Exploring An Urban Oasis: The Ecology Center With Johnathan Zaidman
"How do we reconnect communities to what's ancestrally and indigenously theirs?"
- Johnathan Zaidman, Director of Engagement & Impact at The Ecology Center.
In most cultures, "devour and scatter" simply doesn't exist. The best memories are made around the table, fire, or any other way of congregating for a meal. As an Italian, the importance of food and nourishment was understood from a young age. The weekly ritual of "Sunday Sauce" was our birthright in which every family member contributed and shared. Inherited from a lineage of farmers, "Sunday Sauce" was the tradition of sourcing ingredients from our farm or local market. It was the transfer of "how-to's" like hand-making pasta and rolling the best meatballs on the East Coast! It was the kitchen backsplash, covered in red splatters as homemade tomato sauce bubbled for hours over the stove. Somewhere between laughter and loudness, we told stories, we drank my grandfather's wine—we danced! And every Sunday, those family members who were still with us gathered.
Since the beginning of time, human behavior has always revolved around food. Meals have shaped the cultural heritage of Indigenous America to the furthest tip of East Asia. Ceremonies have been historically assigned, whether it be how women foraged for berries, men hunted wild game, or how after-dinner celebrations led to dancing barefoot around a pit.
But today, a bleak, gray shroud conceals once rainbow-colored customs. Conventional agriculture dismantled the intricate human connection existing around food traditions. "Sunday Sauce" has become a distant memory as capitalism and industrialization crept away with what we value most. Inequality and food insecurity has paralyzed culinary heritage as families struggle to find food as simple as rice or grains. Ethical principles in agroecology and regenerative agriculture force these tough conversations to the surface. To reinstate what was stolen from our livelihoods, we need a complete overhaul of the food system as we know it. Only then can humankind restore the celebration of having bread to break bread.
Current industrial food systems are disjointed; on the one hand, billions of people face famine and hunger. In 2020, the FAO estimated that between 720 and 811 million people faced starvation. One in three people did not have adequate access to food, and two billion suffer from micronutrient deficiencies. On the other hand, tons of food cycles through landfills, and billions of people experience food-related diseases such as obesity and heart disease.
What is the right to food? Access to adequate food is a human right, bound and protected by international law, which is widely recognized by most states. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) outlines that "everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food." The United Nations Special Rapporteur defines the right to food as "regular, permanent and unrestricted access to adequate and sufficient food corresponding to the cultural traditions of the people to which the consumer belongs." Shifting the paradigm to focus on the human rights aspect of food creates a starting point for reform in civil, cultural, economic, social, and political barriers surrounding food insecurity.
Hunger and malnutrition disproportionately affect persons who identify as women and girls. In nearly two-thirds of countries worldwide, gender inequality is a primary factor in food deprivation for women. One causation reported by the World Food Program references "deep-rooted" gender norms in developing countries, one in which women eat last, eat without diversity, or sacrifice food entirely. This phenomenon occurs despite women requiring the same amount of nutrition as men—while doing 2.6 times more (unpaid) domestic work.
The second causation identified man-made conflict as the number one driver of hunger on the planet, primarily harming women and girls. In developing countries, women earn 23% less than men. When war strikes, they become the head of the household and, with a low salary, sacrifice their well-being to feed their families.
Lastly, the lack of women's rights amplifies the effects of food inequality. Despite making up half of the world's agricultural workers, women produce 20-30% less due to a lack of farming resources such as tools, technology, and information. Without decision-making powers, the ability to own land, or access to education, women are unable to reach their true potential in society. When women are stripped of their equal rights, the world suffers, and sustainability becomes a concept frozen in time.
Women, and persons identifying as such, are the key to ending world hunger and food insecurity. On average, women and girls reinvest about 90% of their income back into the household while men reinvest 30-40%. They contribute to maintaining the home by purchasing food, cleaning equipment, medicine, and education supplies. Dedication to the household amplifies their consciousness of sustainable agro-practices intended to mitigate adverse health implications on their families. Women are also multi-generational guardians of the land and cultural heritage, one that is an innate part of their being. Thus, Women are at the literal heart of all agrosystems.
When not constrained by inequalities, women and girls become a resource cohort for transferring knowledge such as seed-saving, water storage, seasonal planting, and harvesting. Supporting them in agriculture will enhance productivity and technological advances, decreasing the number of people living in hunger and poverty by 100-150 million.
“Agroecology is instrumental for realizing 12 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, including the reduction of poverty and hunger; and, because it requires fewer external inputs and shortens value chains, agroecology empowers farmers and local communities." - United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP)
Ethical principles in regenerative agriculture and agroecology recognize food as a human right and highlight the importance of protecting and preserving agrobiodiversity to maintain this right.
"You look at the Latinx practice of the milpa planting, corn beans, and squash…. That's beautiful, that's permaculture, and they've been doing it for thousands of years [. . .] For thousands of years, the planet was not in a state of ecological decline. So they had something right. It's not a conversation on anything outside greed, industrialization, and the un-democratization of all living systems– where very few control very much. That's not equitable." - Jonathan Zaidman.
According to the FAO, more than 90 percent of crop varieties have "disappeared from farmers' fields." As of 2014, only nine plant species (sugar cane, maize, rice, wheat, potatoes, soybeans, oil-palm fruit, sugar beet, and cassava) account for 66% of total crop production by weight despite there being over 30,000 edible plant species on Earth.
Like soil, there needs to be biodiversity in what we eat. Director-General of the FAO José Graziano da Silva states that biodiversity is "critical for safeguarding global food security, underpinning healthy and nutritious diets, improving rural livelihoods, and enhancing the resilience of people and communities." Agroecology not only maximizes plant biodiversity but makes plants more resilient, thereby less likely to go extinct.
