After a weekend in San Francisco, we found ourselves at Collective Roots, a not-for-profit organization in East Palo Alto, California. We got to visit 2 of their many locations, including their main office and community garden facility and their largest on-site school garden. Surround by sun and dry heat, both gardens serve as small community oases. Along with these sites, they also have facilities on rehabilitation centers, inter-city apartment complexes, a medical clinic, and just opened a garden at a women’s resource center.
When asked about garden projects in Palo Alto, AmeriCorps volunteer Adelaide interjects, “We’re in East Palo Alto. I only stress that because of the majorly different demographics in each.” Palo Alto has a reputation for having a solid collection of upper-class citizens, including a ritzy downtown and the prestige of claiming Stanford students as residents. The stark difference between Palo Alto and East Palo Alto is found on either side of California Highway 101, when the single-family homes laced with ivy and stone detailing change into tight-knit apartment buildings and fast food chains. Just minutes from Silicon Valley, it’s shocking to hear that 90% of the students at the charter school we visited qualify for free or reduced lunch.
Collective Roots is the only organization teaching food and nutrition education within East Palo Alto, focusing on urban garden development, cooking classes, and organic food distribution at the local farmer’s market. Believe it or not, the market they are involved with is the only source for organic produce in this area. Although only 45 minutes south of one of the most food conscious cities in California (San Francisco), with only one grocery store, access to good food is quite limited in East Palo Alto. To address this problem, Collective Roots took on the re-establishment of the local farmers market. They have backed an “incentive” program for each family, where up to $20 worth of groceries will be matched by the state government. This makes their quality food available to people who wouldn’t otherwise have access.
The East Palo Alto Charter School is an acre plot brimming with green. The garden sees 400 students its gates every year, and many more when you include field-trippers from other schools. They are host to parent and student volunteers on the weekends for work parties, monthly workshops on cooking, gardening and nutrition education, as well as providing an after school program once a week. Adelaide and the other Collective Roots employees are also directly involved with classroom time dedicated to garden exploration. It is truly a community effort in every sense, the school serving as the main source of inspiration. The community also has a large Hispanic population, so classes are taught in both Spanish and English along with having multilingual signs around the property.
So what causes Adelaide to keep going back every day? “We really have a longitudinal impact,” she illustrates. She shares a story about a family that is integrated in many aspects of their organization, from shopping at their farm stand to having their daughter in the internship program. She also shares her excitement for the children’s love for the garden. “We ranked #2 [after P.E.] as the student’s favorite extracurricular. We beat out ‘technology’,” she laughs, “which I think is a huge feat.” She also shares that garden activities are often used as incentives, as the teachers offer reading and writing exercises in the garden’s natural gazebo in exchange for directed classroom time.
Collective Roots’ goal is clearly to inspire people to take their own initiative, simply providing the tools to make this easier. With dedication and time, any community can make this happen. While tedious, we cannot imagine it being anything other than rewarding for all those involved. We are thankful for this beautiful way to evoke community unification.
With a little water, sun, and care, the sunflower will bloom in its own time.