Food justice work done by a local nonprofit Health Day Partners started by looking at a hyperlocal version of the problem – other kids who went to school with the founder’s son didn’t have the same access to healthy snacks.
“I noticed that a lot of the kids didn’t have food during recess, and I realized very quickly that they couldn’t afford it, so my co-founder and I…very quietly, provided organic, healthy snacks in the classroom. It turned into really diving deep into school gardens and creating a one-acre educational farm at school,” says Mim Michelove, founder of Healthy Day Partners, an organization nonprofit based in Encinitas that provides education and resources for starting and maintaining home and school gardens, and reducing food insecurity.
The program continued to grow. He has gained state and national recognition for improving health and wellness in schools and environmental education. In addition to growing food for the school district and local food pantries, it has expanded to 10 acres, with Michelove serving as Encinitas Union School District Agricultural Laboratory Director, educate students and the surrounding community, work on environmental issues and design school gardens. This ultimately led to the formation of Healthy Day Partners as it operates today.
“After three years, I realized that I really liked what I was doing, but wanted to focus on less affluent communities,” she says. “That’s when we relaunched Healthy Day Partners with a very personal goal for me, which was to try to reduce food insecurity and improve education and physical health in underserved communities.”
Michelove, who lives in Encinitas, took the time to talk about the organization’s food justice work and the passion it has for increasing equity in our food system. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For a longer version of this conversation, visit sandiegouniontribune.com/sdut-lisa-deaderick-staff.html.)
Q: What influenced how you approach the type of food equity work you do through Healthy Day Partners?
A: My philosophical view is that especially with the pandemic and Black Lives Matter, we’ve noticed and talked about a broken food system, but it’s more than a broken food system. It’s a classist system, it’s a racist system, and when I go to my neighborhood grocery store, it’s completely shrouded in white privilege. For me, knowing that I have this ability to feed my family and my child healthy food whenever I want (and I also grow my own food, so it’s really easy to do that), I think, “Hey well, everyone should be able to do this for their families. Everyone should have equal access. When you look just around the corner, however, there are all these pockets around us that don’t have the same access, and you can clearly see that people are hungry and there is food insecurity, there is also this food system that has a lot of food and wastes it, throws it away and does not have the system distribution needed to feed everyone equally. It upsets me so much that I have to do something about it.
Q: There are numerous reports and studies of food insecurity and hunger – in San Diego County, as well as the state and the nation – including reporting by the San Diego Hunger Coalition who estimates that one in three San Diegans are unable to provide enough nutritious meals for themselves/family, as of March 2021 (compared to one in four San Diegans in 2019). Can you tell us a bit about your Homegrown Hunger Relief program and the role it plays in addressing this local food insecurity issue?
A: These are unacceptable numbers, especially knowing that we are in San Diego, and that we have growth all year round. We have the ability, I believe, to change a lot of these local food systems. Our Homegrown Hunger Relief program really started with our Grab & Grow Garden program. As soon as the (COVID-19 pandemic) lockdown was announced, it was a time when many grocery shelves were empty and many people were worried about the food system and access to health. food. My friend, Nan Sterman, and I was talking about what we could do. We both have expertise in gardening and growing food, so in three weeks we put together the Grab & Grow Gardens program. We set up this program to help food insecure people learn how to grow their own food. It’s not just about distributing emergency food, which is obviously essential, but it’s also about enabling people with a life skill to grow their own healthy food, even if they don’t have no land. They can grow it in a bucket, they can grow it in another container, and they can access seasonal, healthy foods without relying on charities.
We were able to send our gardening kits immediately to hunger relief agencies throughout San Diego County and affordable housing. We were getting comments that it was an intergenerational activity, it gave people something to do during COVID, but I thought the pantry lines were still too long and people had still struggling to get fresh food. What about allowing the home gardener who is already growing food to take their excess bounty and give it away? We found a way for them to donate it and for us to collect and deliver it directly to local pantries, which is our Homegrown Hunger Relief program. We have donation stations around Encinitas and Carlsbad, and we really want to expand beyond that. I hope this helps people see that there is a way for them to donate their excess bounty, and it’s a way for us to think about the health of our communities one garden at a time, one community at a time. It seems so small, but it can add up to something truly life changing.
We want to empower more people, regardless of zip code or income level, to grow their own food. We want to encourage taking that excess zucchini this season, or extra citrus in the winter, and really thinking about others and where it can have the most impact and power to change our communities. It is a situation of mutual aid between neighbors where we have enough food; what we don’t have right now is the right distribution system. If everyone participated in a system like this, we could eliminate hunger in our communities. Watching this is a powerful way to see how to grow a vegetable garden and be able to feed your neighbors.
Q: In the report entitled “The State of Nutrition Security in San Diego County: Before, During, and Beyond the COVID-19 Crisis”, Released by the San Diego Hunger Coalition in October 2021, a map illustrating ZIP codes with the highest number of food insecure people in the county shows areas such as Otay Mesa, Chula Vista, National City, Lemon Grove and El Cajon. Knowing that people of color and low-income people are disproportionately food insecure, can you tell us about what Healthy Day Partners is doing to serve these communities, in particular?
A: With Grab & Grow Gardens, we have been very careful to partner with hunger relief agencies that target the lowest income, most food insecure, hardest hit by COVID. Those who are most disproportionately affected by all levels of inequality. I really hope to take Homegrown Hunger Relief further south than where we are currently piloting the program.
We were very lucky to receive a (U.S. Department of Agriculture) Farm to School Grant for working with the National School District in National City. We were able to revitalize all their school gardens. Prior to the grant, we donated a few gardens and helped build a few gardens to ensure that every student has equal access to garden education. Once the grant was received, we partnered with Olive Gardens and Learning Center because they’re in National City and they’re also gardening and nutrition experts with a great working relationship with the National School District. With the grant, a new program being piloted in all schools is to staff garden educators and garden maintenance as separate, paid positions. With Olivewood, we have been able to model what we think is an ideal educational program for the garden, the outdoors and science. We could call National City a food desert and say, “Here, here are fresh zucchini, green beans, and fennel,” but we need to educate people on how to make those changes to be healthier. and how to use different foods. to make healthier versions of traditional and cultural meals. Olivewood excels in this area in National City, so they are perfect partners for us.
My philosophy is that education and food are two of the ways we show our children how much we appreciate them, so we are very happy to support the National School District. Having a high quality gardening education and growing healthy food is really important. Kids can see this and everything in the cafeteria, we want it to grow in their school garden so they can really see where their food is coming from.
Q: Why is this type of food justice work – closing that gap in access to healthier food – important to you?
A: My whole career has been inspired by having a child. I just can’t help it, if my child has access to the healthy foods I provide, I think every one of their peers should have access to that same quality of food. When I think about it, I’m very moved by this area of inequality because it was relatively new for me to realize that when my son went to public school, not everyone had the same access to a healthy diet. I know that sounds really ignorant, but it just didn’t have the same impact. I firmly believe that if I have access to something, everyone should have access to it.
I think for many of us, it’s time to reflect and take responsibility for fixing what’s broken that our society and our country needs to fix. For me, it’s something I can help with because I have an area of expertise in growing foods and I see the impact of growing foods, having and increasing the local food supply, and to have private and public spaces providing access to healthy food in order to eliminate food insecurity. I think we shouldn’t just be looking at our backyards to grow food, but our front lawns, side lawns, balconies, and public parks. We have a lot of answers, they’re pretty simple and they have real impact, so hopefully more people will embrace the culture of food as close to their plate as possible.