Appetite for Food Equity Could Be Cropping Up at Skyline College


Hunter Feiner

In an effort to endorse the consumption of vegetables, it is shown that people who grow their own their own food are more likely to eat healthier. (The Skyline View/Hunter Feiner)

The children ambled forth, both intrepid and trepidatious, towards the alien form.

A yellow-speckled crown and the sinister, sickle-shaped edges of its wardrobe adorned a bulbous green head. Vein-protruding limbs shook amid the salt-kissed breeze and moaning seas.

This was the first time many of the kids in Paul Summers’ fourth grade class had seen a broccoli plant in its unprocessed form. This field trip to The HEAL Project farm in Half Moon Bay was an introduction to a concept that has been part of human existence since the days of Babylon — farming.

“Perhaps one of the kids descended from a lineage of Mesopotamian rulers who owned acres of farmland,” said Paul Summers, an educator with the South San Francisco Unified School District. “With excursions like these, we hope to make broccoli and beans as familiar as Fortnite and Minecraft. Education about fruits and vegetables is pretty important. I mean, I can’t go to all their homes and make salads.”

Grade schoolers have little sovereignty over processed, sodium-rich or high-fat diets — but college students do. Choices concerning human food consumption are choices about equality, justice and sustainability.

Urban farms, community gardens and the Agrarian Movement are finding sustainable solutions where industrialized, commercial agriculture has failed. Urban farms and gardens are fixing the inequities regarding lack of healthy foods in lower socioeconomic zones by providing affordable fruits and vegetables as well as promoting community self-sufficiency. Beyond the humanistic approach, urban farms operate without the environmental toll that large-scale agriculture exerts.

Take all the one minute showers you want, and flush your toilet once a week. These measures amount to the proverbial drop in a bucket. In California, commercial agriculture uses nearly four times the amount of water that urban consumption does. Nitrous oxide emissions from industrial fertilizers add to greenhouse gases, and runoff from pesticides are not very polite.

It is not always easy to know what fertilizers and pesticides go into food production. That’s why informed consumers, like the family of Skyline journalism major Adriana Hernandez, shop at a Mexican grocery store that sells natural produce.

“We try and pick places where they have fresh groceries,” Hernandez said. “I don’t know whether you’ve heard of those types of fruits or vegetables that aren’t naturally grown, and they have chemicals injected into them because this makes them grow bigger. If you’re trying to eat healthier, you have to be informed about that stuff.”

Global agriculture can be harmful on a wide scale basis: E. coli outbreaks, overplanting and high-demand water crops like avocados (guacamole — now, the Devil’s dip). Global food distribution packs semi-trucks bound for supermarkets, but does not pack healthy foods into communities that need it the most.

The lack of access to healthy foods has created nutritional inequities. Even many Skyline students look for ways to supplement deficient diets.

To address student hunger, SparkPoint Center sponsors Baskets Around Campus which distributes free snacks. They also work with the Associated Students of Skyline to offer a reduced price lunch package (sandwich and bottle of water) and provide free lunch cards.

The staff at the Skyline Educational Access Center (EAC) took it upon themselves to provide snacks to students.

“Usually, the types of snacks were based on what Costco had on sale that week,” E.A.C.
Coordinator Melissa Mathews said. “Students were coming in to request specific snacks: ‘Do you have the hot Cheetos today?’”

Mathews expressed how the snacks made the EAC a cool place for students and their friends to come. She explained how the snacks not only fed students, but they garnered an appreciation and connectivity with the EAC.

“I like that the snack program destigmatized getting free food, and students who actually were facing food insecurity didn’t have to feel ashamed for grabbing some food,” Matthews said.

Part of the reason for this dietary divide is because large supermarkets, located mostly in suburbs, have put many mom-and-pop grocers out of business. Additionally, healthy food is expensive, whereas junk food is cheap and readily available.

“Getting leafy greens, getting lettuces, getting tomatoes, getting things that are nutrient rich or picked recently is not an easy thing,” said Doria Robinson, executive director of Urban Tilth (an urban farm in Richmond, California). “You have to walk far distances to get to them. You have to pay more than your budget can afford. And most likely, if you have to feed yourself and your kids, you’re not gonna spend your whole budget on healthy food.”

