability to pass a Farm Bill, threatening the federal food assistance program.)
But, in the meantime, grassroots endeavors chip away at the issue. Here, we take a look at three of many local efforts making a dent. Two aim to reduce the societal implications of poor health—one, SHFB’s Passion for Produce program, by educating low-income residents about nutrition and healthy cooking, and the other, Mesa Verde Gardens, by increasing access to produce through the proliferation of affordable community garden plots. The links between food and the economy are more direct in our third featured project, El Pajaro Community Development Corporation’s new commercial kitchen incubator, which strives to grow the local artisan food economy and workforce by providing inexpensive space and support to food start-ups.
The Education Element: Passion for Produce
When Second Harvest Food Bank started out in Santa Cruz County in the early ’70s, hunger meant a lack of calories—and a food bank’s job was to provide those calories. It’s not so simple anymore.
Paradoxically, today, hunger can mean obesity. Against a backdrop of fast food and junk food that’s often cheaper than healthier choices, hunger means an overabundance of the wrong calories, or “non-nutritive” calories. It means a whole generation of poor children who are overfed but malnourished; who will have to deal with health complications from diet-related conditions such as obesity and diabetes for years to come.
As the nature of hunger in this country has changed, so has SHFB’s mission. What once was as straightforward as providing emergency food assistance is evolving into “nutrition banking.” More than 60 percent of the food bank’s distribution is now fresh produce.
But is providing healthy fruits and vegetables to low-income clients enough to improve their diets, or is some education necessary? According to 60 percent of Second Harvest clients surveyed in 2006, nutrition classes, recipes and cooking demonstrations would be a welcomed service.
Based on that input, the organization launched its Passion for Produce program in 2009. In it, 260 trained peer leaders, called “nutrition ambassadors,” lead monthly classes at 28 sites countywide.
“First and foremost, we wanted it to be a program that would empower the community to take control of their and their family’s health for themselves,” says Brooke Johnson, chief operations and programs officer for SHFB. “We provide training so nutrition ambassadors can be out front in the community really leading the charge for people to make healthier choices.”
Passion for Produce recruits ambassadors and participants through outreach to low-income communities in the county, including farmworkers, who are often food insecure despite working in agriculture. More than half of program participants are farmworker households.
The nutritional and cooking information provided aims to show that “even people who are low income and on a budget can make different choices within the resources they have,” says Johnson.
When SHFB volunteer and Capitola resident Leona Lail was approached about becoming a nutrition ambassador, she said no. “I said that it—that role—wasn’t me,” she says, “and that I’d rather just volunteer.”
But, after being persuaded and embarking on the six-week training course required of ambassadors, Lail realized that her own health and that of her family was improving, and that she had the opportunity to pass that on to others in the community.
Lail has always loved to cook, and often made her own twists on dishes she saw made on the Food Network. She says that her experience with Passion for Produce has given her the tools to make healthier versions of meals she was already cooking. Instead of ambrosia salad, which pairs fruit with whipped cream and marshmallows, she opts for fresh fruit salads, for example.
“I can tell by looking at what’s on my grocery bill that I’m eating healthier,” she says. “Before, I used to get quick things for me and my kids. Now, when shopping, I think to do salad and a smaller piece of protein, or a stir-fry or vegetable soup. And I read more labels than I ever did.”
Although each family walks away from a Passion for Produce class with 25 pounds of fresh produce, the program is equally about teaching attendees how to utilize those healthy foods. Together with an SHFB representative, nutrition ambassadors like Lail build the classes around what is in that week’s donation bag. At first, Lail noticed that many attendees were coming just for the food assistance. But, over time, she says most are won over by the educational aspect.
“When you show them other options, let them taste it, and give them the recipe … they take that and actually use it,” she says. “They go home and do make that kind of food, using less oils, less sugar, less salts and more natural fruits and vegetables.”
Both Johnson and Lail report that many participants have lost weight since starting Passion for Produce, and Lail is optimistic that they will continue to eat healthily once they stop attending and are no longer receiving the free bag of produce.
“The price of everything has gone up so high,” she says, “and we’ve discussed how to economize in a healthy way. For example, it’s hard to buy enough meat for everyone if you have a family of five, so how can you use more vegetables and other types of proteins like healthy grains or beans?”
The program is currently reaching between 1,110 and 1,500 people a month—that’s a lot of opportunity for healthier individuals, but also a healthier community overall, says Johnson.
“We are trying to work with our volunteers and partner sites to help create a healthier community so that kids can concentrate and succeed in school, so parents can be productive at work,” she says, “and so that it’s one less thing for people to have to worry about when they are looking for a job and doing other things to move their family forward.”
As a nutrition bank, this is also SHFB’s broader goal.
“Altogether, through our network of 200 member agencies, we reach 55,000 people a month,” Johnson says. “That’s a lot of folks in our community who are struggling with being able to afford food at some point during the month. Think of that human potential: that’s almost a quarter of the people in our county. It makes us stronger as a community countywide when everyone can do their best in work or school or in looking for employment.”
