Last Update: Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Fighting Obesity One Community Garden at a Time PDF Print E-mail
Written by Alex Garcia | Sun Contributing Writer   
Wednesday, 21 May 2014 22:59

Tony Cardenas & Fleipe Fuentes with Corpsmembers

Wendy Lynch and her two kids, Travis, 5, and Mbali, 2, pour water into their plot until it becomes “chocolate mud,” in the words of the youngster.

The radishes are bright red, the spinach is green and she’s especially proud of the smooth, round lettuce she’s grown. She’s just planted strawberries, and harvested onions and cabbage.

Both kids love to water the plants. “It's their favorite part,” their mom says.

Without realizing it, both kids are learning a valuable lesson in healthy living: that one should eat plenty of fruits and vegetables everyday and, at the same time, exercise as much as you can. In the heat of this particularly windy May day, the garden is a nice retreat although sweat comes profusely.

Tucked in the far corner of El Cariso Park in Sylmar, 39 plots are brimming with green, red and every other color in the natural environment. This is the El Cariso Mountain Garden, the first of its kind in the San Fernando Valley and part of the Little Green Fingers children's garden collaborative, which held its official grand opening on Saturday, May 17.

The children’s garden is designed especially for families like the Lynchs, with youngsters under the age of five, who are Sylmar residents.

"My father is a gardener, but I really didn’t understand how to garden,” Wendy said.

“We wanted to do something for ourselves," added the young mother, who happened onto the garden by pure chance, applied to the program and was given one of the plots to till. “I had no idea how to garden, but now it’s something we all come and do.

Wendy said she comes to the garden at least 3 or 4 times a week with her kids. They’ve already eaten plenty of healthy vegetables growing from their plot of earth, which she describes as a special treat.

“It’s really satisfying to eat something from your garden,” she said.

Addressing Obesity Epidemic

The Little Green Fingers garden initiative is made possible through a grant from First 5 LA. The initiative aims to help address the obesity epidemic among children in Los Angeles by providing fresh fruits and vegetables, along with support for gardening and nutrition education.

The project is spearheaded by the nonprofit Los Angeles Conservation Corps, the LA Neighborhood Land Trust, and a team of garden, nutrition and health experts.

Located atop the bluff-edge above the Pacoima Wash, the garden has 39 raised garden beds, fruit trees and play areas for young children, including a tricycle path and a playgroundstyle digging toy.

“We’ve taken an unused section of the park and turned it into a thriving garden for children and families to enjoy,” said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky who was present at the garden’s grand opening.

“It’s a great addition because while many residents already use the park for play and exercise, thanks to the garden they’ll now have an opportunity to pick up some locally-grown fruits and vegetables for a healthier lifestyle.”

“Providing funding for El Cariso Mountain Garden falls right in line with First 5 LA’s mission to improve the lives of children from birth to age five,” explained Jessica Monge, First 5 LA program officer.

“Unfortunately 1 in 5 children in Los Angeles County are either overweight or obese, so providing young children and their families a garden to grow their own healthy foods, as well as cooking and nutrition classes to teach them new ways to prepare what they grow, can help combat this problem.”

El Cariso Mountain Garden is the fourth garden to be completed by Little Green Fingers. Similar gardens are located in Koreatown, Athens and Lancaster.

Dr. Nicole Gatto of Loma Linda University is conducting an independent study with regular weight checks of the kids involved in the garden. The study is to learn if kids are healthier as a result of being involved with the garden, according to Reubin Aronin, spokesman for The Better World, Inc., another group involved with the garden project.

“The idea is that this can bring lifelong benefits and opportunities to find affordable and healthy ways to eat,” Aronin said.

Lona Seymour

Kid’s Garden Part Of Project

The Children’s Garden is part of the community garden with work that began last year when the area was simply a bunch of dry weeds overlooking the Pacoima Wash.

Aronin said it took about three months just to clear the brush before the landscaper, Dake Luna Consultants, could begin to design the garden. The result is three dozen harmonious 12x4 plots for gardeners and three community plots, including the children’s garden, where people can develop their green thumbs and grow a variety of plants.

Ben Herrera, a Sylmar resident and a chef at the Arts College of Design in Pasadena, happened upon the garden while walking in the Sylmar park. He was one of the first people to begin gardening there when it originally opened as a community garden in November of last year.

He’s grown basil, different kinds of chiles, rosemary, tomatoes, tomatillos and plenty of other herbs. Along the way, he’s rekindled some of the early lessons he learned in his native Mexico

“I grew up in a farm in Mexico, but I’ve been learning a lot about new plants,” said Herrera, who often shares the food he prepares from the produce he's grown with the other gardeners.

Alina Bokde, executive director for the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, noted how each person has taken ownership of their plot.

“The gardeners are off and running, and together have created a vision for the garden as not only a place to grow food, but also as an inviting community hub,” Bodke said.

Aronin seconded Bokde’s view.

“We're building community through this garden and the gardeners,” he said.

In total, about 150 people — at least half of them families with young children — are part of this new community of gardeners. Each family pays $5 a month to cover water costs. The garden provides them with equipment, seeds and even some small plants donated by the Sylmar High School gardening department.

The only limitations imposed on the gardeners are they can’t grow plants that can be used as drugs or plant trees that are taller than three feet. The gardeners collectively decide on the other rules and decisions for the garden, help to water each other’s plants, and share tips and know-how of what they’ve learned about gardening along the way.

As part of the support, gardeners receive classes from a Master Gardener every Saturday, as well as free cooking and nutrition classes.

The effort has already paid off. The facility was just awarded a $10,000 “Grow Your Garden” grant from the National Recreation and Parks Association.

Lona Seymour said working in the garden has rejuvenated her and given her a new lease on life.

For five years, she was sick and depressed, barely able to move and get out of bed. Now she's growing broccoli, lettuce, kale and onions, and moving capably through the plots, talking with her fellow gardeners Herrera and Mary Kovac, the first friends she she’s been able to make since moving to Sylmar from Long Beach.

“I never planted before. I didn’t know how hard it was to garden,” she said. But the plants are blooming and as Seymour describes, so is she.

“Over the last six months I’ve been able to walk again.”

Currently, all the gardening plots are taken and there is a waiting list. But you can still sign upto learn more about the benefits of gardening. For more information, call Juan Salas at (818) 770-5271 or visit