By Kurt Chirbas
When Brenda Mutuma ’13 was attempting to galvanize support last winter for the installation of a new student-run garden, she sent out an email to various campus organizations. Her message began with the statement: “If you haven’t heard already, Ujamaa House is about to have a baby.”
And that’s how Mutuma prefers to think about the Ujamaa Community Garden, which was installed by Stanford students last spring and has since provided more than 100 pounds of fresh produce to Stanford and East Palo Alto community members. It’s a baby that needs the loving care of its parents.
Mutuma defines the word “parents” broadly.
She said the term does not just refer to herself and Makshya Tolbert ‘15, the co-founders who dreamed up the idea to transform an unused area near Ujamaa into a student-run garden. And it doesn’t just encompass Ujamaa residents, who have come to take primary responsibility for the space.
Instead, Mutuma sees each Stanford student as one of the garden’s parents.
“I wrote this humongously long email last year to a lot of organizations, talking about the vision for the space, and I said this is not just going to be any ordinary garden,” Mutuma said. “This is going to be our garden, and whatever ideas that you have—let’s go.”
Since students finished installing the seven-bed garden last March, those ideas have included an art day to create decorations for the space, cooking and nutrition workshops with dining hall chefs, garden tours for high school students and food donations to both the Stanford Farm Project and local nonprofit Collective Roots.
Jan Barker-Alexander, director of the Black Community Services Center (BCSC), was so impressed with the garden’s impact last year that she named its co-founders winners of her Director’s Award in the spring.
“They were able to have an impact not in a super superficial ‘Oh, it’s cute’ sense, but in a way that had depth and intellectual substance, which permeated throughout the entire community,” Barker-Alexander said.
This year, the Ujamaa Communtiy Garden, like any baby, is beginning to show signs of growth. A new partnership with Collective Roots means the garden’s food will provide fresh produce to East Palo Alto residences on a monthly (or perhaps, even biweekly) basis. To help institutionalize the space, Ujamaa’s peer health educator (PHE) will now be responsible for leading a team that tends to the garden.
Joining the food justice movement
It was a phone conversation during winter break last year that provided the metaphorical seed for the project. Mutuma called Tolbert after the two had been classmates in the fall quarter class Food and Community.
The fall course inspired them to think more about food justice, a movement that seeks to eliminate disparities and inequalities in the current food system.
“It’s the idea that certain communities who should be entitled to the same food as everybody else, but don’t have access to it,” Tolbert said.
The food justice movement is particularly applicable in Stanford’s backyard.
In East Palo Alto, the nonprofit Collective Roots is focused on making sure individuals have equal access to healthy, affordable and environmentally sustainable food.
According to Nicole Wires, manager of community initiatives for Collective Roots, there wasn’t a full-scale grocery store in East Palo Alto until two and a half years ago, when Mi Pueblo Food Center opened in the Ravenswood Shopping Center.
But even that grocery store might not remain open for long, according to Wires.
“Mi Pueblo has just filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, so it’s unclear if it will continue to be a store for much longer or how they will manage that bankruptcy,” Wires said.
The lack of grocery stores in East Palo Alto make it difficult for residents to purchase fresh produce, and even when fresh produce is readily available, the prices are too high, Wires said.
“As a result, there had been less access to healthy foods, and that’s reflected in many ways in some of the health disparities in the community,” she added.
Wires cited the fact that East Palo Alto residents have some of the highest rates of hypertension, diabetes and obesity in the Peninsula area. All three of these non-communicable diseases are linked to diet.
Wires said none of these figures should be interpreted outside of the social and economic contexts, which are what the food justice movement is interested in examining.
It was learning about these disparities in the food system, especially in communities of color, that inspired Mutuma to pick up the phone and call Tolbert.
Tolbert immediately jumped on board with the plan. The rest of their winter break was spent researching what would be needed to bring Mutuma’s idea to life and then creating a detailed budget for the proposed garden.
By the time Mutuma and Tolbert arrived back on the Farm, they were ready to start pitching their idea to University administrators.
‘A recognition that this is ours’
Barker-Alexander, who became one of the strongest advocates for the garden project, admitted that in the beginning, she had reservations.
“I talked with them about what this meant in terms of commitment of other students who didn’t come up with the idea,” Barker-Alexander said. “I wanted to help them think critically about all the moving parts, and the intellectual framework around food justice, and how to incorporate that into everything that’s done.”
Realizing that Mutuma and Tolbert wanted the garden to be sustainable and outlive their own Stanford careers, Barker-Alexander started helping them get in contact with other departments at the University—most notably, Residential & Dining Enterprises (R&DE).
Rodger Whitney, executive director of R&DE Student Housing, recalled in an emailed statement that the students brought forward a plan and thought-out budget during their first meeting in January.
R&DE Student Housing has previously supported community gardens at some of the Row houses and at Escondido Village. The Ujamaa garden, however, would be the first one to be student-run in a large undergraduate residence, Whitney said.
After agreeing to move forward with Mutuma and Tolbert’s proposal, R&DE said staff would be willing to install the garden for them. Instead, Mutuma opted for students to construct the garden themselves.
“Here is where I did question them,” Barker-Alexander said. “I said, ‘Brenda, do you really think Stanford students are going to wake up on a Saturday, and hammer nails?’ She had so much confidence, but I’ve been around the block a while. Guess what? She was right.”
Football players, band members, Ujamaa residents and whole fraternities and sororities turned out on March 1 and 2 to install the garden.
R&DE did help by clearing out existing mulch, having carpentry staff members provide training to student volunteers, loaning tools and installing gravel for walkways between the planter beds.
Mutuma said having students install the garden set the tone for the space moving forward.
“It was a recognition that this is ours,” Mutuma said. “We are creating a community of our own.”
According to Wires, Collective Roots has given the food to East Palo Alto residents at its cooking and nutrition workshops, which are held at schools, community health clinics, a drug and alcohol rehab center, a senior center and a public housing center.
“This year, I think we are trying to maintain [our donations], but on a more frequent scale,” possibly even weekly basis, Tolbert said.
Another big goal, Tolbert said, is using the space to increase education about the food justice moment.
“I think that food is one of beautiful things that can bring people together,” Mutuma said. “And why not do that from the ground up—getting people as involved as possible in the food process?”
Contact Kurt Chirbas at email@example.com.