Jamie Chen had never thought much about food production until her mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
Her mom's doctor recommended organic foods, something Jamie had never heard of. Following doctor's orders, the family went to Whole Foods, but the prices were astronomical compared with the price tags at the local Chinese markets where they usually shopped. She told us, "My dad saw the receipt and immediately said we should never go back."
With the family facing huge medical costs, it was just too expensive.
Eventually, the family found a cheaper, bulk organic place about 25 minutes away from them where they'd stock up on foods for Jamie's mom. It was trial and error for the whole family. She remembers her mom cooking "weird colored rice, which none of us really liked, so she would make two pots — one for her and a mix of white and brown rice for us."
The entire experience was an aha moment for Jamie that set the wheels turning. She started thinking about food and where it was produced.
Fresh produce can be expensive — even more so for anyone seeking organic foods, which can cost up to 47% more than the alternative.
If a family is already struggling to pay its bills, advice like Jamie's mom got from her doctor is just not feasible. Growing your own food can help, but many people don't have access to the resources and skills needed to garden.
So when Jamie heard about La Mesa Verde, she knew she had to get involved.
The gardening community La Mesa Verde empowers families by providing them with access to food and skills.
Their target group? Low-income families who want to eat better but can't afford to do so. Located in San Jose, California, La Mesa Verde is ready and willing to help — since their founding in 2009, they've built gardens for over 500 families and currently have 120 families actively participating in the program. Jamie is currently the manager at La Mesa Verde.
She told Upworthy, "I saw the immense potential that this community has for building power and making real change in the food system." So she jumped on board.
Through La Mesa Verde, families gain both the skills and knowledge necessary to grow vegetables — allowing them access to fresh, homegrown foods without putting their budgets at risk.
Over the course of a year, families are taught everything possible about growing vegetables and delicious ways to prepare them.
And while they join La Mesa Verde seeking fresh food options, they also find community. Jamie explains, "People help each other out. They go to each other’s houses to plant trees, they share seeds, they share recipes."
Many participants devote so much of themselves to the program and to this way of life that when the year ends, they aren't ready to leave La Mesa Verde behind.
Seeing the community they'd created, La Mesa Verde created a more advanced gardening program for members who waned to remain active beyond the first year. And those members refer their friends, neighbors, and family into the program. And as the community grows, so does its power.
While gardening lies at the core of La Mesa Verde, it's only just the beginning.
When Jamie's mom passed away, Jamie took over grocery shopping and cooking for her family. At the time, she wasn't thinking about activism or community building. She just wanted to heal, and to help her family to heal.
But after meeting with members of La Mesa Verde and hearing about their health struggles, their fight to heal their bodies after cancer diagnosis, and their inability to find affordable fresh produce in their traditional markets, Jamie saw how closely their experiences mimicked hers. She says,
"I see my mom in them, this soft but defiant commitment to having at least some power over what goes into our bodies that have already been damaged. I see hope, too, that we can try together to make real food that doesn't make us sick available to everyone. Cancer can make a family really lonely, so having [the La Mesa Verde] community becomes doubly important when we are sick."
A year ago, La Mesa Verde started a campaign to transform empty lots in San Jose into community gardens. In December 2015, their efforts were rewarded: The push to transform the empty lots was named the third legislative priority for 2016.
Members are organizing and finding out how and where they can effect the most change. And with the size of their community and the lives that they've changed, they'll be unstoppable.