Encouraging the biomimicry of systems found within nature enhances the chances of mimicry of "wild plants" on farms. Eating "wild plants" can alleviate micronutrient deficiencies, boosting the immune system and providing a full scope of nutrition while nourishing the planet.
A working question posed—how do we reconnect communities to what's ancestrally and indigenously theirs? It all circles back to having a living relationship with food, one that is tangible—seen, touched, smelled, and tasted.
"You look at many immigrant families, and they are one or two generations removed from agriculture. Their parents or their grandparents grew their own food or harvested food or were part of an agricultural career or just personal effort. And, a lot of times in the immigration story, that family comes here and actually becomes the one further from real food. You look at food deserts disproportionately affecting black and brown communities and the individuals who have real relationships."
Addressing the disparity within the food system is no easy feat, but The Ecology Center has taken mega strides to ensure all community members have equal access to the surplus. On Wednesdays, groups of children from neighboring schools, primarily kids of ethnic origin, arrive at the farm to create a feast for themselves and their families to enjoy. The children look deeply at their heritage and the lives of their ancestors, re-discovering a connection to the land.
"So the idea is—how do we bring those kids here? How do we have those recurring field trip experiences where they harvest, cultivate, and help prepare a meal that they invite their parents or grandparents to? [How do they] serve them or sit with them and talk about the things that grandma or grandpa is like "oh, I grew that too" and re-bridge this gap again."
At the same time, children from this program, Fiesta Verde, the summer camps, and the regular school year learn the art of sharing the surplus with food insecure families called Nourishing Neighbors. The Ecology Center serves its community by donating at least 150 nutritious meals to food insecure families weekly.
"Why aren't your kids paying attention in school? It's because they're malnourished. They have enough calories but not the right kind. So, we wanted to create something much more intimate and build relationships with families—so it's not like we'll just come once! We make a commitment to your families that you know every single week you can come to this farm. You can get a freshly made meal, so a jarred soup or salad, or I call it rice beans and greens bowl. Where you're going to have nutrient-dense ingredients, fresh, local, organic, and seasonal. It's something that you can feed your kids and know that you are having a healthy meal."
This is quite the opposite of a food bank or pantry focused on keeping people fed and alive. The weekly Nourishing Neighbors is keeping people full and nourished. Rather than providing families a farm box, assuming all food would be used, they now operate under the principle of "take what you need and will use." This practice has been proven successful in food waste diversion, complimenting the permaculture principles governing the farm.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, The Ecology Center offers Orange County a unique culinary tradition. Every Friday night, well-renowned chefs come in from different areas of California and Baja California Sur to create a feast celebrating the culinary heritage of human connection.
"I see it as the opposite of the 90's celebrity chef movement, where it's like. Get me asparagus from Japan and cod from Peru! You know, none of that is interesting anymore. There are well-recognized and visible chefs who are like, "give me what's fresh, local, organic, sustainable, and seasonal—that I can see right in front of me. Let me make a meal with just that."
This intimate weekly occasion has drawn all types of visitors from near and far. Jonathan Zaidman considers The Ecology Center to be a lightning rod for the culinary movement in Southern California, attracting the likes of progressives in the sustainable food movement.
"It's a different chef every week who is a leader in their movement, a master in their craft. They're taking time to get out of their kitchen, prepare a meal on a farm in front of 64 people, and cook on fire, with everything coming from 250 feet away or less… It becomes an opportunity for us to change culture and change behavior through that which people are very comfortable with."
Sure, people could come to the farm for a permaculture class, seed-saving workshop, or to volunteer with the market garden and learn some skill building. The Community Table Series offers an authentic experience to see where each element of food is grown, watch chefs create culturally significant meals, and gather where stories and laughter are shared. Around the table, the community is reminded of how to break bread with neighbors and share in the abundance of flavors coming from right under their feet; a beautiful expression of "what's behind the plate" and seasonal giving.
"I realize and am very sensitive to the fact that not everybody is doing the "almost private dinner on a farm" [. . .] We try to have a counterbalance as far as an accessibility standpoint because that's a luxury offering. So, you can come two days a week to the farm to have Peace Pizza. Bring your family. Your kids can run around. Grab a pizza, grab a salad, grab a juice, all made from the farm, and have a nice time."
Peace Pizza on Thursdays and Saturdays is an alternative offering for those who want to experience the farm without committing to a farm dinner. Afterward, you can stop at the farm stand and collect the ingredients needed to make a "Peace Pizza" in the comfort of your own home. Except for cheese and a few others, all ingredients come directly from the farm.
"My family is from Mexico City. We have a very interesting relationship with food. The point is, by being able to showcase these beautiful culinary offerings, it becomes almost the gateway drug to people saying things like, "whoa, what if I ate like that at home, and how would I do that even?" Fortunately, we have a world-class farm stand where you don't need to guess anymore what's seasonal—you can just come to the farm stand. What's there is seasonal because that's what grew here."
While the thoughtfulness behind each program of The Ecology Center cannot be argued, there are other ways to interact with your local farm and community to experience similar offerings outside of Orange County. One of the best alternatives to experiencing a sliver of the Community Table Series is to visit a farm-to-table restaurant with your friends or family. Weekly, local, or seasonal farmers' markets are another great option for sourcing regenerative produce for a group meal or celebration. If you're feeling spontaneous, contact any local regenerative farms in your area and see if you're able to pick or source fresh produce directly from the land. With so many wonderful options available, it's important to remember that access to food is both a human right and a privilege. Individuals have the power to shift the course of a failing food system and make it equitable and regenerative for all.
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