Inner City Fresh

Disadvantaged communities combat the climate crisis through urban farming

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Jennifer Mack grew up in Compton and remembers shopping for groceries with her grandma. She couldn’t understand why they needed to go to three or more stores to find everything they needed. Now 41, she follows the same routine.

“It was the lack of quality,” Jennifer said. “Our grandparents knew that the local market had fresh produce from local farms, whereas the major grocery stores probably don’t handle their produce as well.”

The Food 4 Less in Compton sells tiny, often bruised fruits and vegetables and she fears that the Costco is too big to maintain the quality of all its meats.

Her husband, Simmie Mack Jr., grew up in the Jordan Downs projects in Watts, one of the poorest neighborhoods in L.A.

In Watts, the option for fresh produce is overwhelmed by corner stores and fast-food eateries. When the meats and produce are available two miles away from the projects, they’re often bruised or approaching expiration dates on the shelves of Food 4 Less.

Thanks to his grandfather, Simmie embraced urban farming at an early age. His grandfather’s backyard vegetable plot provided a bounty of fresh produce. Now, Simmie and Jennifer barter with neighbors who grow their own produce. Simmie likes to say that he and his wife live in a neighborhood rather than a community. It’s a more intimate relationship.

One of the small communities working to reform their identity and tackle the climate crisis in L.A. can be found in Watts, which is just across the street from Mudtown Farms on 103rd and Grape streets.

Reports from across the U.S. show that urban agriculture helps the recovery of low-income communities disproportionately hit by the climate crisis. The Conservation Law Foundation states that urban farming is meant to reshape a community’s idea of empty space, rather than compete with traditional farming practices.

The roots of urban farming lie in providing security and survival to individuals,but in 2022, urban farming plays an even greater role in the wellbeing of people in Los Angeles. Starting 2013, Cultivate Los Angeles showed increased interest in urban farming in Los Angeles and found creative approaches to growing crops in the concrete jungle. Today, L.A. County alone accounts for 1,261 urban agriculture sites, out of which roughly 60% are school gardens.

“We’re out here to fend for ourselves because the government is not assisting,” Jennifer said. “What we have on every corner is McDonald’s and liquor stores, but we don’t have fresh farms, fresh fruits or fresh produce.”

In one instance of watercooler talk with her coworkers, Jennifer realized something. Compton and Watts didn’t have stores like Trader Joe’s, Ralph’s and Whole Foods.

“My employees had no clue what a Food 4 Less was,” Jennifer said. ”They had all the stores that cater to health, cater to what’s better for us as humans.”

In the early 2000s, Simmie noticed the growing trend of organically produced foods in his community, which intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic with an even greater awareness of conscious eating.

“A lot of people started doing their own homework,” Simmie said. “They started investigating and started doing research because they had nothing but time to do it.”

Since Mudtown Farm officially opened the doors to 2.5 acres of urban farmed land in 2022, it has become a beacon of hope for low-income residents and communities beyond Jordan Downs.

Mudtown grows everything from fruits and vegetables to medicinal herbs and tea. It has also gained a reputation for bridging the food insecurity gap between the community and fresh produce. Community volunteers harvest those crops for Mudtown and receive a portion of the harvests. The remaining produce is given to a neighboring community center.

Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC) is creating a community gathering space within Mudtown that includes farm, education and recreational programming.

“It’s a place where community members can reclaim space in the area and tell us what they want to see and what they want to do,” opportunity leader Ava Post said.

A history of contaminated soil

Jordan Downs, where Simmie Mack Jr. grew up, is one of the oldest housing projects in Los Angeles. It was a temporary shelter for factory workers during WWII and was known for its discriminatory practices in the 1950s. Leila Gonzalez-Correa, former executive director of the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA), admitted in 1989 the organization had failed to improve the quality of life in Jordan Downs.

During the acquisition of the property, Upon acquiring the property, the city discovered high levels of lead, arsenic and other chemicals leftover from a former steel mill and trucking operation. Lead contamination from gasoline and paint had become a prominent issue nationwide and especially in L.A.

