November 28, 2022

taj-mahal-restaurant

Food loaded for bear

For the founder of San Diego nonprofit Healthy Day Partners, increasing food equity is priority No. 1

The food justice work being done by local nonprofit Healthy Day Partners started by looking at a hyperlocal version of the issue — other kids who went to school with the founder’s son didn’t have the same access to healthy snacks.

“I noticed a lot of kids didn’t have food during recess, and I realized very quickly that they couldn’t afford it, so my co-founder and I … very quietly, supplied organic, healthy snacks in the classroom. It grew into really diving deep into school gardens and creating a 1-acre educational farm at the school,” says Mim Michelove, founder of Healthy Day Partners, an Encinitas-based nonprofit providing education and resources on starting and sustaining home and school gardens, and reducing food insecurity.

The program continued to grow. It gained state and national recognition for improving health and wellness in schools and providing environmental education. In addition to growing food for the school district and local food pantries, it expanded to 10 acres, with Michelove serving as director of the Encinitas Union School District’s Farm Lab, educating students and the surrounding community, working on environmental issues, and designing school gardens. That eventually led to the formation of Healthy Day Partners as it functions today.

“After three years, I realized that I really loved what I was doing, but I wanted to focus on less affluent communities,” she says. “That’s when we relaunched Healthy Day Partners with a very personal focus for me, which was to try to reduce food insecurity and increase education and physical health in underserved communities.”

Michelove, who lives in Encinitas, took some time to talk about the organization’s food justice work and the passion she has for increasing equity in our food system. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For a longer version of this conversation, visit sandiegouniontribune.com/sdut-lisa-deaderick-staff.html.)

Q: What’s informed the way you approach the kind of food equity work you’re doing through Healthy Day Partners?

A: My philosophical perspective is that, particularly with the pandemic and Black Lives Matter, we noticed and talked about a broken food system, but it’s more than a broken food system. It is a classist system, it’s a racist system, and when I go to the grocery store in my neighborhood, it is completely wrapped in White privilege. For me, knowing that I have this ability to feed my family and my child healthy food whenever I want (and I also grow my own food, so it makes it really easy to do that), I think: “Well, everybody should be able to do this for their families. Everybody should have the same access.” When you look just around the corner, though, there are all of these pockets around us that don’t have the same access, and you can clearly see that people are hungry and that there’s food insecurity. There’s also this food system that has plenty of food and wastes it, throws it away, and doesn’t have the distribution system that is needed to feed everyone equally. It upsets me so much that I need to do something about it.

Q: There are numerous reports and studies about food insecurity and hunger — in San Diego County, as well as the state and the nation — including reporting from the San Diego Hunger Coalition that estimates one in three San Diegans are unable to provide enough nutritious meals for themselves/their families, as of March 2021 (which is up from one in four San Diegans in 2019). Can you talk a bit about your Homegrown Hunger Relief program and what kind of role it plays in addressing this issue of local food insecurity?

A: Those are unacceptable numbers, especially knowing that we’re in San Diego, and we have year-round growing. We have the ability, I believe, to change a lot of these local food systems. Our Homegrown Hunger Relief program really started with our Grab & Grow Garden program. As soon as (the COVID-19 pandemic) lockdown was announced, that was a time when a lot of grocery store shelves were empty and a lot of people were nervous about the food system and whether there was going to be access to food. My friend, Nan Sterman, and I were talking about what we could do. We both have expertise in gardening and growing food, so within three weeks, we put together the Grab & Grow Gardens program. We put together that program to help food insecure folks learn how to grow their own food. It’s more than just giving out emergency food, which is obviously critical, but it’s also empowering people with a life skill to grow their own healthy food, even if they don’t have land. They can grow it in a bucket, they can grow it in another container, and they are able to access seasonal and healthy food without relying on charities.

