Good For The Soul: Community Gardens
Moving to a new country as an immigrant or refugee is not easy. Many of their lives are shattered by political or religious conflict and they have to flee their countries. The ones who arrive in the United States have to learn a new language and get accustomed to a new culture and different types of food. Not only that, many immigrants and refugees go from living in rural areas, where they had access to land, to living in small, urban apartments. Sometimes, they feel homesick and long for what they had back home.
This is why the community gardens operated by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) are such a good idea. The IRC is an organization that works with immigrants and refugees to help them survive in their new country and forge a better life and future. The IRC community gardens were created to give families a plot of land to garden and grow familiar food. There are two in San Diego County: The New Roots Community Farm in San Diego near City Heights and the Roots Fresh Farm Community Garden in El Cajon (in collaboration with Kaiser Permanente).
For the IRC, the garden serves different purposes. First, it enables families to grow fresh vegetables and fruit that they can eat, providing nutritious food and a way to strengthen local food systems.
It also supports physical and mental health. Getting outside in the fresh air is good for physical health. Planting and digging in the dirt is good for mental health, especially taking pride in the results that follow. There is something satisfying about eating the food that you grew. It is good for the soul.
The El Cajon garden is located in a large lot across the street from the Kaiser Permanente medical offices on Travelodge Avenue in El Cajon, where an old hospital used to be. After tearing down the hospital, Kaiser leased the land for free to the IRC with the intention of fostering gardens that would provide healthy, fresh produce. There are 40 plots, each about 600 square feet.
Thirty four of those plots belong to Iraqi refugees, as there is a large Iraqi population in El Cajon. Three plots belong to employees of Kaiser, two to families from Liberia, and one to a family from Burma. Each family or garden member is responsible for garden maintenance and water conservation is encouraged with either drip irrigation systems or low-water plant species. Water bills usually run $300 a year.
The garden has proven to be popular and there is a waiting list of about two years to get a plot. There are also rules and regulations to keep things running efficiently. The families have to work the plots, keep the weeds at bay and generally maintain their gardens. The IRC views the garden as a place for cultural exchanges and sharing food. On the day I visited, I met a friendly and welcoming American woman named Vendla [Vennie] Anderson who had just retired from Kaiser. She was joking and sharing gardening tips with a jovial and equally welcoming Iraqi man named Raad Kareem. Both had bountiful gardens, especially Anderson, who had large artichoke plants. She told me that she loved gardening and being like an American ambassador, working with the folks there and even giving impromptu English lessons.
In addition, Lora Logan, senior farming and food enterprise program coordinator, explained, some of the people who garden there have learned to sell their produce at the farmers’ markets in El Cajon and City Heights. One Iraqi man even sells his produce—he is reported to have the sweetest chard—to Harvest Ranch Market.
Community gardens are a win-win situation, especially in the more urban areas of San Diego County where plots of land to garden are hard to come by. May more community gardens continue to sprout in neighborhoods all over San Diego.