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Plan For Community Garden Grows Out Of High Diabetes Rate

Plan For Community Garden Grows Out of High Diabetes Rate
KPBS is working on a project called Food. We're following your dinner from the plate to the fields, farm and ocean. Americans are eating more than we used to, it's making us fatter and in some cases sick. KPBS Investigative Reporter, Amita Sharma, has been looking into an alarming statistic facing residents in National City -- the city has the highest diabetes rate in San Diego County. What can be done to improve the health of the residents of National City? We'll tell you about what one community organization wants to do that they think will help.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. When a community gets serious about promoting healthy eating and lifestyles, lots of things change, even the landscape. Health advocates in National City have looked at some dismal thi – figures, that is, on heart disease, diabetes, and obesity in their community and have decided to do something about it. And that something may include changing a municipal golf course into an edible garden. As part of the KPBS multi-media project on food, KPBS investigative reporter Amita Sharma is here to tell us about a big idea to encourage healthy eating. Good morning, Amita.

AMITA SHARMA (KPBS Reporter): Good morning, Maureen.


CAVANAUGH: First of all, Amita, tell us why National City needs a big idea about healthy eating. What kind of health problems are the people in the city dealing with?

SHARMA: Well, the health situation in National City is not good. It has the highest mortality rate for cardiovascular disease, for diabetes – It has the highest diabetes rate in the county. And its school children are some of the most obese in the county. So they’re not doing well.

CAVANAUGH: So obesity is this underlying problem then. What is the link—I think we all know there is one—between obesity and diabetes?

SHARMA: Well, I spoke with Dr. Athena Tsimikas last week at the Scripps Whittier Diabetes Institute, and she said that there’s no doubt that diabetes is tied to obesity and that if people could reach their ideal body weight and maintain that ideal body weight, that there would be a dramatic reduction in the incidence of diabetes.

CAVANAUGH: So what it is about then National City that is, in a sense, some say, promoting obesity and a sort of an unhealthy eating lifestyle?


SHARMA: Well, there are a couple of different factors for that. One of them is that National City has a high Latino population, about 60%. And most of them are Mexicans, and they eat a diet that is very heavy in rice, beans and tortillas, all carbohydrates, which the body converts to sugar. The other issue is that they cook with a lot of lard, straight fat, and that contributes to obesity.

CAVANAUGH: And what about the fast food restaurants in National City?

SHARMA: Well, that – that plays into the other factors. I posed this question about the high diabetes rate in National City to Richard Kiy. He heads the International Community Foundation, which is a border health group. And here’s what he said.

RICHARD KIY (President & CEO, International Community Foundation): The residents of National City are health deprived. The reality is National City is the poorest municipality in San Diego. National City, in many respects, is a food desert. While there’s many fast food restaurants, there are very few places that provide affordable options for quality food. There are very few places where they can go to buy healthy produce. If you compare the produce at Food 4 Less to Whole Foods or a Henry’s, there’s a big difference in terms of the quality of fruits and vegetables that are accessible.

CAVANAUGH: And so what are health advocates saying National City can do about this?

SHARMA: Well, Richard Kiy would like to build a large urban farm where commonly eaten fruits and vegetables would be grown and then sold as fresh produce at affordable prices and this place would also accept food stamps.

CAVANAUGH: So how is it that you actually go about planting a farm in the middle of a city?

SHARMA: Well, that’s a key question, Maureen, especially for a city like National City which is all built out. There’s very little space, open space. But there is a 76 acre municipal golf course and it’s used by only about 10% of the city’s 60,000 residents. Most of the people who go there are from other cities in the South Bay. And National City has one of the lowest number of parks in the county. That’s where Richard Kiy would like to see this urban farm grow. And he thinks that because there’s such a low number of parks, it would also be an ideal space to use to have more parks. Here’s more of what he said.

KIY: National City does not have a soccer field. National City needs more recreational areas. National City needs more usable park space. A golf course where less than 200 residents play is not accessible park space.

CAVANAUGH: So this, of course, is his idea. Is the city coming along in any way in support of this idea?

SHARMA: Well, this is very, very interesting. The city, in terms of the concept of having an urban farm, is on board. National City already has a couple of small urban farms and they are actually in the process of planning to tear up a couple of intersections where they would plant community gardens, and this is part of their overall vision of creating more community supported agriculture. And here is what Brad Ralston, who is the director of Community Development, said about this notion of having an urban farm.

BRAD RALSTON (Director, Community Development, City of National City): Essentially, what we’re trying to do is to, one, go back to our roots because National City was Rancho de la Nacion, was essentially a large farm, you know, when it was created. We have an ideal climate for growing things. There’s definitely an argument to be made that there are greater needs in our community than golf.

CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you a couple of questions about this idea. I suppose people might say, okay, you can build something like this but it doesn’t necessarily mean that people are going to change their eating habits. Do any of the supporters of this project have any kind of plans to, if, indeed, more urban gardens are grown, to make that food accessible to people and to encourage them to use the produce there?

