Cobb Eco-Academy's 28th Lecture by Ms. Maria Alonso
By Anita Wenwen Xie
Each month, Cobb Eco-Academy organises an online sharing event on Ecological Civilization where scholars, experts and sustainable living practitioners from China and America gather to share their academic research, local environmental actions and personal life practises to identify global pathways toward Ecological Civilization. On 1 April, during the 28th episode of Cobb Eco-Academy Lectures, Ms. Maria Alonso, founder of Huerta del Valle—Organic Farm in Ontario,California, USA, shared with the audience the story of her organic community garden and urban farm Huerta del Valle. She was nominated and selected as the Ontario Woman of the Year in 2018 for her inspiring journey toward healthy food, healthy living, and a happy community. This event was hosted by Dr. Meijun Fan, who is the Dean of Cobb Eco-Academy, Co-Director of China Project at the Center for Process Studies, Claremont, and Program Director of the Institute for Postmodern Development of China. Meanwhile, Ms. Xinlin Song, the Director of the Youth Program of the Institute for Postmodern Development of China, translated for the event.
Food safety is a fundamental necessity in modern society and has attracted more and more attention in recent years. With the growing awareness about the importance of a healthy diet, many people are incorporating more and more organic plant-based foods into their diets. The production and processing of organic food does not use synthetic substances such as chemical pesticides, fertilizers, chemical preservatives, therefore they are a better choice for healthy living. However, access to safe organic food depends largely on where people live and how much money they make. While some people have easy access to it, for many others, they are not readily available or affordable. Maria's journey towards promoting healthy organic food began when one of her sons was diagnosed with a severe health condition and needed healthy organic food. Maria and her husband came from a low-income family and were making minimum wage. They had difficulty finding organic food near their neighbourhood, and even when they did, the cost was exorbitant, which put a heavy burden on their family. However, within three weeks of changing her son's diet to organic food, he started to show significant positive improvement. Maria saw the amazing effect of organic food diet and decided to pursue this path further. In 2010, Maria founded a grassroots nonprofit organization called Huerta del Valle with the help of student volunteers from Claremont College, aiming at providing affordable healthy fresh organic produce in their community and promote a sustainable and equitable food system for all in the region of Southern California.
Huerta del Valle sits on a 1.7-acre plot of land and features a variety of crops, including fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers. The farm is run by a team of volunteers and community members who work together to plant, tend, and harvest the crops. In addition to growing fresh produce, Huerta del Valle also serves as a community hub and gathering space. The farm hosts a variety of events and workshops throughout the year, including cooking classes, gardening workshops, and community celebrations. Their mission is to create natural foods, build strong relationships within the community, involve diverse people and brings empowerment through skills development. Huerta del Valle envisions a future where fresh, local, and sustainably produced food is available to everyone, regardless of their socioeconomic status. To achieve this vision, Huerta del Valle has established a network of urban farms and community gardens, with the goal of creating a garden for every square mile of residential space from Temecula to Needles.
Access to organic food is a major challenge for low-income families in most places due to its high prices. Huerta del Valle is committed to providing fresh, quality organic food for low-income families at affordable prices. They harvest fresh produce every day and sell it at reasonable prices, making it accessible to everyone. On Saturdays, they even offer all their produce at half-price, making it even more affordable. In addition, they donate excess products to local food banks, providing an opportunity for everyone to access healthy food. Huerta del Valle has not only provided access to healthy food but has also witnessed significant changes in the community. Many children who were previously unable to attend school regularly due to health issues have seen improvements after consuming healthy food from the farm. This has been a tremendous accomplishment for Maria and her team, who have focused on promoting a sustainable and equitable food system for all. Through Huerta del Valle, , Maria and her team has been able to empower the community and promote healthy living for all. Maria said that she wouldn’t have imagined herself doing labor work in the farm had it not been for her son’s health condition. She concluded, when you have the need, you will make it happen. With Huerta del Valle, she now has the opportunity to bring healthy food to her son, her family and many other families. Maria also shared that during the pandemic in 2020, many healthy food was in short supply, creating lots of food insecurity among families and students. Their community gardens managed to provide fresh nutritious produce consistently to many families who otherwise couldn’t afford them.
