In February 2018, a South Los Angeles community gathered to celebrate some local heroes: teenage agriculturists.
The event was the grand opening of a brand new, state-of-the-art greenhouse on the John C. Fremont High School campus.
This greenhouse is custom designed and optimized with the latest technology for plant growth and education. The vents are computerized. The blinds open and close by themselves, depending on the brightness of the sun.
This facility might sound like something you'd find in Beverly Hills. But it's in South L.A., which has the highest rates of poverty and lowest rates of health in Los Angeles County.
In other words, the place is unlike anything this area has seen before.
That's why city officials, community organizations, and local residents came together for the grand opening. It symbolized the growth of a neighborhood that was severely lacking green spaces and is now being transformed through healthy food and community.
The greenhouse is the newest addition to Fremont Wellness Center and Garden, which opened in 2012 on an unused lot at the high school. The whole project includes a community clinic, community garden, and small park, and the neighborhood youth are spearheading its mission.
When it comes to resources, South L.A. students and their low-income neighborhoods are overlooked far too often — but not with Fremont Wellness Center and Garden.
It began as a vision for safe and open green spaces as well as quality health services for students and the surrounding neighborhood.
So the Fremont Wellness Center and Garden's creators started the Gardening Apprenticeship Program — or GAP — which teaches students about gardening, environmental science, and food justice.
GAP currently only works with 14 students at a time. But with the addition of the greenhouse, students can participate in a Regional Occupational Program (ROP) as well. About 60 students can take part in ROP, making an even greater impact on youth in the community.
For inner-city youth who would ordinarily have to travel to wealthier neighborhoods for safe, green spaces, this opens up exciting new possibilities.
They learn about the social issues affecting communities like theirs and how they are amplified by a lack of access to fresh food. They also learn how to grow their own organic food, which helps improve their community's health and wellness.
"They learn more about agriculture and learn more about the field and get the professional experience to hopefully, one day, go into this field," says Keshia Sexton, director of organizing at the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust.
And exciting events, like the greenhouse grand opening, allow the students to showcase their hard work for the community.
"It was definitely a student program and a student celebration for this new state-of-the-art resource that's now on Fremont campus," Sexton says of the grand opening ceremony. Presentations included a Fremont High School drill team performance and speakers from L.A. Unified School District, with photographers present to capture it all.
Ribbon-cutting at the greenhouse grand opening ceremony.
The program has been transformative for the youth involved, and one special speaker, Tiani, a GAP student, demonstrated that transformation.
"[She] spoke about how the program impacted her and made her a stronger advocate and gave her the confidence she needs to really succeed," Sexton recalls.
And she is not the only participating student to feel this way. The students' experiences and knowledge provided a crucial perspective on food equity. Their recommendations helped shape the future of their communities as well as offering expertise gained through education and lived experience with fresh foods.
"It's a healing space, and it's a space for folks to enjoy nature," Sexton says. "But it's also a learning space and a civic engagement space, where people are getting activated in being part of the solution for addressing the food inequity."
This program helps empower young people to be part of the solution, advocate for their communities' needs, and get healthy food growing in underserved neighborhoods that really need it. And their impact is already significant.
Their South L.A. neighbors now have new resources for healthier living within walking distance.
For example, the community clinic offers medical care for all ages at low to no cost, which will likely help improve overall health of the local population. The clinic is also hosting a free, biweekly farmers market open to the community. Healthy eating plays a critical role in preventative health care; nutritious foods can help prevent things like diabetes and high cholesterol.
It's no wonder these students are so proud to show off their work. This is an incredible model that could inspire resources for healthy living in urban areas throughout the country.
In South L.A., Fremont High School students now get to enjoy the fruits of their hard work. They're not only eating fresh food that they've grown themselves, but they're also realizing the impact that they can make on their community.
When imagining what it means to have green spaces in urban areas, most people might imagine a park or garden. But with a model like this, green spaces can be hubs of wellness, community, and education.