We were able to immediately get our garden kits into hunger relief agencies throughout San Diego County and at affordable housing units. We were getting feedback that it was an intergenerational activity, it gave people something to do during COVID, but I thought the food pantry lines were still too long and people were still having a hard time getting fresh food. What about empowering the home gardener who’s already growing food to take their excess bounty and donate it? We came up with a way for them to donate it and for us to collect it and get it directly to local food pantries, which is our Homegrown Hunger Relief program. We have donation stations around Encinitas and Carlsbad, and we really want to expand beyond that. I hope it’s helping people see that there’s a way for them to donate their excess bounty, and it’s a way for us to think about the health of our communities one garden at a time, one community at a time. It sounds so small, but it can add up to something that is truly life-changing.

We want to empower more people, whatever their ZIP code or income level, to grow their own food. We want to encourage to take that excess zucchini this season, or extra citrus in the winter, and really think about others and where it can be most impactful and powerful in changing our communities. It’s a neighbor-helping-neighbor situation where we have enough food; what we don’t have right now is the right distribution system. If everybody were to participate in a system like this, we could end hunger in our communities. Looking at that is a powerful way of looking at growing a home garden and being able to nourish your neighbors.

Q: In the report titled “The State of Nutrition Security in San Diego County: Before, during and beyond the COVID-19 crisis,” released by the San Diego Hunger Coalition in October 2021, a map illustrating the ZIP codes with the greatest numbers of food insecure people in the county shows areas including Otay Mesa, Chula Vista, National City, Lemon Grove and El Cajon. With the understanding that people of color and those with lower incomes are disproportionately food insecure, can you talk about what Healthy Day Partners is doing in service to those communities, specifically?

A: With Grab & Grow Gardens, we were very careful to partner with hunger agencies that are targeting those with the lowest income, the most food insecure, the hardest hit by COVID. Those who are the most disproportionately affected by every level of inequality. I really hope to get Homegrown Hunger Relief further south than where we are currently piloting the program.

We were very lucky to receive a (U.S. Department of Agriculture) Farm to School grant for working with National School District in National City. We were able to revitalize all of their school gardens. Before the grant, we donated a couple of gardens and helped build a couple of gardens to be sure that every student has equal access to garden education. Once we received the grant, we partnered with Olivewood Gardens & Learning Center because they’re in National City and they are also garden and nutrition experts with a great working relationship with National School District. A new program being piloted at all of the schools is staffing garden educators and garden maintenance as separate, paid positions as a result of the grant. With Olivewood, we were able to model what we think is an ideal garden, outdoor, science-based education program. We could talk about National City as a food desert and say, “Here you go, here’s some fresh zucchini, green beans and fennel,” but we need to educate people on how to make these changes to be healthier and how to use different foods to make healthier versions of traditional, cultural meals. Olivewood is great at doing that in National City, so they’re perfect partners for us.

My philosophy is that education and food are two of the ways that we show our children how much we value them, so we’re really happy to support National School District. Having high-quality garden education and growing healthy food is really important. The kids get to see that and whatever is in the cafeteria, we want to have that growing in their school garden so they can really see where their food comes from.

Q: Why is this kind of food justice work — closing this gap in access to healthier foods — important to you?

A: This whole career of mine was inspired by having a child. I just can’t help it that, if my child has access to healthy food that I’m providing for him, I think that every one of his peers should have access to that same quality of food. When I think about it, I get very emotional about that area of inequality because it was relatively new for me to realize that, when my son went into public school, that not everybody has the same access to healthy food. I know that sounds really ignorant, but it just didn’t have the same impact. I’m a big believer in the understanding that if I have access to something, everyone should have access to it.

I think, for a lot of us, it’s time for some self-reflection and taking responsibility to fix what’s broken that our society and country needs to address. For me, this is something I can help with because I have an area of expertise in growing food and I see the impact of growing food, having and increasing local food supplies, and having private and public spaces offering access to healthy food in order to eliminate food insecurity. I think we shouldn’t just be looking at our backyards to grow food, but our front lawns, side lawns, balconies and public parks. We have a lot of answers, they’re kind of simple, and they add up to having a real impact, so I hope that more people will adopt growing food as close to their plates as possible.