Jennie Cook asked her daughter and RootDown volunteer, Lindsay Cook, to write a profile of Ana Torres and Karen Ramirez, two RDLA staffers – two moms on a mission. Here’s part two (find part one here). As the saying goes “there’s no one you can’t love, if you knew their story.” Read on…
Ana Torres, 20 started in the program as a freshman at Jefferson High school, and now holds the title of Programs Assistant. Torres said, “at first I just saw [RootDown LA] as something fun, I didn’t realize what a big impact it was going to have on my life.”
Torres moved to South LA from Mexico when she was eight-years-old, and when she graduated from high school she had trouble finding a job because she didn’t have a work-permit, so she ended up at shoe-store in Downtown LA, working for less than minimum-wage. She saw an ad on Craigslist for a job at World Wide Produce, which reminded her of her experience with RootDown LA. Torres called Hanson, expecting to ask for a reference, but she received a job offer instead.
“Megan said she wanted me to work for RootDown….she offered me a good wage and a flexible schedule, which I needed because I was pregnant at the time.” It’s been almost a year since that fateful call, Torres’ son Aaron is 7-months-old, and her job with RootDown affords her time with Aaron, time with her community, and enough time left over to pursue an associates degree.
While RootDown LA used to be run exclusively by two women from outside of the community, it is now led by two women from the very community it was set up to serve. Neighbors helping neighbors; folks who have similar stories and experiences, of immigration, language barriers, and a lack of access to the resources needed to build a healthy life are working to change that story for the coming generation.
When asked where she’d be if RootDown LA hadn’t been a part of her life, Torres laughs and throws her hands in the air, “Don’t say that, I don’t want to think about it! Karen and I talk about it sometimes, but It gives me chills just thinking about it…We’d probably both still be downtown, working for next to nothing, and just struggling…I don’t think I’d have the same goals.”
But as it stands, RootDown LA does exist, Torres and Ramirez both have dreams of finishing college and owning their own businesses one day. They also have faith they can offer their children a healthier life, filled with more and better opportunities.
Jennie Cook asked her daughter and RootDown volunteer, Lindsay Cook, to write a profile of Ana Torres and Karen Ramirez, two RDLA staffers – two moms on a mission. Here’s part one. As the saying goes “there’s no one you can’t love, if you knew their story.” Read on…
It was a warm Saturday morning in South Los Angeles and the parking lot at Jefferson High School was unsurprisingly empty. Walking through the school that had been abandoned for the weekend felt slightly odd. The courtyards that should have been full of students were eerily quiet, discarded chip bags and empty soda bottles, the only evidence of the sixteen hundred teenagers who usually fill the campus.In the back corner of the school, nestled between the baseball field and a few mobile trailers being used as classrooms, there was a decidedly different scene. More than 30 teenagers were at their own high school on a Saturday, hard at work in the school’s edible garden. Signs hand painted on scrap pieces of cardboard led those unfamiliar with the Jefferson High campus to the half-acre garden’s entrance. At the gate, first-time volunteers and returning students alike were met by a pretty, young Latina woman, ready with an enthusiastic smile, and very pregnant- Karen Ramirez, 22 identified herself as RootDown LA’s project manager. Ramirez greeted everyone, made sure they signed themselves in, and directed folks to different areas throughout the garden depending on need and interest.
Off in one corner, Elizabeth, a junior at Jefferson High with the teenage prerequisites of braces, skinny jeans, and a need to photo document every moment, explained to new arrivals that she was “layering carbon-rich mulch on top of nitrogen-rich food scraps and weeds,” in order to keep the compost “efficient and healthy.”
Out of the sun, under a gazebo, Andres Chopin, Ramirez’s partner, a Jefferson grad, and fellow alum of the RootDown LA program, was using skills newly acquired from culinary school, to lead a team of five teenagers as they cooked a healthy lunch from scratch for all the volunteers.
Throughout the rest of the garden the voice of Jonathan Galindez, another Jefferson High and RootDown alum, could be heard encouraging kids to “get dirty” as they weeded, planted, and pruned. Tools were strewn about the loud garden, both English and Spanish could be heard, as the bilingual teenagers effortlessly switched between the two.