Addressing Access: Mesa Verde Gardens
When, after 20 years of doing social work in Santa Cruz County, Ana Rasmussen felt called to a career in the sustainable food movement, she couldn’t shake her social worker nature.
This led her to what she feels is an intersection of these two fields—food justice. Her mission became reducing diet-related health problems, like obesity and diabetes, in low-income communities through increased access to produce.
Rasmussen founded the nonprofit Mesa Verde Gardens, which kicked off its garden program in March 2010 with a raised-bed garden at the Martinelli Head Start preschool in Watsonville. Soon there were 10 preschool gardens, all at schools that serve low-income populations.
However, while the gardens worked well for educating kids about healthy foods, they weren’t doing much to improve access—two raised beds, for example, means each of 60 preschoolers are getting “two peas and a tomato,” Rasmussen says, half-jokingly.
“If the point is really to impact the obesity and diabetes epidemic and make an impact on food insecurity, then that’s not much food,” she says.
The next step for Mesa Verde Gardens happened organically.
“One day I was just driving to that first preschool site, putting away a wheelbarrow,” explains Rasmussen. “I was noticing that they had a lot of land there. I needed some help and I saw someone and asked her if she would help me with the wheelbarrow. We started talking, she said she was the priest. I said ‘I was looking at that land, I was wondering if we could start a community gar—,’ I didn’t even finish my sentence. She shook my hand and said ‘Let’s do it.’ It was that easy. It fell into existence.”
That garden quickly filled to capacity with 30 families, who began growing in 2011. Now there are three community gardens—all pesticide-free—that serve 110 families. As part of Rasmussen’s health-related mission, it is a requirement that all participants have a child they share the produce with. A fourth garden is on its way at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds through a partnership with the Agricultural History Project, and the latest addition is an orchard behind Lutheran Community Church in Watsonville.
Rasmussen looks out over the sloping orchard lined with small, young trees that were planted in February. In time, they will grow to be welcomed sources of apples, pears, stone fruit and citrus for Mesa Verde participants.
“Community orchards are becoming more popular around the country,” Rasmussen says. “[Participants are] growing vegetables already, so now there will be organic fruit, too.” She expects to have another two orchards planted by next year.
Less than a mile away, at All Saints Episcopal Church on Rogers Avenue in Watsonville, 6-year-old Michael Ortega romps through the aisles of his family’s fertile plot at Mesa Verde Gardens’ largest, and first, community garden site.
He plucks a ripe tomato from the vine and munches on it like an apple. When asked if he helps his mother, Angelica Ortega, with the gardening, he nods shyly. “I help with something else, too,” he adds. “I help with the eating.” At that, he skips over to the row of green beans and snaps off a pod.
The plot is brimming with tomatillos, spinach, zucchini, chilies, cucumbers, beets and more. The rest of the garden’s 54 plots are similarly abundant on this July day, making it easy to see how families averaged 47 pounds of produce a month last year, according to Rasmussen. At $5 per month to rent a plot (plus a two-hour monthly work commitment), this makes for a great deal on organic produce, says Angelica, who has rented her plot since the garden started three years ago.
She says her family saved hundreds in grocery expenses last year. And, by learning to can vegetables through Mesa Verde Gardens last summer, they were able to stretch their bountiful summer yield through what would have otherwise been a tough winter.
“It’s hard to find organic produce in Watsonville, and it’s expensive,” Angelica says. “So I keep renting this space. It’s very affordable, it’s all organic, and it’s helping our family a lot—they are learning to eat more vegetables.”
Angelica was precisely the type of person Rasmussen had in mind when founding Mesa Verde Gardens—she was interested in growing her own food, but lacked the space to do so.
“Where I grew up in Salamanca, Mexico, I used to garden, but not here,” she says. “We live in an apartment. We don’t have any space [for gardening], not even for a plant.”
A tomato’s throw from her plot are the gardens of her father, who is diabetic, and her sister, who works as a fieldworker. Angelica is helping tend their gardens while her father copes with some health problems and her sister is busy working six-day workweeks.
Around 70 percent of Mesa Verde Gardens’ families consist of at least one fieldworker, says Rasmussen. The paradoxical fact that the very same people who grow the area’s copious agricultural crops have poor access to fresh produce inspired Rasmussen when founding the program.
“It’s beyond ironic. How could it be in an agricultural community that people don’t have access to produce? But rural communities are hit just as hard as inner city communities on that access,” she says. “I wanted to figure out how I could impact that in some small way.”
Similar projects in urban communities, like a program Rasmussen previously worked with in Oakland, also address the lack of healthy foods in these so-called food deserts. But one big difference Rasmussen has encountered in operating community gardens in an agricultural area is that the learning curve for participants is drastically reduced—or even nonexistent.
“When I worked in Oakland, there was a lot of really basic teaching,” she says. “Here, you provide the land and get out of the way because people really know what they’re doing. I’ve learned so much from people who know so much about growing food.”
As for whether the gardens are improving the community’s health, as she hopes, Rasmussen says that’s hard to confirm.
