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National City Wants To Plow Back To Its Roots


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Above: KPBS investigative reporter Amita Sharma examines reasons for high diabetes rates in National City.

National City has long been known for the mile of cars stretching along its coastline. But that image could soon change. The city has a vision of returning to its agricultural roots and to a time when people were healthier.

Outside Richard Kiy's office there are hens, rows of tomatoes, squash and watermelons. Not the typical suburban space. But Kiy believes it's gardens like these that could go a long way toward curing an ailing community.

"The residents of National City are health-deprived," says Kiy.

National City's 63,000 people have the highest mortality rate for cardiovascular disease in San Diego County. It also has the highest diabetes rate. If you have diabetes here, you're twice as likely to die from it. And the city's children are some of the most obese in the region.

"The reality is that National City is the poorest municipality in San Diego," he says.

National City is in many respects a food desert. While there are many fast food restaurants throughout the city, there are very few places that provide affordable options for quality food."

So, Kiy's answer is to plant an urban garden.

"Tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, cauliflower, fruits, berries, oranges, grapefruits -- we'd be looking at a full pallet of colors. It's been said that a health diet is one that has a lot of color," says Kiy.

Kiy's International Community Foundation inherited seven acres of land in 2006. A half-acre is used now to grow produce for UCSD's Cancer Center, and it plans to plant a garden that will provide food and educate kids about nutrition. But to grow an urban garden, you need space. And there's not much of that. National City only has three parks. But there is another open space.

The golf balls from the nine-hole course next door that land on Kiy's foundation property have planted an idea. Kiy wants the city to transform the 76-acre municipal course into a garden that would sell fresh produce at affordable prices and accept food stamps.

"And there is definitely an argument to be made that there are greater needs in our community than golf," says Kiy.

National City's director of Community Development Brad Raulston says there are already a couple of small urban farms in town and he's interested in creating more community supported agriculture. Plans are underway to tear up the concrete at some local intersections to plant tiny urban gardens.

"Essentially what we're trying to do is go back to our roots because National City was Rancho de la Nation, and was essentially a large farm when it was created."

The city receives $7,000 a month to lease the golf course to American Golf. The city also allows American golf to use water from a well on the land for free. Raulston is creating a vision for the large urban farm which will likely be discussed publicly early next year.

But even if National City does rebuild its own food system, convincing people to eat better will require education says Dr. Athena Philis-Tsimikas at the Scripps Whittier Diabetes Institute.

"Many times we call the fresh vegetables free foods. They are healthy in terms of having vitamins we need but very low in calories. So if there is a way you can fill up, get vitamins you need and not have added calories. That's always a way to prevent obesity and diabetes," says Phillis-Tsimikas.

Teresa Escamilla is like 60 percent of the population in National City. She is Latina and ate a diet heavy on carbohydrates before she was diagnosed with diabetes.

"I liked to eat everything -- sweet, tortillas, bread, flour tortillas with butter and cheese."

She altered her diet. In the past year, she's lost 30 pounds. She says if an urban farm opened up, she'd shop there.

"I would use it. I think all of the people who care about feeding their family well would use it," she says (translated from Spanish).

But convincing golfers in the South Bay to relinquish bargain prices at National City's golf course many not be easy.

"Change is hard. There's always opposition to change."


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Photo of Amita Sharma

Amita Sharma
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs an investigative reporter for KPBS, I've helped expose political scandals and dug into intractable issues like sex trafficking. I've raised tough questions about how government treats foster kids. I've spotlighted the problem of pollution in poor neighborhoods. And I've chronicled corporate mistakes and how the public sometimes ends up paying for them.

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