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Community Gardens Target Obesity and Diabetes Epidemic


Community gardens are popping up across the nation from urban rooftops to open fields next to churches in Watsonville.

On a clear and sunny Saturday, dozens of people work in the community garden next to All Saints Episcopal Church in Watsonville. They’re pulling weeds, digging trenches for irrigation, and planting seeds. This half-acre garden has enough plots for 50 families. “It’s a big day. It’s the biggest day of the year really when most people begin the projects to make it all work,” said Ana Rasmussen. The lifelong social worker turned sustainable farmer is the founder of Mesa Verde Gardens.

Mesa Verde runs this and two other community gardens in Watsonville. The goal is to get fresh fruits and vegetables into the hands of people who otherwise couldn’t afford them. “Most people who would be coming to this garden they would not be able to purchase organic foods. So these are pesticide free gardens. Everyone grows the vegetables and fruits that they like, and it just brings much more produce into their house,” said Rasmussen. All the gardens are located next to churches because that’s where Rasmussen found open space. Mesa Verde leases the land. Then community gardeners rent the plots for $5.00 a month. “The one overarching requirement is that they need to have children with whom they’ll share the food. That can be grandchildren or nieces and nephews,” said Rasmussen.

Mesa Verde has also has a goal of reducing diabetes and obesity among local children. It’s a goal shared by one of Mesa Verde’s largest supporters, the Pajaro Valley Community Health Trust. “The prevalence of diabetes and obesity in our community is nearly epidemic,” said Kathleen King, CEO of th Pajaro Valley Community Health Trust.  King calls the gardens a full immersion approach to addressing the risk factors for diabetes. “Meaning that when you involve young children, which she does and families in planting and growing and eating their own vegetables you have an opportunity in building an awareness for those children that hopefully will lead those children to a lifetime of making healthy eating choices,” said King. That’s what Angelica Ortega is trying to do. She says before the garden the only vegetables her two sons would eat were tomatoes and lettuce. Now they eat everthing from beets to zucchini. She says one of her sons is also getting involved. “He was excited when it showed the first vegetable that he planted,” said Ortega.

Measuring the success of reducing diabetes and obesity can be somewhat anecdotal. The Pajaro Valley Community Health Trust’s Kathleen King looks to another community garden her organization supported. “Where instead of having cupcakes and candy and the usual things for their Christmas celebration, the children made soup from the vegetables grown in their garden. And they were very excited about eating kale and having soup that they have grown themselves. So with children that young there’s really an opportunity, a teaching moment if you will. You can teach them where food comes from, that it’s delicious, and they can do very interesting and healthy things with it,” said King. She adds it could take a generation to truly measure the long term effect of community gardens like this. Even if it does, chances are you will find Ana Rasmussen right here. “Someone asked me recently if I was retired, and I said, no, but if I was this is what I’d do,” said Rasmussen.

Click here to learn more about Mesa Verde Gardens.