Alfonso Aceves’ family has been living in East Los Angeles since 1950. Although he said much has improved in the once-violent area, one thing hasn’t.
“Walking into the local supermarket, the first thing you see is a table with all these sweet pastries, all kinds of breads and sweets,” Aceves said, describing his local Food For Less in East L.A. “And then wine racks and finally old fruits and vegetables.”
The importance of eating healthily has become personal for Aceves. Aceves’ grandmother spent much of her life with diabetes until she died from a heart attack. Stories like this one aren’t unusual. According to the Los Angeles Food Policy Council’s Food Snapshot report last year, more than 60 percent of low-income adults are obese in the City of Los Angeles.
“There’s just not many options unless you travel out,” Aceves said.
Los Angeles City Council members Felipe Fuentes (7th District) and Curren Price (9th District) are hoping to change that by bringing the farms to the people.
On Oct. 8, the two council members introduced a motion to encourage property owners to turn vacant lots and spaces into urban gardens.
The motion sets up the implementation of the California Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones Act (AB 551) that was passed in September of 2013. Under the act, California Cities can designate regions in which landowners who let unused land (between 0.1 to 3 acres in size) be turned into urban farms for at least five years can receive a property tax adjustment.
“I think it will have a huge impact in East L.A.,” said Anisha Hingorani, the network coordinator for the Los Angeles Food Policy Council. Hingorani believes that community gardens not only show children where their food comes from, but also provides a safe space for them to spend time and connect with their neighbors. “It’s not the silver bullet, but it gets the ball rolling.”
Where the 710 Freeway meets Cesar E. Chavez Blvd, in the unincorporated area of East L.A., one resident is building the foundation for his community’s first garden and thinks that East L.A. residents can do it on their own.
“We are 100 percent independent and self-sustained, no loans, no grants, no government takedowns, no nonprofits – and we want to keep it that way,” Omeatl Tonatiuh said. “We don’t want to answer to grants and go by what they say. We want to go by what we say.”
Tonatiuh, who grew up in East L.A., said that the community garden, called Zapotepec Agricultural School, will be more than just a place to grow plants ”” it will be a place for the community to reconnect with its indigenous traditions of gardening.
The Zapotepec Agricultural School is named after the two sapote trees that were on the land that was donated to them by local business owner Ofelia Esparza. At the first fundraiser for the Zapotepec Agricultural School on Oct. 10, Esparza recalled her memories of growing up on the land and then raising her family on what’s to become Zapotepec.
“Just past the stairway facing San Carlos Street, my mother used to grow corn and tomatoes” Esparza said. “We used to sit outside and play and sing canciones and listen to old people’s stories. It felt like Mexico.”
Before she let Tonatiuh develop her plot of land, Esparza had been considering converting the plot of land into a garden after her family moved as the property had fallen into disrepair and become a place for illicit activity such as drug use and gang initiations.
“My daughter and I have talked about having a garden there for years,” Esparza said.
Hingorani, who works for the Food Policy Council, is working on identifying possible property owners like Esparza and reaching out to them, but her hope is that the incentive of property tax adjustment will encourage landowners like Esparza to do something with their blighted land. The Food Policy Council estimated that over 8,600 plots of land are eligible and estimate that property owners can save up to $6,000 a year.
As Son Jarocho performers sang songs of activism onstage during the fundraiser, Tonatiuh shared his thoughts on the recent motion.
“There’s 26 square miles of vacant land in L.A.,” Tonatiuh said. “Empty lots, sidewalks, abandoned schools, everything owned by the city ”” look at all that land on the hill ”” all that’s enough to feed all of East L.A.”
According to the Agriculture and Natural Resource Center at the University of California, the County of Los Angeles was once the largest farm county in the U.S. Now, L.A. County is ranked 42nd in the country for food agriculture.