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Growing community roots

Uploaded: Oct 18, 2013
Two Stanford students ? one who has spent summers working in a Modesto canning factory and with a global anti- hunger nonprofit in Uganda; the other, an American Studies major with a focus on food, class and health ? came together to transform an empty plot of land behind their dorm into a seven-bed garden.

The Ujamaa Community Garden ? named for the dorm, which is African-themed (ujamaa means economic cooperation in Swahili) ? was installed this March. It's 100 percent student run, and regularly provides fresh produce to the Stanford community as well as East Palo Alto through a collaboration with Collective Roots, a local nonprofit.

They've grown lettuce, spinach, broccoli, tomatoes, artichokes, red onions, green onions, herbs and more. It's also a community space, where students go to harvest vegetables, maintain the garden, learn about food and health through programming, do homework or hang out. There have been workshops with high schoolers, an art day, a garden education class that took a sorority into a dining hall kitchen to cook with staff, a food justice talk with speakers from Berkeley and Tahoe.

"The whole point of this space is for people to see what they can do with food," said Brenda Mutuma, one of the two students who came up with the idea for the garden. "Whether that comes in the form of planting it or harvesting it or cooking it or eating it or whatever or just being around it and enjoying that space."

Mutuma, now graduated, and Makshya Tolbert, a junior at Stanford, met in a service learning course called Food and Community. The course combined academic learning about food systems with outside-the-classroom experience. Students worked at the Stanford farm and visited various communities and organizations to learn about local food systems.

"After that class, I think there was a lot of excitement around the students in the class finding for themselves the food community they wanted to belong to," Tolbert said. "For me, I didn't feel like I had one. The family I grew up in was very much not oriented around eating that way. It very much was, 'Where can I find food versus what is the food I am finding.'"

Mutuma approached Tolbert last winter break with the idea for the garden. The two share a strong passion for food justice, education and community.

"Why can't we bring this conversation here?" Mutuma said she thought at the time.

They meticulously planned for the garden together (budgeting "down to the size of nails and type of wood and type of soil," Mutuma said) and after receiving the green light from Stanford, even refused the administration's offer to build the garden for them. Both said they wanted it to be entirely student-run, from start to finish.

The conversation Mutuma referred to is multifaceted. It's food access and equity; it's understanding where our food comes from and how it's produced; it's health; it's creating community and connection.

And it's a conversation we should be having more often, in a community where we have a university like Stanford, where we have Whole Foods and weekend farmer's markets and farm-to-table menus and sometimes, a taken-for-granted attitude about access to fresh produce.

"I am figuring out more recently that a lot of the processes that I learn about and that I am trying to understand about food and community are so far from this campus," Tolbert said. "Maybe they're not far, but they feel so far away. The bubble of this space exists only in itself."

I wrote about this topic this summer, in a profile of the East Palo Alto farmers market, a weekly market run outside the Ravenswood Health Center. East Palo Alto has long been labeled a "food desert," or a populated area where there is minimal access to healthy, affordable food. It's actually a recycled misnomer, which I regret not communicating better in my article (see the comment thread).

The problems in East Palo Alto and other communities that are repetitively dubbed food deserts are less about physical access and more about systemic, institutional issues: unemployment, poverty, economic access.

Though planting veggies behind a Stanford dorm might seem like a far cry from fixing those issues, it's a start.
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