The food justice work, conducted by local nonprofit Healthy Day Partners, began by looking at a hyperlocal version of the problem — other kids who went to school with the founder’s son didn’t have the same access to healthy snacks.
“I noticed that a lot of kids didn’t have anything to eat during their breaks, and I realized very quickly that they couldn’t afford it, so my co-founder and I…very quietly provided organic, healthy snacks in the classroom. It grew into a really deep dive into school gardens and creating a 1-acre educational farm at school,” says Mim Michelove, founder of Healthy Day Partners, an Encinitas-based nonprofit that provides education and resources to create and sustain homes – and school gardens. and reducing food insecurity.
The program continued to grow. It has won state and national recognition for improving health and well-being in schools and providing environmental education. In addition to growing food for the school district and local pantries, it expanded to 10 acres, with Michelove serving as director of the Encinitas Union School District’s Farm Lab, educating students and the surrounding community, working on environmental issues, and designing school gardens. This eventually led to the formation of Healthy Day Partners as it operates today.
“After three years, I realized that I really loved what I was doing, but wanted to focus on less affluent communities,” she says. “Back then, we relaunched Healthy Day Partners with a very personal focus for me, which was to try to reduce food insecurity and improve education and physical health in underserved communities.”
Michelove, who lives in Encinitas, took some time to talk about the work of the Food Justice Organization and her passion for bringing justice to our food system. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For a longer version of this interview, see sandiegouniontribune.com/sdut-lisa-deaderick-staff.html.)
Q: What influences the way you approach the type of food justice work you do through Healthy Day Partners?
A: My philosophical perspective is that, particularly with the pandemic and Black Lives Matter, we’ve noticed and talked about a broken food system, but it’s more than a broken food system. It’s a classist system, it’s a racist system, and when I go to the grocery store in my neighborhood, it’s completely cloaked in white privilege. I know I have this ability to feed my family and kid healthy whenever I want (and I grow my own food too, so it’s really easy to do that) and I’m like, ‘Well, everyone should be able to do this for their families. Everyone should have equal access.” But if you look around the corner, there are all these pockets around us that don’t have equal access, and you can clearly see that people are starving and that there is food insecurity. There’s also this food system that has a lot of food and wastes it, throws it away and doesn’t have the distribution system needed to feed everyone equally. It annoys me so much that I have to do something about it.
Q: There are numerous reports and studies on food insecurity and hunger — in San Diego County, as well as state and national — including reports from the San Diego Hunger Coalition, which estimates that one in three San Diegoans is unable to produce enough nutritious meals for provide for themselves/their families as of March 2021 (which is more than one in four San Diego residents in 2019). Can you tell us about your Homegrown Hunger Relief program and what role it is playing in solving this problem of local food insecurity?
A: Those are unacceptable numbers, especially considering we’re in San Diego and growing year-round. I believe we have the ability to transform many of these local food systems. Our Homegrown Hunger Relief program really started with our Grab & Grow Garden program. As soon as the lockdown (of the COVID-19 pandemic) was announced, that was a time when many grocery store shelves were empty and many people were nervous about the food system and whether there would be access to food. My friend Nan Sterman and I talked about what we could do. We both have experience gardening and growing food, so within three weeks we put together the Grab & Grow Gardens program. We put this program together to help food insecure people learn how to grow their own food. It’s more than just distributing emergency food, which is obviously vital, it’s also empowering people with a life skill to grow their own healthy food even if they don’t have land. They can grow it in a bucket, they can grow it in another container, and they have access to seasonal and healthy food without depending on charities.
We were able to immediately get our garden kits to hunger relief organizations throughout San Diego County and affordable housing units. We got feedback that it was an intergenerational activity to keep people busy during COVID, but I felt the pantry lines were still too long and people were still having a hard time getting fresh groceries to get. How about empowering the home gardener who is already growing food to take their excess bounty and donate? We found a way for them to donate it and we can collect it and ship it directly to local food supplies which is our program to alleviate local hunger. We have fundraising stations around Encinitas and Carlsbad, and we really want to expand beyond that. I hope it helps people see that there is a way to donate their excess bounty, and it’s a way for us, garden by garden, community by community, to reflect on the health of our communities. It sounds so small, but it can add up to something that is truly life-changing.
We want to empower more people, regardless of their zip code or income level, to grow their own food. We want to encourage consuming that excess zucchini this season or extra citrus this winter and really thinking of others and exploring where they can be most impactful and effective in transforming our communities. It’s a neighbor-helps-neighbor situation where we have enough to eat; What we don’t have yet is the right distribution system. If everyone participated in a system like this, we could end hunger in our communities. If you look at it, it’s a powerful way to grow a home garden and be able to feed your neighbors.
Q: Included in the report titled “The State of Nutrition Security in San Diego County: Before, during and after the COVID-19 Crisis” released by the San Diego Hunger Coalition in October 2021 is a map showing the zip codes with most foods unsafe People in the county point to areas like Otay Mesa, Chula Vista, National City, Lemon Grove, and El Cajon. Given that people of color and those on lower incomes are disproportionately affected by food insecurity, can you talk about what Healthy Day Partners is doing specifically for these communities?
A: At Grab & Grow Gardens, we have been very careful to work with hunger organizations that target those on the lowest incomes, those most nutritionally vulnerable and those most affected by COVID. Those most affected by all levels of inequality. I really hope to bring Homegrown Hunger Relief further south than where we are currently testing the program.
We were very fortunate to receive a Farm-to-School grant from the US Department of Agriculture to work with the National School District in National City. We were able to revitalize all of their school gardens. Prior to the scholarship, we donated a few gardens and helped build a few gardens to ensure every student has equal access to gardening education. After receiving the scholarship, we partnered with Olivewood Gardens & Learning Center because they are located in National City and are also gardening and nutrition professionals with a great working relationship with the National School District. A new program being piloted at all schools is the appointment of garden educators and garden maintenance as separate, paid positions as a result of the grant. Olivewood allowed us to model what we believe to be an ideal gardening, outdoor, and science-based educational program. We could talk about National City as a food desert and say, “There you are, here’s fresh zucchini, green beans, and fennel,” but we need to educate people about how to make these changes to be healthier, and how they can help others Using foods to create healthier versions of traditional, cultural meals. Olivewood is great at it at National City, so they’re perfect partners for us.
My philosophy is that education and food are two of the ways we show our children how much we appreciate them, so we’re very happy to support the National School District. Quality gardening education and growing healthy foods are really important. The children get to see that and whatever is in the canteen, we want to let that grow in their school garden so that they can really see where their food comes from.
Q: Why is this type of food justice work—bridging this gap in access to healthier food—important to you?
A: This whole career of mine has been inspired by having a kid. I just can’t help but think that if my child has access to the healthy food that I provide, I think everyone their age should have access to the same quality food. When I think about it, I get very emotional about this area of inequality because realizing that not everyone had equal access to healthy eating was relatively new to me when my son went to public school. I know that sounds really ignorant, but it just didn’t have the same impact. I firmly believe in the understanding that if I have access to something, everyone should have access to it.
I think for many of us it is time to take self-reflection and responsibility to fix what our society and country need to address. For me, this is something I can help with because I have a specialty in growing food and the implications of growing food, the availability and increase in local food supplies, and the existence of private and public spaces that provide access to healthy food , see Eliminate food insecurity. I think we shouldn’t just be looking at our backyards to grow food, but also at our front yards, side lawns, balconies, and public parks. We have a lot of answers, they’re pretty simple, and they add up to a real impact, so I’m hoping more people will grow food as close to their plates as possible.