Window on the Ecology Center

Feeding Justice

by Rachel Aronowitz

Working as an intern at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market changed 24-year-old Heide Bruckner’s life. By the time Bruckner finished her stint at the Saturday market during the summer of 2006, she knew she wanted to keep working on issues of food justice and access to good food. “After interning with the Ecology Center, I realized food security work blends many of my interests in environment and social justice,” she says.

Following her internship, Bruckner returned to New York to complete her last year at Vassar College, where she majored in Environmental Studies. After graduation, she got a summer job at a dude ranch in Colorado. While working there, she came across a listing on COMFOOD, a community food security listserv: a one-year Americorps position at the International Rescue Committee (IRC). The IRC runs a continuing project—Food Security and Community Health—in San Diego, to increase access to fresh, affordable foods among San Diego’s refugee and low-income communities. Bruckner says she took a risk applying for the job—she’d never even been to San Diego—but she believed it would be a perfect way to get her feet wet. “I wanted to explore which aspects of food and farming work I would continue to pursue,” she says.

Bruckner now spends about half of her time in San Diego’s Crawford High School’s garden teaching students, primarily refugees from East Africa. The students grow food crops and herbs—leafy greens, root vegetables, tomatoes, squash, and semi-tropicals such as bananas, passion fruit, and sugar cane. As they garden, Bruckner teaches organic gardening principles: amending the soil with homegrown compost, starting and transplanting specific varieties, and harvesting. Part of the program is eating—cooking classes use the garden’s produce to create nutritious meals for the students.

The garden program is so popular that more than forty kids applied for only eight paid summer intern slots. Bruckner attributes its success to the fact that many of the kids remember growing food in their home country, and that the garden is a safe space where they don’t have to worry about being fluent in English. The school administration supports the program as an enriching activity for students, and more and more teachers are becoming interested.

“Many of the students involved in the program come from farming backgrounds and cultures that celebrate made-from-scratch foods,” says Bruckner. “They used to tend small gardens in Africa and feel a connection to growing their own food. Coming to the US is overwhelming. Imagine entering an American grocery store for the first time. Refugees may mistake orange soda for orange juice, have trouble finding culturally appropriate foods or food they can afford. All of this contributes to nutrition-related health problems.”

Gardening, says Bruckner, is the perfect antidote. “A garden—a place to grow foods they recognize and want to eat—can not only supplement a family’s limited food budget, but it can also be a powerful place to literally ‘root’ themselves in a new country.”

Bruckner also tries to help refugees deal with the myriad issues surrounding food and health. She says this work is the most challenging—sometimes it feels as if she’s entering another world. “Many of the refugees are not accustomed to using a calendar, coming to an appointment at a specified time, using a refrigerator, and have spent years living in refugee camps before being admitted to the US,” she says.

It’s challenging to find ways to make the training linguistically and culturally appropriate; for example, once Bruckner had to assure a family from Burma that they could use the kitchen countertop instead of the floor as a cutting board. She commonly has to explain to new refugees that when you have an appointment, you need to show up at exactly that time or you’ll lose access to the service being offered. The IRC helps refugee families, many from Somalia and Burma, for nine months before the majority of them transition to a regular welfare program.

Full of energy, Bruckner also works as part of a movement to develop farmers’ markets in low-income neighborhoods and ensure that markets accept EBT, or electronic benefit transfer, which allows people to pay for food at farmers’ markets with food stamps. “In the City Heights neighborhood where IRC works,” says Bruckner, “a market that takes EBT is essential. Making local, healthy food affordable to all through food stamps is a double-bounce benefit—the customers can use their EBT and the local farming community is supported as well.”

Bruckner aids farmers too. “We try and help backyard growers to start selling at the farmers’ market, but it is often a struggle,” she says, pointing out that they must go through an expensive permit process. “They must get inspected by the health department, go through several trainings, and fill out applications. This is a difficult endeavor when you have limited literacy skills.”

Bruckner feels optimistic and “hopeful as it becomes more and more clear that there is growing interest in the community” in farmers’ markets and in food justice issues. She has enjoyed learning and exercising new policy and organizing skills, but she has mixed feelings about living in the San Diego area. “It’s beautiful and very diverse here,” she says, “but unlike the Bay Area, there is hardly any public transportation. It’s difficult to bicycle because the neighborhoods are so spread out, disconnected, and separated by freeways. Many parts of the city seem completely unaware that other parts exist.”

After her Americorps year ends, Bruckner plans to travel. “I would love to learn more about different models of community development and agriculture,” she says. “I’d like to travel in Central America, learn more about farming and about people. Issues of food justice, hunger, and agriculture will always be a central part of my personal and professional journey.”

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