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People's Garden at Woodrow Wilson High School: Sowing seeds in a food desert

June 15, 2011 |  6:02 am

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Community Gardens Dispatch No. 34: People's Garden, El Sereno neighborhood, Los Angeles

The People’s Garden at Woodrow Wilson High School sits at the lowest part of the sprawling campus, the sloping lot bound by a chain-link fence and a low wall on a quiet street. For years it was an informal back entrance to the school, a weed-covered place to ditch, smoke or fight.

Then last year, the nonprofit Asian Pacific American Legal Center worked with a Wilson class to study access to fresh produce in El Sereno compared with other communities. One conclusion: El Sereno needed another community garden.

Peoples-garden-pulling-turnip.299 “It’s a physical solution to a research topic about food deserts,” said Kevin Armenta, the teacher who has spearheaded the project.

Like the Micheltorena School and Community Garden, the People’s Garden represents a community-building tool. A conference on nutrition last month at Wilson kicked off with a dawn prayer circle in the garden led by Guillermo Hernandez, an elder from the Purepecha Nation, indigenous people from Mexico who represent just one element of El Sereno's cultural heritage.

Students and teachers do most of the physical labor -- planting, watering, weeding. They get guidance from volunteers with the Native Green Gardener Program, an effort to teach professional landscaping crews to use sustainable practices. But all final decisions at the People's Garden are made by a collective of students, teachers and community members. The focus is on growing plants that reflect  the communities of El Sereno. That means the "three sisters" of Mesoamerica (corns, beans and squash) and medicinal plants from China, among others. Nine raised beds for vegetables and flowers are scattered around the lot. Fruit trees are planned for the upper slope.

The seeds that students started in paper cups last winter are now in the ground, but some of the seedlings are struggling, mainly from lack of water. The closest spigot is 450 feet away, up the slope. Three hoses have to be connected and snaked through bushes and eucalyptus trees. In May, vandals hopped the low wall and burned holes in the hoses two weekends in a row. That left the garden without water for more than a week.

“We’ve been promised a standpipe down here, but everything takes time,” said Rudy Duenas, a social studies teacher. It was his turn to water a few weeks ago, and given the struggle to hook up hoses in the brush, it took three hours to water the nine beds and the flowers around the border.

On a workday when dozens of student-gardeners turned up to weed and sweep, Native Green Gardener volunteer Jose Maradiaga showed a tiny cabbage moth worm he plucked off a broccoli leaf to student Fei Peng, pictured in white at the top of this post along with Kim Hang, in blue. The students chatted in Khmer as Maradiaga pointed out ladybugs, beneficial bugs that help to fend off pests. Peng burst into laughter when one of the insects piggy-backed another. (“They’re doing something inappropriate!” Peng exclaimed.)

A goal  is to have a presence at the El Sereno Farmers Market, where students could sell seedlings, ceramic pots and affordable organic produce, fresh from the neighborhood.

“The kids haven’t gotten to that stage yet, but they like the idea,” Armenta said, smiling. “The best classroom in the school is right here.”

Dispatches from community gardens appear here every Wednesday. For an easy way to follow future installments, join our Facebook page for gardening in the West.

RELATED:

Weighing corporate sponsorship at community gardens

Battling garden thieves

Growing food for food banks

-- Jeff Spurrier

 

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Teacher Kevin Armenta, center, talks with students Cesar Martinez, left, Ivy Kwong, Alejandra Silva, Jennifer Quach and Ruby Gutierrez.

 

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A stark mural provides a backdrop to the new People's Garden.

 

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Volunteer Galdino Sosa, right, points out pests to students Fei Peng, left, and Kim Hang.

 

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Members of the Purepecha Nation mix with students at the garden, which has been planted to reflect the various communities of the neighborhood.

 
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Kheng Hang, one of the students helping to plant and maintain the garden, takes a break during a recent workday.

Photos: Ann Summa

 

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