California State University, Long Beach
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Professor, Students Dig In to Help Local Community Garden

Published: May 17, 2010

For Sociology’s Jake Alimahomed-Wilson, working in and planning out community gardens brings everything together.

“Most of my scholarship has focused on the intersections of race and labor,” said Alimahomed-Wilson, who received his bachelor’s degree in Conservation at UC Berkeley and his Ph.D. and master’s in Sociology at UC Riverside, “but I have always been very interested in environmental justice as well, so community gardens were a natural transition for me because it brings together many of my interests – race and class inequality and environmental issues.”

Alimahomed-Wilson, who co-authored (with UC Riverside’s Edna Bonacich) Getting the Goods: Ports, Labor and the Logistics Revolution, a book about workers in the goods movement industries in and around the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, felt that after its completion, there was some unfinished business.

“We wanted to do a follow-up to this project which examines the environmental and economic crises from both a global and local perspective. This led us to local food issues,” he added. “We are interested in what people are doing throughout Los Angeles and other major metropolitan areas to combat social inequities and build economic alternatives and that’s when we began to seriously research community gardens.”

Alimahomed-Wilson currently serves as the director of the campus’ Metropolitan and Policy Studies Network (MAPS), which recently held its third event of the year. Titled “Planting Seeds for Social Change,” it focused on gardens, farms, and the struggle for alternative economic development and social justice in urban Southern California.

“With MAPS, we seek to bridge community work and social justice with cutting-edge scholarship. MAPS events promote dialogue between scholars, researchers, activists, students, and community members in order to ultimately promote creative solutions to social problems,” he said. “The recent event on community gardens and urban farms explored how ecological projects such as these can serve an instrumental part of community-building and maybe even economic development while also addressing some issues of poverty and other social inequities. At the end of the event we put out a call, basically saying that it’s not enough to just talk about these issues. We need to act.

“I wanted to connect something with MAPS where we could have a direct, accessible, and applied opportunity for students to get involved,” he added. “Getting students involved in local efforts to establish a community garden was a great opportunity since there is a clear need in the community. In addition, students would also expand their skill-sets along with receiving the often gratifying experience that comes from service learning and community engagement.”

As a result of the MAPS event, 35 students and a handful of faculty members from women’s studies and sociology showed up on the first Saturday of spring break to volunteer at a community garden just getting its start on South Street in North Long Beach. The area, and ones like it, are known as a “food deserts” where fresh, healthy food is not readily available or, in some cases, completely absent, “just like water is often absent or sparse in the desert,” he said.

Not only are there less open spaces to create gardens in urban areas, according to Alimahomed-Wilson, but there’s also less grocery stores in poor and working-class neighborhoods to begin with. Of the stores that are there, they typically aren’t the mainstream ones such as Ralphs and Albertsons. “And the smaller, mid-range grocery stores that are there tend to carry less healthy food options,” he said. “Research shows that poor neighborhoods, especially those disproportionately populated by people of color, have fewer options when it comes to the availability of healthy foods options compared to more affluent white populated neighborhoods.”

Through his research, Alimahomed-Wilson connected with a non-profit organization called Long Beach Organic, which working with the owner of the abandoned lot on South Street was allowed to lease it basically for free for five years.

“I told them I want to get involved and I have students who also want to get active,” said Alimahomed-Wilson of his talks with Long Beach Organic. “Our students can learn in the process and the organization and larger Long Beach community can also benefit from their labor and community service. It would be a mutual benefit for all parties and they were all for it.

“I didn’t really know what to expect, but I was pleased to see that so many students showed up,” he said. “We had a ‘work party’ for about three-and-a-half hours. It was the first groundbreaking of a new garden so it involved removing all the trash and clearing out the weeds. We were starting from scratch. It was a great experience.

Jake Alimahomed-Wilson
Photo courtesy of Jake Alimahomed-Wilson
Jake Alimahomed-Wilson

“I had many students come up to me afterwards expressing how amazing it was to work in the garden. I had one student tell me that her father is a gardener and she has now has a complete and newly found respect for him because she never really put it together about what he does until she did it herself. She said that there was just something about getting her hands dirty and pulling up the weeds that felt good. Urban gardening can play a small role in reconnecting people to the land, which is one aspect that is necessary for building healthier communities.”

The approximate half-acre at the South Street location needs additional work, but people in the community have already signed up for one of the approximately 60 available 10’ x 10’ plots. It’s estimated that a plot that size will subsidize a family on average about $40-50 a month in fresh organic food. There will also be a community section in the garden with all the food grown on it being donated to local organizations. Since it is an organic garden there are no pesticides, of course, and among items commonly grown are lettuce, chard, tomatoes, zucchini, spinach, cilantro, and herbs. Alimahomed-Wilson plans on bringing some of his summer school students to the garden for another “work party.”

“Many of us who live in urban areas are alienated or disconnected from our natural environment, but yet there are some small things that we can do to combat this, like growing our own food,” he said. “Ultimately, the issue of food justice will take a multi-layered approach which must not only tackle existing social inequities related to health in urban areas but also address the ways we think about, cultivate, and transport our food.

“One of the benefits of community gardens is that they can subsidize people’s diets,” said Alimahomed-Wilson. “Community gardens aren’t at the point where they can completely replace the major grocery stores and they alone cannot overcome our broken food system. But what community gardeners can do is to bring in more fresh foods to communities that lack healthy food. Gardens can also help build community ties around healthy food and to get neighbors talking to each other again.

“I think the thing about growing food is that, although we all eat every day, many of us are disconnected from where our food comes from and this is a great opportunity to really connect.

While Alimahomed-Wilson and the volunteers from CSULB were cleaning up the vacant lot, a film crew from ABC’s hit television show “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution” showed up. The show’s season finale recently aired and Alimahomed-Wilson and other CSULB volunteers were briefly shown wearing their “Beach” shirts at the end of the episode. “The students were really excited about it,” he said.

Alimahomed-Wilson hopes to continue to build ties with CSULB and local community organizations in the future one seed at a time.