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Frank Dipietrapaul leads adult and youth learning programs at Las Milpitas Community Farm

Food justice is, at its heart, social justice. When we understand that racial and economic inequalities marginalize people and deprive them of access to healthy, sustainable and nourishing food, we recognize that our work for social justice must include striving for equitable access to good food.

In many areas, limited access to whole foods make it difficult or impossible to find accessible, adequate, and culturally appropriate food. Success in food justice is not just changing the way we eat. Food justice is to change the way we think, live and treat each other.

Frank Dipietrapaul teaches students about vermicomposting.
Frank Dipietrapaul teaches adult and youth learning programs in food justice, composting, and sustainability at Las Milpitas Community Farm.

Most of our culture stems from the foods we eat. It’s no coincidence that the terms culture and cultivate come from the same root word (the Latin cultus means to care, the French colere means to till). When I teach students who visit Las Milpitas Community Farm, I ask where their food comes from. And, even while they are standing in a farm that has food growing all around them, the most common answer is “the grocery store.” While it is true that the grocery store sells our food, where our food comes from is a complex and beautiful story. Most people rarely know who grew their food and how.

But what if we thought of food as a great-tasting medicine, a joyful experience, or even a way of living? Food is for sharing with loved ones, a part of our lives to be appreciated and respected. After all, without these food experiences not only do we lose our health and well-being, but also the cultural links that connect us to each other.

Some of my most cherished childhood memories are baking cookies with my “other nana” or learning how to make traditional Italian marinara with my “that nana.” Do we want our youth’s food memories to be of Taco Bell or McDonalds? Rushing to stuff their faces while eating in the car on the way to some other destination, barely taking notice of not only what they’re putting in their bodies, but how it’s making them feel? One of my students told me that she had fast food for breakfast, lunch and dinner the previous day. This is the “culture” of food today, fast and cheap without a thought as to its nourishment.

Unhealthy eating habits are common in our youth today. Two of our school campuses are located downtown, providing quick, easy access to a multitude of fast and cheap food options. The lure of fried or sugary foods is too convenient to pass up for many students. This is a prime example of a typical city “Food Swamp” scenario. Unhealthy options abound, while healthy options are limited, either physically or financially. The downtown location also places us in the middle of a concrete jungle, surrounded by skyscrapers and bustling city life. My role at CITY Center for Collaborative Learning is to show students that they have the knowledge and skills to find and to grow good food anywhere through the careful intention, planning and support of a vibrant community.

Frank Dipietrapaul and City High School Students building a vermicomposting bin.
Frank Dipietrapaul and City HS students build a Vermicomposting Bin. Students at CITY Center for Collaborative Learning’s three schools compost food waste instead of sending it to the landfill.

An amazing portion of that community exists right here in Tucson, at Las Milpitas de Cottonwood Community Farm. At Las Milpitas the mission is to “provide materials and support for local residents to grow food for themselves, making healthy, local food more accessible to low-income families. The farm offers family garden plots, gardening supplies, and educational workshops at no cost.” This is a powerful place for our community to gather and share knowledge and resources. Even the International Rescue Committee, an organization that “responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises and helps people to survive and rebuild their lives,” is represented here, providing refugees a place to grow their own food in a way that aligns with their culture. The food from our refugee gardeners is food justice on a plate, movingly and meaningfully grown in a genuinely moving and meaningful manner.

My favorite part of the farm is The Learning Garden, a place of small-sized gardeners to grow big-sized plants for an even bigger long-term impact. From seeds to vermicomposting to space for genuine play, our kids can just be kids while at the same time connecting to the earth, learning about the environment, and doing their part for the community.

Come bring your children or your students to the farm! You’ll help them cultivate a mind that will continue the sense of community and hard work that is needed to grow amazing food and an amazing us.

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