This L.A. school garden isn't just growing fresh fruits and veggies — they're also growing the leaders of tomorrow.
In South Los Angeles, there is a 1.5-acre lot filled with bountiful garden beds growing everything from collard greens to kumquats.
On a crisp day in sunny L.A., students from all walks of life are tending to the fresh fruits and colorful veggies. Some are watering newly planted seedlings, while others are gathering jalapeños and kale for the freshest taco ever.
This lot, called the Fremont Wellness Center and Community Garden, is located at the John C. Fremont High School campus, and it also has a small park, a community health clinic, and a soon-to-be-finished 1,500-square-foot greenhouse.
"It’s a big thriving community" says Megan Laird, the garden and youth program manager. And with so many opportunities all in one space, it's easy to see why.
One reason this green space is flourishing is because of the Gardening Apprenticeship Program, or GAP for short.
"It’s a program where high school youth from the John C. Fremont High School campus can come and participate in a course that trains [them] to become leaders in health, urban agriculture, and civic engagement," says Laird.
Through a 10-week program in the spring and the fall, the students learn about local and industrial food systems, how food justice affects communities, and how they can turn this knowledge into action within the larger community. And, of course, they learn basic gardening skills and environmental science.
"By the end of the 10 weeks, we feel confident that the youth are familiar with not just how the fruits and vegetables are grown on the site, but what they can do with them moving forward," adds Laird.
The project was started by the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust (LANLT), a nonprofit with a mission to promote safer and stronger communities by creating more urban parks and community gardens — something severely lacking in L.A.'s underserved neighborhoods.
The best part? The students are applying the lessons in their own lives.
"The biggest lesson that I have learned during my time in this program has been becoming a leader," writes Elizabeth Castro, a GAP student staff leader, in an email. "I am not as shy as I was before and it has helped me prioritize my education and future."
Other students say that being in the garden has helped them get through tough times in their lives, allowing them to open up about their battles with stress and depression. Some have also spearheaded efforts to partner with the environmental club on campus to collect food scraps for composting and waste reduction. No matter the hurdle, they overcome it as a unit.
"What I love most about working in the garden is that I can work with friends and know that the work we do can be shared with the community," writes Kevin Nagrete, a GAP apprentice leader, in an email.
More than just having loads of fun, the students are also helping expand the program.
GAP regularly invites professional chefs to demo how to use the produce in the garden to make healthy delicious dishes at home. In fact, GAP has seen so much success with their nutrition programs that they're now also partnering with the UC Cooperative Extension to create a new culinary after-school course.
These developments are particularly important given that it can be difficult to access fresh foods in certain areas of L.A. In South L.A., 72% of the restaurants are fast-food establishments. Plus, 90% of the food retailers are small stores that often don't provide healthy alternatives. And if they do, they usually lack the quality and freshness that you'd find in more affluent neighborhoods.
Thankfully, GAP's seed of change is well on its way to growing more green spaces (and even more leaders).
A 2006 UCLA study found that Los Angeles was well behind other major west coast cities in terms of park space. Even worse, a 2016 report done by the LANLT found that less than 30% of the total L.A. population — the majority of which are from low-income communities — have access to parks in their area.
That's why a group of GAP leaders are branching out and becoming involved in a separate program by the LANLT — the Park Equity Leadership Academy. Through this program, the students join other L.A. communities in advocating for more green spaces all around the city.
It's the next big step in their growth as leaders and one that'll pave the way for a brighter and greener future.