By Jenn Walker
While other teenagers spent their time after school sending Facebook messages, playing World of Warcraft, cruising in their cars, or doing homework, 18-year-old Don-Jesus Clemons spent his afternoon collecting gardening materials from neighbors in his community, Oak Park.
In recent years, the south side of Sacramento, including Oak Park, has endured a reputation as the bad part of town — a hub for low-income housing, liquor stores and fast food restaurants.
But to Clemons, Oak Park is home.
“I am married to it,” he said.
“I love Oak Park, I love the people.”
His passion for helping the community is what led the founding member of the Sacramento League of Urban Gardeners, or SLUG, to recruit Clemons as an intern and member earlier this year.
SLUG was founded in January 2010 by Oak Park resident Josh Cadji as a community-based volunteer organization that empowers low-income families with access to healthier food by helping them build and maintain organic home gardens.
While sitting in a local café, Clemons pulled from his backpack seed packets of cayenne chile, dotted mint, tomatillo and carrots given to him during a friendly conversation with another gardener that day.
“We should be able to have gardens in every neighborhood,” Clemons said.
“When you eat good, you know where your food came from, you feel good.”
Watching Oakland’s scene rapidly blossom, he decided to bring the food justice concepts he learned in Oakland back to Sacramento to share.
He moved to Oak Park and founded SLUG as a means to give Oak Park residents the opportunity to eat healthier by relying on home gardens instead of fast food chains and liquor stores for food.
“I feel like these are marginalized communities,” Cadji said.
“I just want to work for justice on that level.”
He identifies the absence of healthy food in Oak Park as unjust and the cause of what he says is a vicious cycle in low-income neighborhoods: grocery stores invest less money in these areas, and residents are forced to travel outside the community to buy fresh groceries. The easier choice is to buy greasy, salty foods from liquor stores and fast food restaurants, while increasing their health bills and decreasing their quality of life at the same time.
“I see students at 10 a.m. eating hot fries,” he said.
“We need more healthy food access. Healthy food should be accessible for any community regardless of income.”
The mission of SLUG is to provide such access. However, the league is not about charity, Cadji said.
“We don’t just go stick a garden in someone’s backyard,” he said.
Coordinated garden builds only occur after a low-income resident has asked the league for assistance. A group of volunteers show up on the build day with soil, compost, seeds and starter plants. The volunteers then spend an afternoon working with the household to build the garden, showing them care methods along the way.
The distinction is that SLUG is justice-based, offering long-term solutions by empowering people with the resources and know-how to build and maintain their own gardens, Cadji said.
The league also organizes community discussions about food justice. The discussions emphasize that healthy food is a human right, not a privilege, he said, and encourage food sovereignty – people growing food where they live, for themselves.
Upcoming discussions are scheduled for Feb. 24 and March 24 at the Sol Collective in midtown Sacramento.
In late January the league received a sustainability leadership award at the 4th annual Sustainable Sacramento event, formerly known as Organic Capitol. It was hosted by the nonprofit organization Pesticide Watch.
Paul Towers, the statewide director of the organization, said that SLUG will play an important role in reshaping the health of the community.
“SLUG brings out the dirt, wood, nails and screws for residents to build their own self-sustaining grocery store,” he said.
By doing so, the league is helping people to help themselves, he said.
Starting this year, SLUG is also being sponsored by local nonprofit Ubuntu Green, which will fund this year’s garden builds using money from the California Endowment’s 10-year Building Healthy Communities initiative.
Up to this point, the league had relied primarily on donated money and supplies from within the community.
In addition to home garden builds, the league plans to help operate a student-run farm stand at American Legion High School between March and June, and plant a garden at Sacramento High School that will provide fruits and vegetables for the farm stand once it reopens in August.
Isabel Maioriello-Gallus, a staff-associate of Ubuntu Green and member of SLUG, spends a lot of time encouraging youth to get involved in political advocacy in Oak Park, recruiting volunteers on behalf of both organizations.
She hopes to get more young people like Clemons involved in supporting or fighting changes they do and don’t want within their community.
“To make any change to the way that we live, it has to come from the bottom up,” Maioriello-Gallus said.
“Young people don’t have a voice, they can’t vote. But in the end they’re going to be older people dealing with these issues.”