East Palo Alto’s deep history of self-reliance through agriculture reminds us that the cultivation of food strengthens people and fortifies communities. As a nonprofit organization founded and based in East Palo Alto, Collective Roots works to support the backyard gardeners and future food entrepreneurs of East Palo Alto in order to create more meaningful employment opportunities, grow a more viable local economy, and ultimately support a more just and equitable society.
We began in the year 2000 with a focus on garden-based science education, and since 2007, had expanded our work to create access to local, sustainable produce for the families that need it the most. By honoring our valley’s abundant past while celebrating a healthy sustainable future, we are building a food system that is robust, just, and proudly local.
- Maria and her chayote
We primarily focus our efforts in East Palo Alto, a small community of 2.5 square miles and 32,000 residents, one of the densest in the Bay Area with the lowest acreage of open space per capita. Although historically majority African-American, the city’s current demographics indicate 64.5% Latino, 16.7% African-American, and 8% Pacific Islander (2010 Census). A full 87% of students in the community qualify for free or reduced price school lunch. Enormous pressures are placed on the population financially and environmentally—from the toxins in the water and soil, to a 22% unemployment rate compared to the county average of 9%. Much of the population lives below the poverty line and as of 2010, EPA has more than 75% of San Mateo County’s home foreclosures and 1/3 of EPA property is estimated to be going into foreclosure.
- Bobby in his garden
It has become clear to us that, especially in disadvantaged areas, food produced both by and for the community is an essential component to a healthy local food system. Collective Roots programs are designed to help residents increase access to fresh, local food for themselves and their community by growing fruits and vegetables in home and community gardens in ways that provide healthy and home grown produce for their families; provide residents with economic opportunities to sell their excess produce to their neighbors; and preserve the environment. A strong system of local market gardens present a powerful tool for re-localizing the food system—generating local income, empowering residents, building community, and increasing community self-reliance.
- One-acre EPACS garden
Collective Roots had managed several school garden sites ranging in size from a handful of raised beds to our previous one-acre flagship garden at the East Palo Alto Charter School (EPACS). These sites are linked to kindergarten through 12th grade curriculum that meets California state science standards as well as California Department of Public Health health and nutrition curriculum that promotes school, community and state health/nutrition goals. The purpose of Collective Roots’ Garden-Based Learning Initiative was to create hands-on learning opportunities for students that build connections between the health of their bodies, their communities, and our planet. Healthy outdoor spaces are rare in East Palo Alto, and Collective Roots’ gardens provided safe places to learn and play. Empowered by both knowledge and pride of place, our students bring their families and friends to our gardens to pass on their enthusiasm for healthy living, fresh food, and environmental awareness.
Additionally, Collective Roots works with partner agencies to recruit students, both children and adults, to participate in cooking, nutrition and gardening courses that build skills necessary to prepare healthy meals and when possible, grow a portion of their own food. Our cooking and nutrition classes attempt to provide families with the knowledge and skills to help them create nutritious meals that are cheaper than fast food and nourish growing bodies.