We took Western Boulevard, Griffith Park in Los Angeles to Long Beach. The plan was to keep it easy, have fun with it. I ate an arugula salad the night before—not enough supplemental fuel to get me 30 miles to the ocean. I carried a half-empty bottle of Nuun spiked water. The first ten miles were a breeze. Steady pace, lots of stories along what seemed like an endless stretch of fast-food spots and strip malls. Somewhere past El Segundo Boulevard, the familiarity of marketing and signage started to dwindle. We Yelped for the closest restaurant where we could get actual healthy food. The nearest place was two miles up the road. Beyond that, the map was blank.
“Food desert” is defined as an urban area in which it is difficult to buy affordable or high-quality fresh food. While often overwhelmed with fast-food restaurants and liquor stores, these areas lack access to the kind of wholesome foods that are necessary for healthy nutrition and sustenance. Cities in South Los Angeles like Compton, Bell, Inglewood, and parts of the San Gabriel Valley all suffer from these disparities. Coincidentally enough, the city of Compton is zoned for commercial farming. Most residents of this area do not know this. Thankfully, there are some thought leaders in the food justice movement are making space in this forgotten land.
Moonwater Farm is an urban microstock farm in Compton created by Kathleen Blakistone and her partner, Rich Draut. The land is used to educate kids and locals of South L.A. on farming, healthy food preparations and preservations, and raising livestock. Like something out of Wonka’s factory, you can literally eat from the front yard. I got a chance to sit down with Kathleen at the farm to get to know more about her reasons for becoming an oasis in a desert.
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Kathleen: I had a very long career in the graphic arts and packaging, specifically in music and the home entertainment industry. I worked for International Paper and traveled all over the world, looked after color and pre-press and sales. I’ve always been in special packaging. Traveled to China and Europe. Did Disney and Apple. I had a ball doing that, it gave me the resources to say, “Now what? I don’t need to do another package.”
V: So how did the farm come about?
K: My husband and I were looking for an encore career—something we could do together. My son was in the Santa Monica schools when they were first starting gardens in schools out here. Again, it was the middle/late 90s, and gardens in schools weren’t that big of a thing back then. Then my husband did the Master Gardener program, and we thought to do an aquaponics farm. So we found this property in Compton that was zoned residential agriculture—so it meant that you could grow food commercially. Our vision was that we were going to put a 3,500-square-foot greenhouse in the backyard and grow lettuce and sell it to fancy restaurants. The property had a house on it, and everything was very dilapidated and needed restoration, so we set about restoring the house. We were living in Venice at the time and hauled 30 tons of garbage out of the back.
That was back in 2013 or 2014. Then we had dinner down here for the first time and got a knock on the door, and there was this woman that said, “Oh, I’m with these cowboys.” She gestured, and there were these two men sitting on horses in the street asking if they could lease the backyard for their horses. Of course, we were excited, and we went out to meet them. They were looking for a place to board their horses. We thought about it for a week or so, then called them back and said, “If you want to come for six months, since we aren’t going to build this greenhouse for six months, you can come.” One of the cowboys agreed. We didn’t really know them at all but figured it would be a great way to get to know folks in the neighborhood. He came and set up shop. A really nice man who teaches at Southwest College. He started to introduce us to community and started having conversations about wellness and good food. How important it all is. He did a cowboy training for boy scouts, and I set out snacks and water with mint in it.
He started to say, “Kathleen, come on. We need this in our neighborhood. You want to get a job? I have this middle school over here.” He then got me a job teaching an afterschool program in urban agriculture. It wasn’t too long until Rich and I realized that it would be a lot more interesting growing people instead of lettuce. We took a big left turn and came up with this farm camp for a summer program. One thing started to lead to another as he would bring kids over here for field trips. We would introduce a plant-based diet and different foods that they had maybe never tried before. I ran a program at the middle school where the kids got to cook. They loved it, and so did I. Things really took a turn thanks to his influence. He stayed here for three and a half years. He was a great influence on us and an ambassador to community. Through him, we met a whole lot of other people in iterative fashion. It is how we are where we are today. All the work we put into how do we support community. How do we use our privilege to provide more access? What does equity look like? How do we build wellness in communities where wellness has been traditionally neglected through very systemic reasons?
V: How has that transition to Compton been?
K: It’s been very powerful for us, personally. I think that the community has now started to see that we are here and aren’t going anywhere. We’re really trying to work with people of color-owned businesses. Folks in social justice. We have had fundraisers, weddings, field trips, farm camps, cooking classes, all kinds of pop-up activities to try and support a wider conversation around this issue of food, food justice, and food access.
V: How big of an issue are food deserts and food access in places like Compton?