SHARMA: Well, they acknowledge that it is going to take a cultural shift in this community to have people go to the urban farm once its grown. But, you know, they’re already starting to do that by creating these small urban gardens where they bring in school children from the local elementary schools and they educate them about gardens, about growing fresh produce, and about nutrition and the importance of eating fresh fruits and vegetables. And so the idea is if you educate them now that they will start asking for this food at home. And the other part of this is when the urban farm is actually in place, if you sell this produce at affordable prices and if you accept food stamps, that that will also encourage. Word will get out and that will encourage other people to go there.

CAVANAUGH: Are there any hurdles involving food stamp programs in gardens like this?

SHARMA: Not that I know of. I mean, I think there are a couple of farmers markets already in San Diego County that do accept food stamps.

CAVANAUGH: Now what are the hurdles that might have to be overcome in order to convert this space, which is now being used as a golf course, into a garden, a basically small urban farm?

SHARMA: Well, we shall see. It’s not clear at this point. I don’t think that word has gotten out. In fact, when Brad Ralston from the City of National City talked about this idea with me last week, that’s pretty much the first time that that’s been discussed publicly. So whether or not there’s going to be opposition remains to be seen. He believes that there will be some opposition from the people who do play golf, who’ve played there for a long time. This is a municipal golf course so the rates there are pretty cheap. And, you know, this is part of a lot of people’s recreation. So he believes that there’s bound to be opposition. How big that opposition is going to be remains to be seen.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take a phone call. Joan is calling from Clairemont. Good morning, Joan. Welcome to These Days.

JOAN (Caller, Clairemont): Good morning. Thank you. I used to live in PB and they have a community garden there and for a nominal fee you can get your very own plot to grow fruit and veggies. And having grown some tomatoes this summer in my own backyard, I know it takes a lot of water and a lot of money to buy the implements, but they provide the water, they provide all of the equipment that you need and then you have your own little plot and then you don’t have to buy your food, you can just grow it.


JOAN: You just have to buy the plants or the seeds. It’s very, very economical.

CAVANAUGH: Joan, thank you so much for that call. That raises a question in my mind, Amita. Has anybody been talking about the technical aspects of a farm like this? Would, indeed – Who would decide what to grow? Would we have parcels for people to have like the one they have in PB? Or would it be a complete community effort and people would just buy stuff as they would if they were going to some other kind of owned farm?

SHARMA: Well, I think the idea is to grow fruits and vegetables that are currently commonly eaten in the diets of people there but they are preliminary (sic) looking at, you know, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers. And what Richard Kiy said is, we’re looking for a lot of color in our garden because nutritionists will say the more color you have in your diet, the healthier it is. The other interesting point that this caller mentioned was the idea of water. The city believes that there’s a possibility that it could get water at a lower rate, an agricultural rate, if they do develop some kind of urban farm on a mass scale, so that’s one issue. And on the golf course, there is a well there right now that does supply about 1000 gallons of water to the golf course each month.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Do we have any timeline on this project, is – What has to happen next?

SHARMA: Well, right now the city is creating a vision of what community supported agriculture would look like. So it’s all in the drafting stage right now. It will probably go before the city council for public discussion only sometime early next year.

CAVANAUGH: Now let me play devil’s advocate for just a moment on this because it sounds like the kind of idea a lot of people would support in trying to change healthy eating habits and so forth. But perhaps one might say, you know, we do have an awful lot of lettuce and an awful lot of tomatoes and an awful lot of other produce available in San Diego right now. What do these – What do the people who advocate for this garden say that this will do that just simply buying tomatoes or lettuce in a market the way things are set up now won’t in order to promote healthy eating, healthier lifestyles and maybe get these rates of heart disease and diabetes down in National City?

SHARMA: Well, it’s Kiy’s contention that, you know, this fresh produce that you just talked about isn’t widely available in National City. Nobody’s done a study about the ratio of fast food restaurants to healthy places to eat. But he says, you know, that there are, in the supermarkets, the quality of the produce that you find there is not as great. There is also, you know, this growing movement of eating food that’s grown locally, the idea being that it has more nutrients if it hasn’t traveled at a greater distance and it’s tastier.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Now, as I said at the very beginning, this story about National City is part of a project that we’re doing here at KPBS on food. And can you tell us a little bit about that project that is ongoing and underway?

SHARMA: Well, KPBS’s television program, Envision San Diego, is tracking down the food, tracking down our dinner. In other words, we want to know where the food on our plate came from and how it got there. And the results of what we find are going to air on November 16th. And we’ll be back on the show to talk to you about that.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much, Amita.

SHARMA: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And as Amita said, the project is called “Food.” You can get more information about this project at And coming up next, El Cajon Boulevard still attracts one unwelcome profession. We’ll hear about that as These Days continues here on KPBS.