“Sadly, we find a lot of contamination of lead in our soils that affects the development of the brain in children,” said Jonathan Galindez, a project coordinator of Carver Middle School Garden. “At the moment, my son does have a higher level of lead in him. We like to play in the soil, but because of that, we’ve had those issues with our health, with our wellbeing and even mental health.”

A statue of George Washington Carver at Galindez’s farm.

In 2013, the city planned to turn the projects into an “urban village” with restaurants, townhouses and other attractions. However, a 17-month clean-up effort led to the discovery of trichloroethene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene, substances that cause cancer and birth defects. Within the ground of the northern side of the projects, where commercial buildings will eventually sit, perchloroethylene (PCE) was also found, according to a Curbed LA report. The report speculates that the contamination may have migrated from an underground pipeline belonging to ExxonMobile Corporation, just down Alameda Street.

Remediation efforts by the city include the installation of vapor barriers, which are synthetic plastic sheets that prevent the chemical vapors from rising into buildings.

In 2016, the city started hauling away 259,375 tons of this toxic dirt – over 1 million times the weight of a blue whale – and replaced it with clean, imported soil. As of 2017, according to Housing Authority officials, the lead contamination did not spread beyond the renewal site.

One question remains: does this affect Mudtown Farms?

“I have taken soil tests recently here, and we have not had any contaminants of concern,” Post said. “We tested for heavy metals, and we did not have any metals of concern.”

Gardening equipment at Carver Middle School Garden.

The Climate Crisis in the Concrete Jungle

Farmers like Galindez see the residents of low-income communities as a metaphor for the soil itself. With care and patience, the soil may reap wonderful opportunities.

Soil depends on factors such as soil structure and porosity, topsoil thickness, carbon and nutrient content, acidity and salinity. In addition, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that municipal solid waste, such as food, grass clippings and sanitary waste, is the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the U.S.

“It’s important to bring in the waste into an area like a garden, where we actually can manage it, turn it into a resource and continue the cycle because food doesn’t just leave and it’s not a thing that can actually just go away,” Galindez said.

A man looks out at Los Angeles covered in a fine layer of smog.

Galdinez mentions that the garden provides space and education to people so they can bring their waste,learn to manage it the proper way, and create a resource that encourages production of organic food in the neighborhood.”

While Post says that contamination isn’t an issue for the produce at Mudtown, soil compaction from former projects on the lot requires extra efforts to combat.

“Compaction is basically when there’s a lot of construction, cars or buildings being on top of something for so long, that squishes soil together into a really bad, hard layer that becomes impermeable to water,” Post said.

Introducing more organic matter and plant roots into the soil could help loosen this kind of soil, Post asserts. However, much of the soil in L.A. is also masked by layers of concrete, making for the most important trappings of an urban heat island.

Sunflowers in bloom at Mudtown farm.

“There’s the urban heat island effect in dense populations, in cities where it’s even hotter than it would normally be,” Post said. “It’s essential to recognize the human aspect of climate change.”

The Los Angeles Department of Public Health (DPH) found low-income communities and communities of color are most affected by the urban heat island effect. Public health officials say Los Angeles County alone will experience two to four times more days over 95 degrees in 2050.

These rising temperatures have a strong negative effect on plant growth.

“We see the flowering patterns of plants, the distributions of certain plants that used to be further south of here now, are completely replacing certain species that you still have here because of these rising temperatures,” Post said.

Heat is not equally received

The UCLA Heat Map states that there are a total of 8,222 excess emergency room visits on the average hot day. Los Angeles County’s total of 1,510 ER visits puts it at the top of the list.

“The places that don’t have the resources to deal with heat are going to be hit first and hit hardest,” Post said. “That’s why I think it’s essential to focus on places like Watts.”

Watts is a predominantly Black and Hispanic area with an average existing tree canopy coverage of less than half that exists twenty-three miles away in Beverly Hills, where more than half of the residents are white.

Neighborhoods with the means to plant trees and vegetation can reduce heat by two to nine degrees Fahrenheit. In turn, this can reduce the need for air conditioning, which is a huge source of carbon emissions worldwide.

