Meet Manuel Jiménez. He received The California Wellness Foundation’s 2011 California Peace Prize Nov. 17ay, in recognition of the youth engagement work he and his wife, Olga, do through the non-profit organization, Woodlake Pride.
Manuel and Olga – with the assistance of Woodlake youth and other community volunteers – maintain a 13-acre garden in the Tulare County community. It is truly the most amazing garden I’ve ever seen. They have 150 varieties of roses, 70 varieties of grapes, 12 varieties of blueberries, peach, plum and nectarine orchards and, maybe most shocking, rows of tropical and exotic plants like bananas, mangoes, pineapples and guavas.
As I walked through the one-mile-long garden yesterday, it was at first hard for me to understand how such an amazing garden could also double as a youth violence prevention program. But once I saw Manuel interacting with local youth – and opening their eyes to the wonders of agriculture, and the world – I glimpsed the power of the program.
I watched as Manuel unpeeled ears of heirloom corn and showed their beautiful colors – mix-matched purple, yellow, and red kernels – to 10-year-old Roman Ramírez and 8-year-old Estevan Saucedo.
“It’s the same kind of corn, but it varies from color to color,” explained Manuel, a former farmworker turned agriculture expert. “It’s all the same seeds – just like kids!”
As we walked through the garden, Manuel encouraged the kids (and lucky me!) to smell and taste everything – from apples and grapes, to pomegranates and jujubes.
“These are some of the smallest tangerines in the world, kids,” he said, as he unpeeled the fruit, and doled out mini slices.
Manuel appears so comfortable in his garden – but looked uneasy when asked about winning the Peace Prize, which comes with a cash award of $25,000. Finally, he said he was glad the kids would earn recognition for their hard work in the garden.
“The manpower behind this is actually kid power,” he said.
Read more about Manuel and Olga Jiménez in next week’s edition of Vida en el Valle. To learn more about Woodlake Pride, check out this video:
The award-winning film documents how a community garden helped revitalize a New Orleans school after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. In the 1/3-acre organic garden – (there is a similar one in Berkeley, and both are spearheaded by Alice Waters) – low-income children stick their hands in the dirt and nurture and harvest crops. They learn to cook the fruits and vegetables they’ve grown, and connect their garden experiences to their academic courses.
It’s not hard to imagine edible schoolyards sprouting up across the San Joaquín Valley. In fact, many people said during a community discussion following the screening, we need community gardens to be incorporated into school curriculums.
For starters, the Valley has a rich tradition of agriculture, and the gardens could honor that. The Valley is home to so many diverse cultures and languages, and this could be reflected in the crops grown in school gardens, and the tools used in them, Grant said in a recent interview.
But beyond that, Valley families need the health education the gardens could provide.
As Edie Jessup of the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program reminded the audience before the film was screened last Thursday night, Valley residents suffer from serious poverty, hunger, obesity, and chronic health issues. So many people live in rural areas and work in agriculture, but don’t have access to region’s bountiful produce, she said.
In the school gardens, young Valley children would grow fruits and vegetables. They would get exercise from working in the garden, gain a connection to the land, and cultive relationships with their classmates. Valley kids would harvest their fruits and vegetables, and then learn to enjoy eating and cooking with them.
Just those simple steps could help create healthy habits for the kids, who would pass them on to their families. Over a lifetime, those healthy habits could help curb the alarming rate of childhood obesity in the Valley.
As Waters is known to say: “if they grow it, they’ll eat it.” Or as another public health expert said, “healthy choices should be easy, and unhealthy choices should be hard.”
So, who will be the driving force for an edible schoolyard in our community? Some communities – like Pixley, in Tulare County – have already planted the seeds of garden projects. But how do we turn these community gardens into a movement?
People could start by reaching out to their local schools and school boards. Grant says it’s easier to implement an edible schoolyard curriculum at charter schools, like Samuel J. Green in New Orleans – but they can be added to public schools, too.
For proof, Valley residents just need to look to Stockton, where Grant is in discussions about creating a community garden at Wilhelmina Henry Elementary School. Grant said a congressman and the local farm bureau are already behind the effort.
During an interview, Grant compared the healthy foods movement to the civil rights movement, in terms of how quickly its gaining momentum. Will you join the nutritious food scene, and ensure that all kids in their families have access to healthy foods, which will lead to healthier lives?