A Minnesotan’s Perspective on Leadership Wisconsin’s Seminar in California

Article Written by: Jim Checkel, Kasson, MN, graduate of Minnesota Agriculture and Rural Leadership Program (MARL)
Originally published in MARL online monthly newsletter

Leadership Wisconsin study tour to California September 2017

One lesson learned in MARL is that you never know where the next opportunity to learn will occur.

Recently MARL leadership was contacted by the Leadership Wisconsin program to see if anyone would be interested in touring the San Francisco California area to learn about “Whole Food Systems”. The idea being to learn how decisions in the past about food and food distribution has unplanned consequences that effect people and communities for many years after these decisions are implemented. I had the honor of attending this trip and here are a few observations that I would like to share.

First, while California is the largest provider of vegetables, fruits, nuts and numerous other agricultural products, there are huge intercity areas where there is not even a grocery store. In one area of Oakland that is known for intense poverty, there is a 50 square block area with 57 liquor stores but not one grocery store. Most of the fresh produce is either purchased outside of the area, or is provided at food shelters where oftentimes the produce is outdated and given to the food shelves as a way to get rid of an unsalable product. Children learn values from their families and surroundings and the societal values that they see often are watching the liquor stores selling liquor, cigarettes, maybe some fast food and porn. In many families these conditions have occurred for 3-4 generations and so a disconnect between agriculture and the importance of eating healthy food has become the norm for daily life. Drugs, homelessness and violence become acceptable family values. In poor areas, it is easier to avoid teaching where food comes from and healthy ways to prepare food. Giving food to people is easier than addressing problems about food disparity. It is a classic example of “Give a man a fish and he can eat for a day”

But University of California Extension, a new generation of community leaders and activists are also aware that “teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime” and realize that there are many options in these urban food deserts for opportunities to grow healthy food for the community, unite families and communities and educate people on common skills like growing food.

Throughout the Bay area we were able to tour projects, either driven by Extension or by people in local communities, that taught gardening, harvesting, cooking and self-employment through producing and marketing of seed, garden supplies, and produce allowing people to reconnect with their neighbors, learn about soil ( and not just dirt) and develop a base to perhaps start a business, teach youth, engage the community and clean up areas of the city by removing garbage and planting gardens for food and flowers for beauty.

Where once industrial contaminated soils prevented gardens from growing, raised garden beds are being installed with composed materials from the cities that used to go into landfills. These composted soils are monitored to assure successful nutrient levels. Where fruit used to fall from trees, phone apps have been developed to connect whole neighborhoods notifying residents when harvest is ready so that others in these neighborhoods can come together to harvest and prepare nutritious meals. Where seeds were not available, growers have been identified to develop starter plants that the ethnically diverse populations want in their diet instead of plants that these groups are not accustomed to eating.

Many issues still occur that slow down the success of many of these programs. Garden success rates run about 38%. Seeds or started plants are often too expensive. Many times seeds are not available that match the stable diet of various cultures. Urban expansion into many of the poorer areas drives up the price of land to a point where it is impossible to hold land for food production, And all of the programs require immense amounts of money, often in the form of grants that are highly competitive. But leadership is about finding solutions to difficult problems and many of the people we met believe in their vision and their future and are driven with a passion to succeed that will no doubt overcome problems that seem insurmountable.

In the area that we toured from Oakland, San Jose, San Francisco, Sacramento, Sunol and Martinez, we heard of 100s of examples of people who started with only a push cart and a dream and who have become very successful business people, some even owning chains of local restaurants. The American dream lives in the hearts of these people and it was a wonderful experience to see that dream is still alive.

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