Growing Hope: Belinda Ramírez on the power of community gardens, and reclaiming food sovereignty in Southeastern San Diego

 
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Belinda is an easygoing presence in Project New Village’s Mount Hope Community Garden, a collection of forty lively beds and burgeoning plots on Market Street between the 15 and 805 freeways.

“Let me water the babies before we get started,” she says, lovingly angling a watering can over a neat tray of seedlings. She then tours me around the garden, pointing out diverse fruits and vegetables and excitedly showing off new flower buds like a proud parent. It’s obvious she’s found her calling among the plants.

“The cool thing about urban ag is that it allows you to escape the system a little bit—you’re taking matters into your own hands by growing your own food,” Belinda says. “We forget how much corporations and exclusive power structures determine what we eat.”

The community garden and Project New Village exist in a part of San Diego County that is rarely seen, heard or talked about when it comes to food. Mt. Hope is a working class neighborhood that has been called a ‘food desert,’ where 38% of families live below the federal poverty line. There’s chronic illness here, likely caused by diet, and for those who don’t live in the neighborhood, it’s easy to survey the area, hang our heads in pity and say, “This is just the way things have always been in Mt. Hope.”

But Belinda is emphatic that none of this is right or true. Things have not always been this way: ‘Food desert’ is a generalized and passive term that ignores decades of systemic, intentional racism, and with more and more community members coming out each day to garden at the thriving Mt. Hope Community Garden—not to mention an ambitious vision for turning the neighborhood into a “Good Food District”—things are bound to change. Thanks, in large part, to the garden’s ability to connect residents back to the land and to each other, to encourage them to realize their right to sovereignty in their food decisions and health, and to give them something to cultivate and care for.

Even as she regards her work as a small act of rebellion in the face of a faulty system that has let communities like hers down, Belinda has a calm peacefulness about her, and laughter and joy come to her easily. Her power is quiet and meditative, and throughout our interview she offers deep reflection on food justice, goals and challenges with urban agriculture, and the occasional tension between her worlds of academia and grassroots community engagement.

We hope you enjoy the full interview.


I want to begin by asking this question of what it means to grow food in the twenty-first century. What do you think about? What does it mean to you?

To me, growing food comes down to a few simple things: Taking care of the world we live in, knowing where our food comes from, and in my role in the Mt. Hope neighborhood and Southeastern San Diego, protecting normal people from corporate interests—particularly people of color.

Tell me about the journey that led you to urban agriculture, to volunteering and eventually working as the Community Garden Manager at Project New Village and Mt. Hope.

I’m currently a PhD student at UCSD studying anthropology. Previously, my research for my Master’s thesis had to do with agrarian politics, and it took me to the Amazon to study Quichua subsistence farming communities. This was my first foray into learning about the everyday realities of farming, about people who farm, and about people who produce food each day for themselves and to sell at market. There, everyone has a garden plot—it’s a way of life and part of their identity as being forest-dwelling people. As an aside, I want to note that there are issues with casting this responsibility solely upon indigenous folks to always be the stewards of the Earth.

Being part of academia, however, led me to feel this uneasiness and discomfort with the role I was playing, and the idea of being this researcher going into an “exotic” or “foreign” land, learning from all the brown folks and bringing it back to the white folks of the academy. I started feeling a lot of ethical issues with my research, and as the fieldwork developed, I also realized I didn’t want to spend so much time far away from my family.

I actually came close to leaving the program, but ultimately decided to stay. I knew I had to change something about my project to feel like I could ethically stand behind it. I wanted to continue doing food-related work, but I decided to bring the research home, to a place and community where I lived. Why not turn my research lens to myself, to where I live? Why not consider myself “the other”? This eventually brought me to work with Diane Moss at Project New Village as a volunteer at the Mt. Hope Community Garden and the markets.

At around the same time that I started volunteering, I went through a major life upheaval involving getting divorced and coming out. Through all this change, and while feeling like my life was falling apart, I realized I had one simple, reliable constant: I could still grow beets. The garden was always there for me to lose myself in the therapy of growing and caring for plants. I could still be successful at something. When an opportunity opened up for a Community Garden Manager, I jumped at the chance.

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What are the unique challenges in the Mt. Hope neighborhood? What are the gaps in social and economic resources that have prevented residents here from accessing good food?

Some very real events transpired, and practices like redlining were adopted that have prevented Mt. Hope from accessing good food for decades. If you look at maps of the region from the 1940s and 1950s, certain neighborhoods and areas were sectioned off specifically for people of color and poor people to live—neighborhoods and areas that were intentionally not invested in. Discrimination in banking, lending, social services was another tangible way that people were excluded. The poverty that exists today is a vestige of racial and ethnic segregation over decades.

A lot of the reasons for poor food in the Southeastern San Diego area are historical. The precedent was set back then, which has allowed the perpetuation of discriminatory practices to continue.

It’s out of a critical need for good food that Project New Village has developed its vision for a “Good Food District.” Can you tell us more about that?

Yes. The Good Food District is an aspirational, community-owned vision for this specific neighborhood, running from the 15 to the 805 freeways on Market Street. There have also been talks to expand the envisioned region to include Lemon Grove, Paradise Hills, National City and other adjacent neighborhoods. This whole Southeastern region has a unique identity and history in relation to the rest of San Diego County, so the geographical “place-based” model—an emphasis on investing directly in our residents, directly into our local economies rather than outside them—is very important.

