by Josh Koehn on Feb 01, 2012
With few healthy food options in some San Jose neighborhoods, residents are taking matters into their own hands with a private gardening program, La Mesa Verde, out of Sacred Heart Community Service. (Photo courtesy of Sacred Heart Community Service)
Leave it to the little guy to have the most ambitious of goals. But when Raul Lozano tells a story—the punch line often punctuated with an expression treading between a smile and a grimace—it’s clear his plans are no joke.
The founder of La Mesa Verde, the first organic-gardening program of its kind in Santa Clara County, wants to design a similar organization that reaches out to thousands of families across Silicon Valley.
Valley Verde, the ambitious lovechild of La Mesa Verde, will soon begin laying down roots in Gilroy, where agriculture is as ingrained in the culture as any area in Santa Clara County.
With the help of corporate sponsors and donations, plans are to start in April and, within a few years, provide free gardens to as many as 20,000 families. At least a quarter of those families will be identified as low income, which Lozano says has taken on a new meaning in recent years.
“When people think of low income, in these times it’s a whole different story,” he says. “It’s not the traditional struggle because the economy is so bad. Low income is the working poor and the unemployed.
“There’s a lot of issues of dignity and self-worth and they don’t want to identify with low income. The families that have been traditionally doing well, but aren’t now, need to access these services faster.”
A 2010 report by the Food Empowerment Project (F.E.P.), a nonprofit out of Santa Clara County, shows that low-income communities in the South Bay are drastically underserved when it comes to healthy food options.
Poorer areas have half as many large supermarkets as their wealthier neighbors—eight to 16. Federal statistics supplied by the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) gloss over this fact, because corner stores that often specialize in liquor, beer and cigarettes are identified statistically the same as grocers such as Safeway, Lucky’s and Whole Foods Market.
“It’s no surprise. We knew what we would find,” says Lauren Ornelas, director of the F.E.P. “The higher-income areas have two to three times more fresh fruits and vegetables than the lower income areas. When the census tracks data in lower-income areas and higher-income areas, it looks equal, but it’s because they’re counting these tiny little liquor stores. Basically, Safeway is being counted the same as one of these friendship markets.”
The impact on the local Latino community is startling. In 2010, 68 percent of Latino adults in Santa Clara County were classified as obese, according to the health department.
Combating this epidemic, Sacred Heart Community Services and Lozano teamed up in 2009 to form La Mesa Verde, or the Green Table, which targets the Washington-Alma neighborhood in San Jose, which is predominantly Latino. The F.E.P. classifies the area as one of the most food-disenfranchised in the county.
“In the Washington-Alma neighborhood, in particular, we don’t have a food desert; we have junk-food swamps,” says Lydia Guel, director of self-sufficiency at Sacred Heart Community Service. “What we’re seeing in the successes of La Mesa Verde is folks aren’t excited just about the opportunity to garden in their home; they’re also coming back to support their neighbors.”
Maria Mora, a mother of two, is the head gardener for one family benefiting from La Mesa Verde. With the help of an interpreter, she says her garden has not only cut down on food costs as well as raised the nutritional value of meals—it’s also brought her family together.