However, Huerta del Valle is not just about providing access to healthy food, it is also about building community. To achieve that, Huerta del Valle has implemented a non-hierarchical structure that promotes teamwork and equal participation among all workers irrespective of their races and social backgrounds. They aim at building strong relationships within the community, involving diverse people and empowering them through skills development. Maria said the farm doesn't just grow vegetables and fruits, but also nurtures relationships between people, fostering a sense of community and communion. Ms. Alonso believes that community gardens can be a powerful tool for bringing people together and creating a sense of belonging. The gardens provide a space for people to connect with nature, learn new skills, and work together towards a common goal. Meanwhile, Huerta del Valle is also a go-to place for people who are suffering from anxiety and depression and are in need of some peace and tranquility, providing mental health benefit for the community members. Working together in the farm also helps to build a sense of community within the group, which provides a social benefit to the community. Ms. Alonso’s story is inspiring and serves as a reminder of the power of community action. By working together, we can create positive change in our communities and in the world. Huerta del Valle is a shining example of what is possible when we come together to address important issues such as food access and sustainability.
Maria believes that we are what we eat. Our physical and mental health is influenced by our dietary habits. If we eat healthy food, our body and brain will benefit, leading to better health and mental well-being. Conversely, if we eat unhealthy food, it can have negative effects on our body and mental state, such as weight gain, unstable blood sugar, mood swings, etc. Therefore, to maintain physical and mental health, we need to pay attention to our dietary habits and choose healthy, nutritious food as much as possible. Therefore, Huerta del Valle is also committed to providing community educational programs that focuses on teaching participants about healthy eating habits and nutrition. The Plant to Plate Nutrition Class emphasizes on the importance of consuming plant-based foods in achieving a balanced and nutritious diet. It aims to provide participants with the knowledge and skills to make informed decisions about their food choices and create healthy meals without overcooking. Through interactive lectures, cooking demonstrations, and hands-on activities, participants learn about the different nutrients found in plant-based foods, their health benefits, and how to incorporate them into their daily meals. Through these courses, participants gain a deeper understanding of the relationship between food and health, and how to make healthy and delicious meals using plant-based ingredients.
The organization's slogan, "one garden every mile," reflects its commitment to increasing access to healthy, organic produce in the community. By creating community spaces where people can learn about the issues related to food access, nutrition, sustainability, and more, while actively practicing their solutions and growing their own food, Huerta del Valle is working towards a more just and equitable food system. Upon completing six months of training in the Farmers Certificate Program, participants are eligible to work at the local community garden. Additionally, community members can rent a 10x20 foot plot of land at Huerta del Valle for just $60 per year to grow their own vegetables. The farm provides water and supplies, as well as knowledge on vegetable growing techniques for those who are new to it. This activity has been well-received by families who enjoy bringing their children to participate in planting and harvesting. It serves as a great opportunity for families to bond and enjoy time together.
Last but not the least, Maria shared that composting plays an significant role at Huerta del Valle. Composting is the process of breaking down organic materials, such as food scraps, leaves, and yard waste, into a nutrient-rich soil amendment known as compost. The composting process is a natural one that occurs when microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungi, break down the organic matter into a stable and usable form. To compost, they typically collect organic waste in a bin or pile and add moisture and air to help the materials decompose. Over time, the organic matter breaks down, and the resulting compost can be used to improve soil health and fertility in gardens, farms, and other agricultural settings. Over the years, Ms. Alonso has established positive relationships with local store owners, who are highly supportive of her farm. They collect food waste from the local stores and even tree branches cut down by local gardeners, which would otherwise require payment for disposal. Instead, they bring these materials to her garden, where they are used to create compost lasagna. This process turns the collected waste into nutrient-rich black soil in just six months. Through composting, they can reduce the amount of organic waste sent to landfills, which can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and provide a natural and sustainable way to enhance soil health and support plant growth.
In conclusion, Huerta del Valle is a shining example of how community-based agriculture can be used to address social and environmental issues while promoting health, wellness, and community-building. By focusing on sustainable agriculture practices, providing access to fresh produce, and empowering individuals through skills development, Huerta del Valle is making a significant impact on the community it serves. As the organization continues to grow and expand, it will undoubtedly inspire others to work towards a more just and equitable food system for all. Just like Dr. Cobb said, we have heard a lot about some very important elements about eating and growing food. When the message comes from someone who actually makes it happen in a creative way, it’s even more convincing than when we just read about facts.
The Cobb Eco-Academy is a valuable platform for sharing stories like Ms. Alonso’s and for promoting dialogue and collaboration between scholars, experts, and sustainable living practitioners from around the world. The lectures provide a space for people to learn from each other, share ideas, and work towards a common goal of creating a more sustainable and equitable world. As the world continues to grapple with issues such as climate change, food insecurity, and inequality, organizations like Huerta del Valle and platforms like the Cobb Eco-Academy are more important than ever. We need to come together to find solutions to these challenges and create a better future for ourselves and for generations to come.