Part of the Good Food District vision is combating the idea that this area is a “food desert.” First of all, as one of my heroes, Leah Penniman of Farming While Black and Soul Fire Farm has written, “food desert” implies a natural ecosystem; it doesn’t acknowledge that this is a human-created system of segregation. Second of all, this is a vibrant community. Many people outside of this area don’t know that Southeast San Diego is a hub for many African American businesses and organizations. It’s a big place for Black food spaces—barbecues, for example. The Black Sabbath Motorcycle Club was founded right here across the street. Yes, there is poverty and chronic illness today, but the community needs to recognize their right and ability to claim sovereignty of their food and health.

The vision includes a pretty detailed plan for a “Good Food Hub,” which will take the space of the community garden where it currently sits. The Good Food Hub will basically be a building that includes low-income senior housing, a community kitchen to encourage food entrepreneurship, a market stocked with locally grown food, and prepared foods from culturally appropriate food vendors. The Project New Village office will also be here, as well as places for holistic healing and a small garden. The current community garden will be moved to another nearby site to make way for this Hub.

You’ve shared that you don’t have a family history or technical background in growing food or farming. What resources have you turned to for knowledge, assistance and inspiration?

Again I’ll name Leah Penniman and her book Farming While Black. Leah’s book is a practical guide that really opened my mind to how a person of color might approach farming differently. One of the powerful things she writes about is using the phrase “food apartheid” instead of “food desert” or “food swamp.” This helps convey that it is intentional, it’s a result of people not investing in the area, it’s not by chance. It calls people out.

I’ve also followed the work of Dr. Gale Meyers and Dr. Monica White for a long time, and have watched great documentaries about farming, food and cooking.

For technical assistance, when I first started volunteering at the community garden I also turned to Wild Willow Farm where I took their Farming 101 course and worked as an intern for two seasons. Other great resources for me have been the National Young Farmers Coalition, Stepheni Norton’s Business of Farming course at the South San Diego Small Business Development Center, and many classes on farming and gardening offered by the vibrant agriculture and sustainability communities in San Diego.

Becoming a farmer or food producer has never been the most straight and direct path. Have you ever felt shut down, or on the verge of giving up?

I have. I was at an academic conference when I confided to a colleague that I wanted to farm. She said in surprise, “With a PhD?” That was upsetting. It was frustrating to be confronted with the fact that people feel like farming shouldn’t be a thing to aspire to. That’s the most challenging aspect—dealing with people. Dealing with different personalities and conversation types is much harder than the actual everyday challenges in the garden or on the farm. But that’s the point of community—to come together and work out these tough conversations and knee-jerk reactions.

In terms of actual farming, I enjoy it so much. It’s work that I enjoy enormously, even the physical labor is refreshing. But as I think about the path ahead I do have some hesitation. I’m extremely lucky to have this paid position right now through Project New Village, but I know that running a larger operation involves a lot of risk.

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Many “new and beginning” farmers and “young producers” are flowing into San Diego County with a lot of passion. And yet, to meet the needs of a sustainable food system, we need more. What are the barriers that need to be dismantled to get more young people into agriculture and farming?

At Mt. Hope Community Garden, we have a local homeschool group of children who regularly visit and all absolutely love the garden. I think the challenge is capturing that natural desire to grow things or to be connected with the Earth, and keeping it strong until kids are individuating—when they are making education and career choices, moving away from family, making their first big life decisions. There is so much pressure from family and society to make a livelihood in a few certain, accepted ways. Culturally and financially, there are a lot of barriers that exclude farming from those ways.

Somewhere between the childhood and individuating phases, we lose people. For example, we had a group of students join us from Lincoln High School, which serves a nearby low-income area. Though they had a good time at the garden, I knew something was off. The instructor shared with me later that the students don’t see farming as a legitimate career, especially if it’s not going to make you any money. That’s the barrier we need to dismantle, with assurance and support from public agencies that proves they take the enormous responsibility of feeding citizens seriously.

How can people who are in positions of privilege really recognize to privilege and honor the power of folks in different positions?

I’m actually someone who comes from a position of enormous privilege, being in a PhD program. There’s something about coming out to do the real work, the physical labor. Especially if physical labor isn’t part of your everyday life, try it out for a few hours! It can yield some real perspective and immediate empathy-building. Step into someone else’s shoes, and then communicate the learnings. Conversations and experiences on a person-to-person level are so powerful.

This is true for both sides. It’s just as easy to characterize and stereotype the “privileged.” We need empathy-building on both sides.

What are you growing in the garden now? Any growing philosophies you’d like to share with us?

In the community garden we currently have everything from corn to artichokes to zucchini to pomegranates to figs to Asian pears. I’m working on starting black-eyed peas. I guess my growing philosophy starts with seeing myself in a contract with the Earth. If you take care of certain things, the Earth will produce. If you create a good environment with minerals, water, fungi to come through and feed the roots, the land will pay you back tenfold. I see it happening all the time. Sometimes I see myself fail at that contract, and I know what I need to do to become a better provider. “Giving something a little bit of love” is what I call my growing philosophy. It’s as simple as that.

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Thank you, Belinda, for the wonderful conversation! To find out more about Project New Village and Mount Hope Community Garden, visit their website. Project New Village also operates the People’s Produce Night Market every Tuesday night from 5-8pm at 5010 Market Street, and participates in the Lemon Grove Farmers Market every Thursday from 3-7pm.