Like a thirst-quenching watering hole in nearby Death Valley, the Fullerton Arboretum is an oasis in the Los Angeles metro area food desert.
Located on the campus of California State University – Fullerton (CSUF), the arboretum is home to the Urban Agriculture Community-based Research Experience (U-ACRE). U-ACRE gives hands-on, community-based research experience to 15 undergraduate students who help local communities develop sustainable urban agriculture to achieve food security and provide families healthier food options. U-ACRE is funded by a $295,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).
Cal State Fullerton is a designated Hispanic-serving institution (HSI). HSIs are institutions with Hispanic enrollment of at least 25 percent and meet other selection criteria. The communities that surround the arboretum are largely Hispanic.
“U-ACRE has created a network of partnerships in an underserved, predominantly Latino community,” said U-ACRE Director Sara Johnson. Community partnerships also play a major role in the program. Students work closely with such Los Angeles-area groups as Pathways of Hope, Orange County Food Access Coalition, Future Food Farms Green2Go, and other local nonprofit community organizations to educate the importance of integrating agricultural practices into the urban ecosystem.
According to Jose Gonzalez, a recent U-ACRE graduate student from California State-Fullerton, the program provides community members with more than an abundance of resources and information to increase food security and access to healthy food. “Through U-ACRE, community members also learn about career opportunities in agriculture that go beyond “campesinos” (peasant farmers); they learn they can be researchers, educators, and the future leaders of our food system.”
“There are many integrated benefits to centering the program around urban agriculture,” Johnson said. “Our primary goal is to engage with the community on issues of food security and food choices for children and adults, but we also want to understand how urban agriculture is related to sustainability and that’s a major focus of our research and outreach.”
At Fullerton’s Ladera Vista Junior High School, U-ACRE students created compost for the school’s garden by vermicomposting – having worms do the work.
Their outreach also extends to the students of Vista Junior High in Fullerton, and together they monitor how their local harvesting is affecting the food choices the student make. “This is a great time for us to begin working with these children,” Johnson said. “They are adolescents starting to get interested in the larger environment and just beginning to make their own choices about what to eat.”
Through federal funding and leadership for research, education, and extension programs, NIFA focuses on investing in science and solving critical issues impacting people’s daily lives and the nation’s future. Projects like this support USDA’s commitment to local and regional food system development, which is coordinated by the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative.