Tackling Food Deserts Through Community Resilience

Written by Brian Banh

Farm Manager Clifton Maxwell on his way to compost

Food desertification has been a chronic issue widespread across the nation. For those new to the concept, a simple Google search defines it as “an urban area in which it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food.” The social, economic, and political conditions that make affordable, nutritious foods inaccessible for communities directly impact its members’ health. Limited access to fresh and nutrient-dense foods in these areas are shown to be directly linked to health issues like obesity, and poor communities of color are especially impacted by this problem. These food deserts are usually dominated by fast-food chains and liquor stores that carry pre-packaged foods and little to no fresh produce, and they perpetuate unhealthy food consumption for hundreds of thousands of people in the US today. With a problem like this, many have risen to the cause to find solutions to alleviate the food insecurity in these areas: one just so happens to reside in my hometown city of Stockton.

Nestled in South Stockton’s industrial sector lies a bountiful, productive farm space: Boggs Tract Community Farm. This farm is one of several projects created and maintained by the non-profit organization PUENTES: Promotores Unidas Para La Educación Nacional Tecnologías Sostenibles. According to their website, their mission is to foster “...social entrepreneurship, education and motivation of at-risk communities to break the cycles of food insecurity and food injustice surrounding the inaccessibility of healthy foods.” The majority of South Stockton has been labeled as a food desert, so the fruition of Boggs Tract Community Farm has been critical for the community to address this rampant issue.

Since the organization’s inception in 2009, it has grown immensely with the support of local community members and the city. This farm in particular has grown to support a space of 30 plot holders to feed their families who would normally have their nutritional needs supplemented by pre-packaged foods. On top of being able to provide families with rich organic produce and allowing the freedom to plant what plot holders deem necessary, the PUENTES operation is adamant to foster the skill set for the community to learn how to grow foods properly and offers cooking workshops to help prepare the foods. Overall, they are providing the invaluable education needed to live self-sufficiently and sustainably.

The community garden isn’t the only program operating on the 7-acre farm. There is a garden classroom catered to the nearby elementary school students to learn about nutrition and how to grow foods. There is a chicken coop currently housing 100+ chickens. There is a sapling nursery to disperse oak trees throughout Stockton through their Urban Forestry Project. Finally, there is a beekeeping station with several beehives buzzing with activity!

The saliency of food deserts all through the nation hits poor, vulnerable communities the hardest, but where the government fails, the community is able to uplift themselves. The creation of PUENTES and later Boggs Tract Community Farm is a prime example of the community coming together to make big things happen. They provide the community with fresh produce while promoting education to live a healthy lifestyle and to live sustainably and self-sufficiently. PUENTES’s many operations have impacted over 1000+ families and have provided those with a hand in the farm an oasis in this food desert.

Questions and Answers:

PUENTES Executive Director Kenda Templeton standing amidst flourishing sunflowers.

I had the opportunity to talk with Kenda Templeton, the executive director of PUENTES, to learn in detail her experience with PUENTES, current projects, and other topics. Attached below is our conversation. Also, if you would like to learn more about the amazing work PUENTES is doing or want to donate to their cause, you can find more information on their website HERE.

1.) Question: What is your name and title, and how/why did you become involved with this organization?

Answer: My name is Kenda Templeton, and I’m the Executive Director of PUENTES. I graduated college in 2014 and knew that I wanted to take a year off before I went to grad school, so I came and volunteered here and haven’t left since. I became Deputy Director a few years ago and have been Executive Director for two years now, and I absolutely love it! The one thing about this place is that it is a community. It's centered around community and creates a space where people can sort of do what they want to do and congregate in this area to discuss things whether it be social, plant-related, etc. Also, because we do have such a diverse group of plotholders it's also a wonderful opportunity a lot of times to try some new foods from different cultures that I didn't even know existed!

2.) Question: Could you tell me more about how the farm started?

Answer: In 2009, Jeremy Terhune came back from his service in the Peace Corps in Panama. He’s originally from Stockton and really thought there's no reason why he couldn't do some of the work he did in Panama here. He knew bringing what he learned abroad would be very beneficial to Stockton because there's a lot of people that live in urban environments who don't have access to land or have the skill set to support sustainable development. So a garden was started for the community that would have minimal risk and minimal cost, where people come to test new recipes with fresh ingredients, feed their families, or just enjoy coming out and being a part of the day’s activities. We have grown considerably since then where Jeremy started with about $6000 in private donations; now we're about a half-million dollar operation.

3.) Question: Can you tell me a little about the work and program(s) currently running?

Answer: So the Boggs Tract Community Garden was the impetus of the entire organization, but now we have our Urban Farming Program where we’re replacing the trees around the city. We have our classroom garden where we do a lot of outreach to the office head of Stockton Unified School District to get kids out here that otherwise don’t see this space normally or understand how easy it is to grow high-nutrient foods inexpensively.

Peaches from the fruit orchard ready to be picked!

4.) Question: How has COVID-19 affected the farm?

Answer: The biggest reaction that we've had with COVID-19 is that we have been donating a lot more produce to organizations, which is not our normal activity because we are more focused on educating people. We normally hold workshops on a regular basis free of charge so people could come to learn skills like cooking, companion planting, and tree propagation, but they had to be canceled because of the risk of people gathering.

The other thing that has really impacted us is in the spring after everything has been wet and the weather gets warm, everything just becomes overgrown quite quickly. We usually have a number of volunteer groups that come to help tackle this overgrowth starting about March and all through June, but those ended up having to be canceled as well. It does impact our revenue as well. We have activities that have donations set up depending on the group size and what activity we’ll be doing. So it’s impacted us both financially and in our volunteer capacity. And there have been so many canceled events, which has been so disappointing knowing that this could be the new normal.

5.) Question: Prior to COVID-19, what were the bigger projects you were working on at the farm?

For our Urban Forestry project, we were preparing to have about 600 trees planted all around Stockton. Those were built around community events. So what we would do is get people together and have volunteers come out, show them what we're doing, why we're doing it, and how it's affecting the environment. Then they would disperse and plant a tree, and that helps people take a little ownership and have a little responsibility for this act. There’s also a sense of pride that comes from driving past the trees after several years and being able to say “Hey I planted that!” We haven’t been able to do that because of the close quarters that come with information sessions. We also planned on collaborating with different summer groups to work in our classroom garden, but COVID-19 put a pause on that as well.

6.) Question: What exactly are food deserts?

Answer: So there are different criterias depending on whether you are urban or rural. Basically, if the desert is an area that is difficult to access fresh fruit and vegetables, you’re in a food desert. Determining a food desert is identified by how close you live to a full-service grocery store. I want to say it's a half-mile in an urban area and 5-7 miles in a rural area. Boggs Tract Community Farm is located right in a food desert: there is one liquor store and a small restaurant, to the best of my knowledge, in this area that has a lot of pre-packaged foods but nothing fresh. Also, lack of access doesn't always mean how close a person is to the nearest full-service grocery store, you also have to consider whether or not it's culturally appropriate or if it's financially viable for the members of these communities to access.

Snippet of some of the Community Garden plots!

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