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Cultivating Good Health

An East Side community garden shows that change is best served fresh

M.R. Brown
San Antonio Magazine
February 2013

east side picJust a few short years ago Ivan Bermejo would not have been anybody’s poster boy for healthy eating. Now a 17-year-old student at Edison High School, Bermejo survived primarily on a fast food diet, hitting up McDonald’s regularly for its menu of Big Macs, fries and sodas. And like a lot of residents of San Antonio’s East Side, where nearly 30 percent of families live in poverty—double the national average—Bermejo’s nutritional choices were more the result of economic necessity, not choice. “My mom had a job, and it was a very minimum wage job, so we didn’t have a lot of money. My dad worked well, but not well enough that we could afford all the bills and eat so healthy,” he says.

Yet despite not having any steady exposure to, or appreciation for, a diet chock full of fresh fruits and vegetables, it is Bermejo who acts as a tour guide on a recent trip through an East Side cornucopia that he now helps maintain. Through a wrought-iron gate separating the neon lit street from a green spat of land, Bermejo meanders down a winding pathway of yellowed broken rubble. Initially shy, the stocky teenager gets increasingly animated while pointing out the themed plots that make up the garden, including native succulents, healing herbs of lemon balm and staples of lettuce and tomatoes. There are even old toilets around the perimeter of the garden that have been transformed into elevated flowerbeds bursting with fragrant aloe plants.

Bermejo is just one of hundreds of East Side residents who maintain the unassuming garden of the Roots of Change Cooperativa, a sustainability initiative of the Southwest Workers Union, a 3,500-member group that has long advocated for issues of economic and environmental justice primarily for low-income people of color. Roots of Change got its start in 2006, in the wake of a successful effort to stop the installation of two large diesel fuel tanks not far from Sam Houston High School. After educating the community about the health hazards of diesel storage tanks and mobilizing it to both stop this specific proposal and change zoning to permanently remove the threat, the union realized it wasn’t offering a productive alternative use for the land.

Led by Diana Lopez, who is coordinator of environmental justice at the Southwest Workers Union, people like Bermejo canvassed the neighborhood about potential uses and learned that the poorest areas of the city had the least access to fresh produce. Lopez immediately saw an opportunity to use the Roots of Change garden as both an education tool about the importance of a healthy diet and, of course, to drive immediate and tangible change. On one level, this has meant simply getting the produce grown in the garden to people in the community who need it—a good first step in a city where the adult obesity rate is north of 30 percent. To do this, the co-op gives harvested food to the commeast side tomato picunity volunteers who plant the seeds and pull the weeds at the garden. Lopez also is hoping to increase access to locally grown foods in area grocery stores.

She has much bigger aspirations, still. There are now 14 total community gardens, including two at schools and one at a day care, and Lopez has her eyes focused on more outlets for her local harvest. “We have been able to grow double the amount that we have grown in the past three years,” she says. “The hope is to be able to work a lot more with restaurants.” Already, that effort is bearing fruit, now that Guadalupe Street Coffee has partnered with Roots of Change. Perhaps even more importantly, these urban farmers are now working with San Antonio Independent School District to bring more healthy options into cafeterias and salad bars.

Individual lives are also being transformed. Bermejo, who joined Roots of Change as a member of the youth leadership chapter, has given up burgers and become a vegan. Now fully aware of the benefits of eating healthy, he helps his family choose their produce, too. He has already begun looking at colleges where he can both retain the activist values instilled by the Roots of Change program and study medicine. “With this generation there are a lot of good people and hopefully they’ll be the ones that lead,” he says. “I have high hopes for this generation.” And good nutrition will be a big part of it.

 

This article appears in the February 2013 issue of San Antonio Magazine

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