Misconceptions and cultural practices also contribute to unhealthy diets. Often, healthy food just isn’t considered cool (Dauntless, Double-barreled Hot-sizzle Bacon Burger vs. a root vegetable bowl?).

Even Hernandez admits to consuming junk food once in a while. She revealed that eating it made her feel a bit guilty and self-conscious about ingesting something that was not good for her.

“When people think about healthy foods, people think about vegetables, and most people don’t like to consume vegetables willingly,” Hernandez said. “Making something that’s not desirable, desirable — That’s just hard. If you want a healthy lifestyle, nobody else is going to give it to you. You have to give it to yourself. That feeling of wanting a better version of yourself — That’s what’s going to motivate you to eat those types of foods.”

Unhealthy diets result in elevated health problems including obesity, heart disease, stroke and lack of sense of purpose. These maladies have reached the crisis point in many inner cities.

Now those who “solve by legislation” may scan statistical reports, and, by the power of the spreadsheet, determine that simply adding more supermarkets to deprived areas will fix the problem. However, supermarket companies are not likely to invest where there isn’t a chance for reasonable profit. Besides, the real problem is not the number of jars of spirulina green algae on the shelves — It’s the need to educate people about healthy diets.

So, what can be done about this? Can a magic wand or superhero cape spawn a solution? Well, maybe not exactly, but perhaps waving a celery stick and donning some overalls might do the trick.

Urban farms like Urban Tilth, in Richmond, Veggielution in San Jose and The HEAL Project are promoting community collaboration for growing and distributing fruits and vegetables to farmers markets, fruit stands, restaurants and subscription services. Urban Tilth has set an aggressive goal to provide 5% of Richmond’s food supply.

“Here in Richmond, California, we run 6 different school and community gardens, 1 farm and 2 CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) — serving roughly 500 families a week,” Robinson said. “The most important part of that is that we do that by hiring and training local residents to basically be the change makers — transforming the food system.”

She went on to explain how Urban Tilth gives folks the skills they need to grow food and get it to people as well as make them understand the importance of their undertaking and what larger societal causes are at play that need to be resisted or transformed.

In an effort to make healthy food socially acceptable, many urban farms sponsor school and community gardens and educational programs. It has been shown that people who are personally involved with growing food are three times more likely to eat healthier. Subsidize school campaigns include salad bars, educational pamphlets and posters as well as cooking classes.

The advantage of community gardens is that they can be cultivated nearly anywhere.

Commercial developers are catching on and are now incorporating community gardens in their subdivisions. In the future, planning commissions can make community gardens a building permit requirement.

College campuses can tie gardens to agricultural and environmental studies as well as horticulture, biology, math, health and nutrition. Why not install community gardens at Skyline College? The idea is not exactly foreign to students who come from backgrounds where community gardens are part of their social fabric.

“My wife’s family in Tahiti have a taro patch in which the young men in the village take care of acres and acres of wetland that grow many pounds of taro,” Skyline student Ryan Samn said. “These taros are exported to other islands in Polynesia. They do not use chemicals and everything is natural. I see so much benefit to growing food and sharing with the community. I would love to see that for our campus as well.”

“I think it would be great for the community,” Hernandez said, parlaying Samn’s sentiments. “It would be great to create unity between students having to work together. Especially after the pandemic, they would have somewhere to socialize.”

It’s true that the Agrarian Movement today has little difference to what was happening in Mesopotamia some 10,000 years ago: growing for the local community. While the kids in Paul Summers’ class may not grow up to be the next Nebuchadnezzar, Gilgamesh or Hammurabi, they can still become potentates of potatoes or executors of eggplant.

“The purpose of fruits and vegetables is not to be traded on the commodities market,” Summers said. “They don’t need to be packaged as a $15 radicchio salad at Whole Foods Market or julienned as a yellow squash and truffle sauté at the French Laundry. Basically, an apple is an apple, and there is beauty in that simplicity.”