Friday, May 28, 2010
Vacant Lots to Farming Plots in San Antonio's West End
“It was my neighbors and friends that were getting liver cancer and asthma,” she told me. “I basically stayed because I was interested in developing a healthier community.” Lopez scrapped her air force ambitions and became the environmental justice organizer for the Southwest Workers Union, a group in the City’s largely Latino West End that fights for a range of labor and civil rights issues in the community.
Lopez was one of the winners of the 2009 Brower Youth Awards, which recognizes youth activists around the country doing transformational environmental projects. I first found out about her at an environmental film festival in California that presented short films about all the award recipients. Soft spoken, but with noticeably clear determination, Lopez looked shyly into the camera and dscribed the community garden project she started in the West End. A few days later, I made it a point to get in touch, and invited her to apply to be a partner in the IFC Campaign.
The garden Lopez started, and continues to run, is located in a large, formerly vacant lot adjacent to her organization’s office. In 2007, with virtually no green thumb knowledge, she enlisted the help of community members to clear out the broken bottles, needles, and other urban detritus that had long scattered the ground. On her lead, they got the soil tested, built raised beds, and stuck seeds in the ground. Four years later, the garden thrives. When I visited in mid-April, the earth was in full production mode. Rainbow chard lined the beds, tomato seedlings stretched their limbs toward the sun, already full size strawberries sat lazily along the ground awaiting harvest, and the corn stalks already stood 2-feet in length. Workdays are every third Saturday, and open to anyone in the community who wants to participate. So too is the produce. By the summer, tomatoes, squash, onions, beans, and cucumbers will be plentiful and available to harvest for anyone who wants them. Some of it is used for potluck parties, and Lopez hopes that surplus produce can be sold at a local farmers market this summer. 20 interns intermittently help out in the garden, and there are plans to expand it across the entirety of the lot, and transition from mere garden to actual urban farm.
San Antonio has for years been near the top of the list of most unhealthy cities in America. In the lower-income sections of the City, fast food restaurants abound, and nutritious food options are few. Obesity and type 2 diabetes rates, particularly among children, have skyrocketed in the last decade. The urgency to improve health conditions seems to some degree to have been felt by the City’s leadership. The Mayor recently announced the beginning of a citywide Fitness Council to increase access to physical activity. Other groups, like the Southwest Workers Union, are pushing for greater access to healthy food, either through increasing the numbers of community gardens, or getting more farmers markets in poorer neighborhoods, and making sure they accept food stamps.
At the IFC planning meeting that Diana organized, I felt a bit like a grizzled old college professor advising the student socialist club. The attendees, many tattoo-laden, the oldest of whom were in their early twenties, seemed ready for action. Many belonged to a local Food Not Bombs chapter, a national organization of generally anti-establishment participants who collect leftover food donations – that might otherwise go to waste - from large outlets like Whole Foods and cook and serve free meals in public places to anyone who is hungry. It became clear through the course of the meeting, that the attendees were passionate about food justice, about ensuring that all residents in the San Antonio community had the basic right of good, healthy food. Their eagerness and commitment to participate in the planning and execution of the community screening event for residents of the low-income largely Latino West End neighborhood – from preparing a huge meal in someone’s personal kitchen, to creating and distributing a resource ‘Zine to the audience, to leading a series of discussion groups on issues ranging from nutritional health to agri-business – was an encouraging thing to see. Since that first meeting, Diana’s told me that the planning group has met weekly to prepare for the event, which will be on May 29th.
Most mornings, Diana steps out of her organizing role to attend college classes part time en route to her bachelor’s degree. She told me that after graduation, she still has strong aspirations to be a civilian pilot. And I’m guessing that when she is eventually sitting in the cockpit and flying high above the city of her birth, she’ll notice the once-vacant, now-blooming green spaces that she and her group helped create.