Xochitl Sandoval, 19, keeps her Mexican culture alive. When Sandoval gardens, she feels a connection that gives her pride.
“When my grandparents come to visit from México, they complain about the boredom they feel because there is nothing to do except sit and watch television. They are used to getting up at sunrise and tending to their crops and their animals,” said Sandoval. “This urban setting depresses them. Even my dad, who has been in the U.S. for years, already eases some of his frustration when I ask him to take a look at my garden or when I ask if a certain food is ready to be eaten.”
“It seems like urban agriculture is the best option I have if I want to eat healthy food. In these times, it seems like my biggest worry should be what I eat. The list of ingredients used to make a simple orange juice is becoming more extensive and is including more words that I don’t know and can’t pronounce,” said Sandoval. “It really makes me feel good to know that I can grow traditional vegetables and fruits in the city, in my backyard, and that I know that these vegetables and fruits will be composted and deposited back into my yard.”
Due to the traditional diet and lack of fresh produce in communities, Latinos’ risk of having Type 2 diabetes is almost twice that of non-Hispanic whites in the U.S. According to a USDA survey, about 23.5 million Americans, including 6.5 million children, live in low-income areas that are more than a mile away from a supermarket.
According to 2009 statistics from the American Heart Association, 39.6 percent of Latinos are overweight and 27.5 percent are obese. Among Mexican American children ages 2-19, 40.8 percent of males and 35.0 percent of females are both overweight and obese. Among Mexican American children ages 2-19, 23.2 percent of males and 18.5 percent of females are obese.
Urban farming among Latino immigrants passes down history from the homeland while keeping families healthy. In the past few years, there has been an increase in urban farming and community gardens in Latino communities such as Little Village and Pilsen. There are open spaces that include vegetable gardens, flower gardens, school gardens, community gardens, natural areas and urban farms.
The Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) is a non-profit organization that works with the people to make the community a better living environment for everyone.
LVEJO has planted three community gardens including one located between Joseph E. Gary and Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez schools. The school garden was designed as a collaboration of 6th-grade students and Green Corps, a program for college graduates that provides them with an academic grounding in their field choice and gives them experience working with organizations they are interested in. The garden gives children and adults a chance to learn together in an intergenerational exchange of knowledge. It teaches children to be sustainable at an early age. LVEJO has also done over 200 home gardens with the permission of homeowners who offer their front lawn or back yard to the community.
The Urban Agriculture campaign at LVEJO launched a Spring Committee that is working on growing backyard and community gardens throughout Little Village. One of their community gardens is located at Amor de Dios United Methodist Church at 2356 South Sawyer Avenue. The Amor de Dios community garden provides fresh produce for their food pantry, which serves 600 families twice a week.
Many Latino communities only have options to fatty foods and not enough of healthy foods. Districts with little or no access to healthy foods are what are called food deserts. Carolina Macias, one of the founding members of the community garden at Amor de Dios Church, said that some of her friends have to take two buses to get to the closest Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. The trip takes them more than an hour just to get access to fresh produce.
Amairani Galvan, LVEJO Urban Agriculture campaign volunteer, has seen the number of community gardens increase in the community. Her first experience with urban agriculture was when she helped her grandparents maintain their backyard garden as a child. Now she is in process of learning how to harvest. “A sustainable community is very important,” said Galvan. “It is important for Latino immigrants to practice urban agriculture because a lot of us come from agricultural backgrounds. This way we can show what work we can do and how far we can go with it.” Galvan hopes to pass down her knowledge and maybe have a farm of her own one day.
The Pilsen community is working towards a greener community, residents search for any vacant lot that they can find to turn into a beautiful garden from which the whole community can enjoy from. Pilsen now has at least 5 community gardens: Roots and Rays, Growing Station, El Jardin de las Mariposas (The Butterfly Garden), Xochiqueztal Peace Garden and Orozco School Garden. Together, they form the newly founded Pilsen Green Alliance.
When Claire Mitchell, founding member of Roots and Rays, moved to Pilsen in 2007, she noticed a grassy vacant lot. In the summer of 2008, she started a perennial flower garden and small container garden where she grew vegetables and herbs. That once vacant lot has now become the Roots and Rays Community Garden located at the corner of Cullerton and Laflin.
Currently, the Roots and Rays garden has seven raised beds. They are growing edible vegetables and herbs. The crop includes three kinds of kale, collards, rainbow chard, mustard, tomatoes and cherry tomatoes, banana and bell peppers, carrots, radish, eggplant, zucchini, squash and watermelons. They are growing herbs from lemon basil, chives and thyme to oregano, sage and cilantro. The garden also includes a variety of ornamental flowers, a small pumpkin patch, and a decorative bed of “three sisters”: corn, summer squash and beans.
Roots and Rays’ mission is to provide education and awareness about the need for local sustainable food systems, provide healthy organic produce for the community and to provide a safe, green space in an otherwise environmentally unsound area.
“We believe community gardens are important in order to bring the community together, encourage peaceful social interaction and to demonstrate to the community’s youth that a small group of dedicated and concerned individuals really can make a difference,” said Christine Ferriter, Roots and Rays trainee.
“Community gardening is a great way to demonstrate that it is not only easy, fun and nutritious to grow our own food but that kitchen gardens can also reduce family food budgets, conserve resources, and create opportunities for social and family interaction.”
On a regular basis, they have youth groups coming from Casa Juan Diego and the Pilsen Wellness Center to learn about and take part in gardening. “We hope that these activities have nurtured an awareness of the environment and a sense of responsibility to the community in the young participants,” said Ferriter.
“It’s important for all people of color, not just Latino immigrants, to continue our legacy of agriculture because we have historically been connected to the soil. “Through years of oppression we have slowly been detached from that connection,” said Macias. “This connection, love and appreciation for the land are perhaps all we have left from our ancestors.”