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Eco Urban Gardens brings gardening to kids, combats L.A. food insecurities

The nonprofit organization teaches children to grow their own fruits and vegetables in food deserts, equipping them with tools for the future.

Kids gardening at schools with Eco Urban Gardens.

Growing up on a farm in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania, Elizabeth Christy spent her childhood outdoors. She learned to farm and even knew how to drive a tractor at the age of 10. With the guidance of her “very hippie dippy” mother, she always ate healthy. That is, until she went off to college.

At Temple University, her diet consisted of Hot Cheetos and Lucky Charms. Christy began to feel physically ill.

“And then I realized my mom wasn’t just being annoying. There was actually something really important about this. So, I went back to my roots,” Christy said. “I knew that I was healthy and happy [before college], but I didn’t know why until I walked away from it and was like, ‘Oh, it was the fresh air, the food and the way we were living.’”

Now, as the program manager for the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Eco Urban Gardens, Christy designs and hosts in-person and virtual workshops to teach kids about all things gardening and healthy living.

Eco Urban Gardens, founded in 2015 by Marianne Zaugg — the current executive director — seeks to “combat food insecurity through regenerative living” through teaching, according to the nonprofit’s website. This includes helping children live a sustainable lifestyle by learning how to grow their own food and prepare meals.

In 2016, the organization started to lead workshops on food, health and gardening. The group also began farm-to-table programs where it installs a garden in each school they collaborate with, including schools within the El Monte Union High School District located in East L.A. The garden becomes an outdoor classroom and adds to students’ STEM curriculum, says Zaugg. According to Christy, they have created around 100 gardens.

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East L.A., along with other areas including South L.A., is considered a food desert. Defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food deserts are an area lacking fresh fruit, vegetables and healthful foods as a whole because of a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets and healthy food providers. There is a 32.2% childhood obesity rate in the area which is among the highest in the county, according to the Public Matters, making the gardens in East L.A. that much more pertinent.

In addition, Zaugg explained how gardens and plants have been dying in Southern California because of warming from climate change. Additionally, farming will become more difficult in the future with hotter temperatures and less rain.

With Southern California’s environmental changes, schools began asking Eco Urban Gardens to install gardens into their schools to teach students how to grow food, Zaugg said.

“Our schools in our low-income areas basically had concrete,” Zaugg said. “[The students] just knew that you go to the store to get a carrot. The kids didn’t know that you grow them. So the idea of bringing these gardens into their schools became our mission. And I was lucky enough [that] the community members in the area supported us, and they kind of were my [cheerleaders] of making it happen with me.”

Christy works with Eco Urban Garden’s farm manager Alan Melgoza-Calderón to maintain outdoor gardens at Rosemead High School, Mountain View High School and Arroyo High School. At schools where the organization doesn’t have consistent programming, the organization hosts one-time installations and workshops.

The work to instill gardening habits in young children does more than produce vegetables and fruits; it helps their well-being. Urban gardening among young children results in increased concern for nature, improved mental health and stronger neighborhood social cohesion, according to a UNICEF report. Children who grow up in greener spaces tend to suffer fewer health inequities that socioeconomically disadvantaged communities may experience more often, the report also states.

Because of the pandemic, much of Eco Urban Garden’s programming became virtual, Christy said. Now, virtual workshops are a larger part of their organization. Christy maintains a YouTube channel where she does a video series called Kids Gardening, which teaches kids science, how to garden, and how to take care of the environment. Most recently, she started a series called Seeds & Crafts that delves into creative ways to engage with a garden, such as pressing flowers in a book and making recycled paper.

In addition to working with schools, Eco Urban Gardens hosts free workshops for all ages in the community at the schools on the weekends. The organization also has community gardens they maintain throughout L.A. County, like La Madera Community Garden in El Monte.

Christy said she considers what crops and vegetables she puts into each garden very carefully. Some of the gardens have been lacking visitation from local bees because there are too many non-native flowers (such as from Australia). She makes sure to plant California native wildflowers to ensure local pollinators have a place to live. Christy also prioritizes drought-resistant plants that can stand the especially hot days L.A. County faces in August and September.

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To make the gardens more personal to students and the community, Christy sends out a produce request list at the start of each season. She has her students talk to their families and collect recipes, create a food inventory of their fridge and make a photo diary of what they’re making at home.

This way, when Christy sits down to order spring seeds, for instance, she knows the communities’ needs. Many people request “fun” options like sugar cane, snap peas and potatoes.

“I have to throw in a couple like mustard and arugula, you know, balance it out,” Christy said. “But I like having everybody involved in the process because I learn about new seeds, too. I’ve learned about 20 to 30 new herbs just in the last six months working with the community garden.”

In terms of next steps for Eco Urban Gardens, the organization is looking to expand their farm-to-school program. The group also plans to make their workshops available in different mediums to make it more accessible for more students, and would like to continue to expand its program by partnering with more schools and communities.