“I’ve heard that it’s hard to prove that,” she says, “because, if someone has a plot, then maybe they get a yield and maybe they don’t, maybe they take it home or they don’t, maybe it rots at home, maybe they eat it … but I don’t think people who have really full lives are going to spend that time to grow food and then let it go to waste.”
Mesa Verde Gardens had an 82 percent retention rate last year, meaning most gardeners renewed their membership for another year. And in surveys, a majority of participants report eating more produce than they did previously, which suggests that their diets have become healthier.
“Health is what it’s all pinned on,” says Rasmussen. “If you aren’t healthy, you have a lot fewer options. Everyone should have access to a good, healthy diet and it shouldn’t have anything to do with your income. This program creates an opportunity for people to help themselves.”
Mesa Verde Gardens may be a “shoestring” operation that relies on grants and donations, but Rasmussen says her work won’t be over until everyone who wants to grow their own food can do so.
Creating Opportunity: Watsonville’s New Commercial Kitchen Incubator
For years, Cesario Ruiz dreamed of starting a food business, but he sat on the idea because he wasn’t sure how to make it happen.
This all changed when he heard about a project under way at El Pajaro Community Development Corporation (EPCDC) in Watsonville. On Monday, July 29, the nonprofit debuted its commercial kitchen incubator—more than 8,000 square feet of professional kitchen space where aspiring food entrepreneurs can make their culinary dreams a reality.
“This is something I’ve always been thinking of, but never had the opportunity to even know how to start,” says Ruiz, who managed a New Leaf Community Market kitchen for the past four years and has worked in food service for the last 17. “In this program, where they guide you from step one to the end, it allows you to just go ahead and do it. You get so much support.”
For many like Ruiz, the cost of building or renting a commercial kitchen that meets health and safety regulations is just too high. According to EPCDC Board President Jorge Reguerin, a commercial kitchen can cost between $200,000 and $300,000.
“That’s a huge barrier to starting a business,” he says. As an agency focused on economic development for low-income residents, EPCDC aims for the incubator to squash this obstacle by offering 15 workstations that can be rented for $10-$30 an hour.
But space and equipment aren’t the only things the kitchen promises potential clients. It also offers a 13-week business plan course, training, and consultants with advice on handling, packaging, presentation and more. The wide-ranging assistance is what sets the project apart from other kitchen incubators around the country, says EPCDC Executive Director Carmen Herrera-Mansir.
“We aren’t a cooking school,” she says, “but we provide education and technical assistance to clients. Understanding pricing and costs is a main problem our food entrepreneurs have, for instance, so we teach about that.”
Upon learning of the project, Ruiz quit his job to launch a line of mole—a traditional Mexican sauce that is made extra hot in his hometown of Guanajuato, Mexico. His mole will be crafted from scratch, just like his mother made it, and will come as a dry product that people adjust to whatever thickness and spiciness they desire. He hopes to have it in local stores soon.
“I haven’t seen anything out there in the market like it and I’m really excited about it,” he says. “Every time I go to the market and try to look for good quality products, nowadays all products are filled with processed foods and additives. Mine will be made from scratch from good ingredients.”
The incubator is for clients, like Ruiz, who are serious about starting a food business, says Herrera-Mansir. “It’s not for people who are just doing it as a hobby,” she says.
As the kitchen neared its opening—after nearly a decade of bouncing around the EPCDC as an idea—the enthusiastic waiting list grew to include 60 people ranging from their 20s to 80 years old, with business plans revolving around everything from pastries and handmade tortillas to salads, salsas and uniquely packaged fruit.
Farmers’ markets will be a “natural outlet” for the products made by clients, says Reguerin, as will local stores that are purveyors of regional products. He adds that community will have a chance to attend food tastings, cook offs, and open houses at the kitchen down the line, and that local agencies and nonprofits will be able to use the space as a demonstration kitchen for classes on healthy cooking. They have also partnered with The Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA), whose organic farmers use part of the building for shipping and receiving.
The EPCDC’s key objective in opening the kitchen is to spark homegrown economic development in an area—Watsonville—with an unemployment rate that is stuck at over 20 percent.
“Our hope is that the incubator will be the starting ground for food-related businesses that will grow into entities that employ local people and utilize local products,” Reguerin says.
Food seemed like a natural avenue for this economic project based on several factors, says Herrera-Mansir. The organization noted that 40 percent of its clients expressed interest in beginning a food business, and that the farming community is increasingly looking to make value-added products. Additionally, there are food skills left over in the community from when Watsonville had a processing food industry, and the food movement in recent years has made artisan and local food companies more viable.
“This is the future of the country, focusing on local and supporting community through whatever thing you do,” says Ruiz. Like anyone embarking on the rigorous and straining path of starting a food business, Ruiz knows that these businesses don’t always work out. But with help from the commercial kitchen incubator, he says, at least hopeful food entrepreneurs will have the support to give it a shot.
“I don’t want to find myself 10 years from today and say ‘what if?’” he says. “I really want to go for it, and if it works, great. If it doesn’t, I can still say I did it. I can say I tried.”