“Every five degrees, the different microbial life ecology changes,” Galindez said. “Some go to sleep, some wake up and some die. Having good soil allows us to actually grow vegetables, even in harsh conditions.”

An important part of maintaining good soil is adding compost to it, which can help balance its density and acidity.

The EPA states, “It is a resourceful way to turn food waste into a useful product which can help farmers increase their crop yields, provide a local resource for gardens, parks, and landscapers, restore habitats, and improve contaminated or degraded soils.”

Adding compost to soil not only helps prevent methane emissions, but reduces carbon pollution emitted through waste treatment facilities.

Grow and Tell

Mudtown farmer Alicia Salmeron champions the shelf-life and cost-effectiveness of produce grown on urban farms.

“You go to Food 4 Less and you buy two, you’re lucky if they last five days,” Salmeron said, holding freshly picked bell peppers. “These will last you seven to 10 days, and you don’t even have to refrigerate them.”

Compton resident Ramiro Gonzalez is one of those people who tried new things during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. Now, he finds a dozen or so freshly laid eggs waiting for him in his backyard when he comes home from work.

Transitioning from the streets of Compton to Gonzalez’s backyard is the suburbian equivalent of watching Dorothy step into Oz. The ripples of a waterfall juxtapose with the “buck-buck” of hen, some of whom he poaches.

“The flavor of the meat is ridiculous,” Gonzalez said. “I always thought chicken was chicken… it’s not.”

Then, there is the wealth of produce that surrounds a small pond where koi fish apprehensively observe visitors.

Gonzalez says nurturing this miniature farm in his backyard not only saves a considerable amount of money during grocery trips, but improves the quality of the food he eats.

“The flavor is a lot stronger,” Gonzalez said. “Just like the apples, they’re sweeter, juicer and they always have that crunch.”

Building Community

Examples from across the globe show that urban agriculture not only promotes the wellbeing of families by streamlining access to fresh produce and reducing costs, but also enables communities to join the produce market.

“It’s a food desert here,” Salmeron said. “There isn’t good produce available, lots of fast food, and this is going to show the residents that with just a little bit of TLC and some time, they can grow their own produce.”

While Mudtown produce is often given away to community members, the farm plans to promote entrepreneurship within the community by selling to local restaurants.

Across L.A., other farmers also foster their own relationships to their community.

In the Carver Middle School garden, just beside Galindez’s native plants of his indigenous Mexican heritage, sits a bust of George Washington Carver with green foliage hugging the foundation. It comes after walking through a sea of greenery, mounds of moist compost hosting visible organisms underneath the surface and a bed of sunflowers that would stop Vincent van Gogh in his tracks.

Galindez says that by opening this space, he and his team of farmers can cultivate healthy relationships between all walks of life within the community.

“We have our Black and Brown brothers and sisters come into the space and to just take a second and relax, take a second and breathe,” Galindez said.

An Aurora University report found that urban farms in Baltimore enabled gardeners to build trusting relationships with their neighbors. Meanwhile, in Ohio, empty lots that were transformed into community green spaces have proven to reduce crime rates.

Mudtown follows a similar path in which members of the community have a say on what they believe the community needs.

“We’re trying to get input from the community on what they want to grow, so that we can grow,” Post said. “But they want to eat, so that we can grow it and have this collaborative process to one, supplement people’s diets, and also give them a place where they can just experience the tranquility of natural space.”

Post says that Mudtown Farms isn’t in Watts to replicate our idea of nature; it’s a contrived representation of nature. “You’re never going to find pristine nature anywhere anyways,” she said.

Instead, it’s about giving the community a second chance to define itself and what it could be, rather than the decades media coverage of gang violence, poverty and 1992 Los Angeles uprising.

Galindez rejects the idea that a college degree is the only way to streamline the practice of sustainable farming within low-income communities. Instead, the power to change a community for the better exists within the individual.

“The difference between a gardener and a farmer is that a gardener grows food for himself,” Galindez said. “A farmer grows food for other people. So as soon as you start growing food for somebody, you’re a farmer.”