Getting teenagers to school on a Saturday sounds like a daunting task. To have them work while they’re there? Impossible. Not for the folks at RootDown LA. Karen Ramirez, who was a student with RootDown LA when she was a senior at Jefferson high and the organization was in its nascent stages, credits founder and Director Megan Hanson for creating a program focused on empowerment.
As Ramirez sees it, it’s pretty straight forward, the reason RootDown works is because there are people involved who know the youth, the community, and the mission: don’t just improve access to healthy food for the youth of South Los Angeles, create it. Grow it. Cook it. Hanson founded the organization with friend Katy Atkiss in 2008, and in only a few years most of the day-to-day workings of RootDown LA, from recruitment, to garden management, to teaching cooking classes, are carried out by the young-adults who themselves went through the program as teenagers. The brunt of the work-load falling on the shoulders of two young moms, Karen Ramirez and Anna Torres.
Karen Ramirez, who is now the programs manager says that “most of the parents in this neighborhood aren’t from here, a lot of the kids aren’t either, they’re used to the mercados [markets] in Mexico where you get fresh produce and milk from the granjero [farmer] who’s just down the road.” She said that when her parents moved here when she was 4 months-old, they had trouble adjusting. “There wasn’t anywhere nearby for my mom to walk to and get enough fresh produce for the whole family on her budget, so it wasn’t a part of our lives like it was in Mexico.”
Then Ramirez joined RootDown LA, she began cooking organic vegetables from the garden at school and from Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, stores Ramirez said she “never knew existed before RootDown. There aren’t any stores like that around here, Fresh n’ Easy is the only place you can get organic produce.” But even that is a fifteen minute drive from Ramirez’s house, and opened less than two years ago. Ramirez, who is just welcomed her daughter into the world last month, says diabetes is a real fear for her and her family, but it is a fear she feels more prepared to conquer now that she has the tools and knowledge garnered from her work with RootDown.
You’ll see all these kids at the GROW event on May 2nd.
They all took a field trip up the coast to see McGrath Farms. They talked about dirt, organics and how (and what) Farmer Phil grows!
Here Temi again, celebrating some organic parkway corn at ANOTHER site, in between cramming for the SAT’s.
He wrote his personal essay on RootDownLA, here’s an excerpt:
“Many more children than I thought, were interested in growing food. Often times, we had kids come volunteer with the maintenance team. They wanted to know why we did everything we did, from mulching to composting. I, for one, was truly amazed. My heart filled with joy as questions from the little curious children flowed on me. Not many children nowadays want to get involved in such a thing as gardening. These little kids were thrilled to dig in some dirt and plant. It was great to see children who would rather do this than stay inside and watch television. Participating in this program was very rewarding to me because I loved to see the faces of my clients when I walked up to their doorsteps to deliver their homegrown produce to them. I believe that it is a great accomplishment to give back to my community, especially through organic food.”
Congratulations Temiloluwa Salako, You have inspired all of us.
Next up, Karen and Ana, “Two Moms on a Mission”.
Planting wherever we can! The newest Cultivars tried building their own boxes, modeled off the MiniFarmBox model – making neighborhood gardens more affordable for our South Los Angeles neighbors!
In our effort to establish monthly “farm stand sales,” we sometimes find ourselves in low-harvest cycles. This month, to solve that issue, Jonathan Galindez went harvesting in the neighborhood, so that we ended up with locally grown mandarins, oranges, and cilantro from our gardens to share with the neighbors, who collect food scraps for our compost piles. The cycle continues – we get neighbors’ nutrient rich food scraps, all those nutrients go back in the soil, the food we grow sucks up all those nutrients, and they go back into the bellies of our neighbors!
So we gathered today to celebrate the graduates of our most recent 13-week horticultural & entrepreneurial training. It was fantastic and fun – the food, the photo booth, the students’ presentations on their work. What was MOST amazing about the day though? Simply, the PEOPLE. RootDown, in the past 7 years has built a community, a family of sorts – folks who have increased their commitment to building healthier food communities in South Los Angeles. Today we had past students, current students, present and former employees, parents, peers, and next generation babies whose parents now value growing, cooking, and eating fresh food. Thanks to everyone who made this latest training, and this graduation day possible and memorable.