Cal State Northridge students revitalizing abandoned community garden in Pacoima

A group of students from Cal State Northridge working toward getting green thumbs are revitalizing a community garden in Pacoima abandoned last year when coronavirus restrictions shut down operations.

The graduating students, who are taking a sustainability class at the college to fulfill a minor, chose the raised-bed garden initially started by the nonprofit Pacoima Beautiful focusing on access primarily for residents in the adjacent San Fernando Gardens.

The goal of the class is to have students understand real-world experiences based on materials they have been learning throughout the semester. The gardening project is a culmination of that experience targeted to be completed by the middle of May.

On Friday five of the students headed over to the gardens on Leigh Avenue with rakes, shovels, weeding tools, seeds and plants to continue their work on the plot of land in a gated area of the apartment complex.

Kayla Aredas started a personal garden last summer out of boredom due to coronavirus stay-at-home orders. But now the 22-year-old Santa Clarita resident has a variety of plants, vegetables and spices up and running.

“I have been interested in sustainability since I was a child,” Aredas said. “Now that I found a minor (in sustainability), I can apply it to my career (in criminology) and that makes me feel more fulfilled and what I imagined as a kid is coming true.”

Loraine Lundquist, a faculty associate at the Institute for Sustainability at Cal State Northridge, said students learning sustainability is really about satisfying current needs in the present without compromising or destroying the ability to meet the needs of future generations.

“It’s about three main areas: economic sustainability, environmental sustainability and there’s equity because societies that do not have a certain degree of equity do not sustain themselves,” Lundquist said. “The biggest one that supersedes everything is the environmental sustainability because if we use up our resources as a planet or if you look at previous societies that used up their resources like the Eastern Islanders for example, they were not able to sustain themselves as a result of using up their resources.”

In the environmental piece of sustainability, students focus on energy, waste and water and choose their own student-lead projects that have a meaningful impact on the community.

Lundquist provides mentorship and guidance.

“The project has to have an impact on the community that they can be proud of and that they can point to and say this is something that we did together,” she added.

Eduardo Martinez chose the community garden project because it has a positive effect on a community and it creates opportunities for the youth to learn how to maintain and grow individual plants.

“Personally, I never grew my own garden or have had an opportunity to work in a community garden until (now),” Martinez said. “But my mission is to one day help my community of South Los Angeles. I have a goal to see a local garden arise in an area that was decimated by the riots.”

Celia Contreras, a community organizer for Pacoima Beautiful, a bilingual, multicultural learning nonprofit focusing on Pacoima and the Northeast San Fernando Valley residents by creating a healthy and sustainable community through environmental education, is happy to have the students’ enthusiasm and resources.

It’s one of three gardens the nonprofit has started in the area.

It measures 50 feet by 4 feet and is designated to serve residents of the public housing community of 448-apartments operated by the Los Angeles Housing Authority on Lehigh Avenue.

Everything planted in it must be edible including flowers.

The plan is to make this garden a “salsa” garden with plants and herbs needed to make tasty sauce including tomatoes, jalapenos, cilantro and onions. The students are also planting basil, oregano and parsley from seeds.

Both the college and the nonprofit have small budgets and gardening tools are readily available. But what Pacoima Beautiful needed was manpower and a commitment to kick start the garden once again.

Free mulch will come from nearby Lopez Canyon and a Sylmar high school teacher who is an expert gardener will donate plants to the project to address the lack of healthy foods in the area.

“We are considered a food desert and I understand this garden isn’t going to fix that specific problem,” Contreras said. “It’s just to bring awareness to that and also the lack of open green space that we have in Pacoima and especially in the San Fernando Gardens. We wanted to build more of an accessible community and have people in the community be involved in gardening projects.”

Contreras said once the garden is completed and coronavirus restrictions are lifted, Pacoima Beautiful employees will use the plants and herbs to teach cooking in their kitchens and hold children’s workshops.

“(We will) teach them the importance of growing food, how to cook it, just overall wellness for that community in the San Fernando Gardens,” she said. “Eventually, we will bring in the importance of composting with food scraps at home. Just looking at a higher educational component that we can just build off of for the future.”