Jsun Arenas points to a bunch of small green leaves in the middle of a planter at West Oakland's Hoover Elementary School garden as a group of curious first and second graders leans in for a closer look.
"This is cilantro," he says. "Does anyone know what cilantro is? You might have seen it on tacos."
"Oh, yeah," says a pigtailed girl with a glint of recognition. "Like from Taco Bell!"
Given the prevalence of fast food in this low-income San Francisco Bay Area community, the connection this student makes is not surprising. (There's a Taco Bell about a mile from the schoolyard.) But in so many other respects, the organic garden Arenas is exploring with these children couldn't be further from the fast-food chain.
Arenas leads Hoover's after-school Garden Nutrition classes, one of several programs comprising the educational outreach of the People's Grocery, a nonprofit West Oakland organization that, in addition to providing the community with access to high-quality, affordable food, aims to educate children and adults about nutrition and what it calls "food justice," or "the human right to healthy food."
Arenas's lesson today also covers the basics of plant anatomy (with a writing and coloring worksheet) and an overview of compost. At one point, a live red wiggler worm is handed around the simultaneously squeamish and excited group of six- and seven-year-olds. "If you don't want to touch it," Arenas says, "just say 'Pass.'"
At the end of a forty-five-minute session, another student raises her hand. "Mr. Jsun! Do you live in the garden?"
"No," he says, "but a lot of people think that."
Here, Arenas seems to be walking a fine line, demystifying the garden without taking away its magic -- which, in a sense, is key to the People's Grocery's educational mission.
"Most of our education about food comes from fast food companies and ad companies, and I think people are a little bit confused about what's healthy," says Malaika Edwards, who cofounded the People's Grocery in 2002. "We're so disconnected from where food actually comes from. Part of closing that loop is to provide education as well as access. It's great to have the food there, but if people are thinking that organic is some weird thing that's going to hurt them, it doesn't do any good."
In addition to sponsoring the programs at Hoover, the People's Grocery runs several other urban gardens in North Oakland and West Oakland (its space at Ralph Bunche Middle School features a greenhouse) and a 2-acre farm elsewhere in Alameda County, all of which have regular workdays and workshops. The organization also offers nutritional-cooking classes for adults and summer jobs for low-income youth, which start with a weeklong Food and Justice Camp at a rotating venue outside the city. After the introductory camp, the four to five students in the summer program return home for a combination of classes and work, which includes staffing the Mobile Market, a brightly colored biodiesel truck that travels through West Oakland offering healthy, affordable food to residents.
A few years ago, Edwards says, some of the students in the summer program got inspired. "They came back from Food and Justice Camp and said, 'How come no one ever told us all this? We want to tell our peers.'"
And with that, another People's Grocery educational initiative was born: the Peer-2-Peer Program, a platform for students to educate fellow young people about nutrition, healthy eating, and equal access to good food. Through visits to secondary schools and community organizations, the Peer-2-Peer educators hope to provoke more kids into thinking about the source of their food and their own eating habits, and to connect those personal experiences to larger social phenomena surrounding food, nutrition, and food access.
Erik Crew, community outreach and education director at the People's Grocery, explains that in a community such as West Oakland, which has some forty liquor and convenience stores and only one real grocery store, instilling that kind of awareness in the city's youth is crucial to a more long-term change in the area's nutritional landscape. "When you ask kids what the number-one killer in West Oakland is," says Crew, "the common response is, 'Crime.' No one ever guesses the actual answer -- heart disease -- which links back directly to the community's lack of access to healthy food."
On the same afternoon Jsun Arenas was introducing organic cilantro to Hoover Elementary School students, Crew, joined by staffers Geralina Fortier and Dannae Washington, was across the street working with the Peer-2-Peer team at the People's Grocery headquarters in a back room at the YMCA.
Fortier is an alumna of the People's Grocery summer high school work/study program. "I didn't know what I was getting into," she recalls of her first stint with the organization. "I was seventeen years old; it was a summer job." Four years later, she appears to know exactly what she's gotten into, and has embraced the food-justice mission with passion and focus: She is now the organization's peer nutrition coordinator; the People's Grocery contributed to her scholarship at Baumann College, a holistic-nutrition institution in Penngrove, California, where she recently completed the nutritional-education program.
Her final project at Baumann focused on food, mood, and behavior -- correlations Fortier says made more and more sense over the course of her involvement with the People's Grocery.
"Looking back on my childhood," Fortier says, "I remember that whenever I could find twenty-five cents, I'd spend it on junk food." As she became more aware of her poor eating habits, and learned about "mindful cooking" from her mentor, Lori Camille, the People's Grocery's nutritional-cooking instructor, she lost 30 pounds, her energy and grades improved, and she even inspired changes in the diets of her mother and aunt, who are now both vegetarians. "It's funny how you can be a role model for your mother," Fortier says.
She is determined to raise her peers' consciousness of food issues as well and to inspire a change in the way her community eats. "Food is vital to life," she says. "And people do have power to change; it takes organizing and collaborating."
Dannae Washington agrees. Now a junior at West Oakland's Rudsdale Continuation School, she joined the People's Grocery's high school work program last summer and recognized the often unhealthy eating habits she shared with her peers. The experience piqued her interest in food issues, and she's joined the People's Grocery as an intern this year. As she plans the new season's Peer-2-Peer strategy with Crew and Fortier, she says the message she wants to convey to her fellow high schoolers is simple: "Junk food is not food. We want to teach people how to eat.'"
Rob Baedeker is a writer and performer living in Berkeley, California. He is a former college English instructor and the author, with the Kasper Hauser comedy group, of SkyMaul: The Catalog Parody.