A garden in Pasadena’s “food desert” may help battle diabetes

The deck is stacked against many young Californians when it comes to diabetes.

Their families are poor. They live in neighborhoods with plenty of liquor stores and some convenience marts, but not many grocery stores. Their diets are built around the fast foods and sodas that cause obesity and send blood sugar spiking.

Sometimes answers come in small steps, and one may be emerging in Northwest Pasadena.

It is a neighborhood where 18,000 people live below the poverty line. Grocery stores are so few that the city’s director of Public Health, Eric Walsh, called the area a “food desert.” Fresh fruits and vegetables, especially, are rarities.

So the city, in partnership with volunteers at the Pasadena Community Gardens Conservancy, is planning to show families how to change their diets by growing their own food.

Later this month the ribbon will be cut on a community garden with places for 110 families to plant and harvest fruits and vegetables. The Conservancy, a non profit dedicated to improving the health of families, helped secure funding through the Los Angeles County agency First Five, which uses tobacco taxes to support efforts aimed at helping children through age 5 get a better start in life.

Community gardens are not new. There are more than 90 in Los Angeles County alone. But few will have the kind of support that the new Pasadena garden will enjoy, with the aim of starting to turn around the health of an underserved area:

–The Conservancy’s $100,000 grant to the Villa-Parke Community Garden will pay for a Master Gardener and a nutritionist and supplies for the first five years, and the Conservancy will staff the garden as volunteers.

–A landscape architect was brought in to design the project, which consists of 30 plots on the roof of the center along with another 80-plus spots on the ground nearby. Instruction, seeds, and communal tools will all be available.

–The officials planning to attend the April 26 opening include Bruce Saito, Chief of the L.A. Conservation Corps, Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard and L.A. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich.

Families are already lining up for spots in the 4 by 8 foot raised beds. The city is hoping the Villa Parke example will result in more gardens at parks and recreation centers in the predominately African American and Latino neighborhood. The stakes are high: about 30% of Pasadena’s African American and Latino adults are obese, compared with just 17% of whites, according to Conservancy president Eileen Read.

Mercy Santoro, Pasadena’s Director of Human Services and Recreation, said “what makes this garden so unique is having the local support, leadership and vision by the Pasadena Garden Conservancy.  This partnership allows the real focus for staff and partners to be on cultivating the gardens, educating families and integrating the nutritional outcomes associated with the garden with other health and wellness programs offered at Villa-Parke.”
In the end, the overall investment per vegetable is likely to be higher than what can be found in the bins at a supermarket.  The families will be charged only $3 a month to rent their plots, said Rozanne Adanto, supervisor at Villa-Parke.

But community gardens, especially in an area like this one where fresh foods are hard to find, are proving to be an important tool in the fight to keep children from becoming obese and diabetic, Walsh said. In addition to the produce, they encourage physical activity and will likely help reduce blood pressure.

Pasadena, its civic-minded volunteers, and County organizations have set the table and plan to see the project through. The next phase will show whether families who secure plots will make the long-term commitment to their gardens and their health.

Source: City of Pasadena Department of Health

Senior Writer Emily Bazar is based in our Sacramento office, where she covers health care policy in California, with a focus on Obamacare implementation, Medi-Cal budget cuts, children’s dental care and variation in the use of medical treatments. Bazar also writes a biweekly column called “Ask Emily,” which answers readers’ questions about the Affordable Care Act. Her articles are published in newspapers and websites across the state, including The San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Daily News, The Sacramento Bee and The San Jose Mercury News. She also regularly appears on KQED’s Forum, Capital Public Radio’s Insight, KPCC, Valley Public Radio and other on-air programs to discuss health care. Her reporting on Medi-Cal’s troubled children’s dental program was awarded the 2011 California Journalism Award for Special Feature/Enterprise Reporting. Prior to joining the Center for Health Reporting, Bazar was a national reporter for USA TODAY, where she covered immigration, the effects of the economic recession and other topics. Her first journalism job was at The Sacramento Bee. Over nine years, her beats included transportation, higher education, California politics, the energy crisis and immigration. Bazar graduated from Stanford University. Contact email: ebazar@usc.edu office: 916-637-8966

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