K: Well, I would suggest that it is significant. Especially when you do an analysis of food security. Sadly, food insecurity has grown in the last decade in LA county. We’re 14 million people, and food insecurity is not having access to nutritious food that is culturally relevant. I think that is an important piece. Sadly, if we want to have a healthy meal, we are getting in our car and driving 20 to 25 minutes. We haven’t developed great models yet because we are always so profit-driven. I don’t know how you build equity in a profit-driven space. Particularly when we are trying to undo hundreds of years of inequity. We just started to turn a profit, and by the end of this year, we will be in our fifth year of business. We do a lot of conversation and dialogue with our partners. We’re trying to grow more into a collective and collaborative operation so that there is leadership development so we can think of what this might look like in eight years when Richard and I aren’t doing this anymore. If this is important to community, how can we leave this space to a collective or a community collaborative of folks who can support their vision? It doesn’t have to be our vision.
V: What is your vision for the next 10 years for Moonwater?
K: I think we would like to build a truly cooperative ownership model that will let us tap out in 10 to 12 years. At that point, we will be quite along in our years. What success looks like, I think, is if we could leave this to community members that are interested in food, wellness, and food systems. We have a lot invested in the place, emotionally and financially, so we will have to figure out a way to get resources raised so we can pass this along if that is what people want. If not, I guess we would sell it and figure out what the last 10 years of our existence look like.
V: Have wellness, nutrition, and food always been a part of your life practice?
K: Yes. Not as primary in my younger years, but I have always eaten well, exercised, and tried to take care of myself. I grew up in a nuclear family, had dinner at the dinner table every night, and was rooted in those traditions. Despite working like a crazy woman, I would come home, make dinner, and eat dinner as a family most nights when I wasn’t traveling for work. In that way, the family connection to food and healthy eating was always important to me. Things like going to the farmers’ market, particularly when I had my son. I made all his baby food. I was a single mom and would have him on my back and would grind up his carrots. All of those pieces to make sure he ate well. I took really good care of myself when I was pregnant. All of those pieces were really afforded to me.
V: Why do you think it is important for kids to learn how to grow their own food now and get this education while they are younger?
K: I think, for me, the food hopefully connects them to the land and the conversation becomes even bigger than themselves. I hope they understand that we only have this one earth, and if we don’t, in a more activated way, continue to take care of her, she doesn’t have the capacity to feed us. You look at a very primal level—we all eat. It is essential to our survival, yet we have really damaged the earth with our big agriculture techniques. We’ve fed a lot of people, but we’re seeing the price that we are paying for both our consumption and our food waste. What alternatives are there, in more local and personal ways, to care for the earth? It is an opportunity to introduce youth who might have been raised on fairly poor diets—simply by their zip codes—to a leek, fennel, artichoke, and minestrone soup. Make things that kids are like, “That’s bomb!” It’s important to be a farmer in the classroom. I’m really hoping to train more folks to be on staff with us so we can get out into the classrooms, get money raised so that these young people that we are training can get out into the classrooms and connect with the kids nearby.
V: The soil. How important is the soil, and what have we done to our earth that affects our ability to get healthy food?
K: Fortunately, the agriculture industry is changing. I’ve been doing research in my master’s program, and I can tell you that for the first time ever, pesticide sales are stagnant. That means they are not growing. There is a growing interest in biocides—which are using more enzymes that will render bugs sterile. There is greater research in that space. We know, from the last 50 years, that using heavy fertilizers and pesticides have literally poisoned our food system. Glyphosate is going to be the DDT of this generation. I’m an older person and DDT was the pesticide that they stopped using when I was a youth, and I sure hope that glyphosate is one of those that they stop using now or in the near future. Here, we are practicing a hot composting method that Elaine Ingham, from the University of Oregon, has really been teaching and perfecting over her career. This is the idea that we really need to feed the soil microbiology, that we are not paying attention to what is underneath our feet. That is an extraordinarily important component of how we survive. My research will be on biostimulants which are humic acid, seaweed extracts, and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi to build up the rhizosphere which is around the loop zone of the plants and really enables the plant to build its own resilience so that there is reduced need for pesticides and so that the plant is pulling up everything it needs from the soil. Let’s see how we can support plant life in building its own immune system. We talk about wellness and not wanting to use a lot of antibiotics and outside input. Let’s do the same thing for the plant world because they certainly have the capacity to take care of themselves if we are speaking about polyculture and a very healthy rhizosphere. There’s all kinds of research showing how the plant builds resilience when it has what it needs in the rhizosphere and in the mineral space of the soil to pull up what it needs. They are then more nutritious. The plant has more minerals inside of its tissues, so when we eat that plant, we’re eating those secondary metabolites. Those are things that most commercially-raised vegetables don’t have.
V: Who are some of your colleagues in the business?
K: RootDown LA, amazing organization. They have been our chef partners for farm camp. They have been here every year. That’s an organization that was started by Megan Hansen, and the operations have been handed over to the young people that she groomed into leadership. That’s a model that I am very attracted to and [there’s] a dynamic group of young people over there. Long Beach Fresh has been an amazing aggregator of individuals and businesses in the food system, and they have done a marvelous job promoting and creating conversation and helping to connect and create networks of success. The Growing Experience, in Long Beach, is a 7-acre farm attached to a housing development that does great work.
V: How can people educate themselves and get more active right now?
K: What a good question. I think becoming engaged with the LA Food Policy Council could be a very interesting way for your local readers. They have many working groups. They are mostly rooted in policy formation, but they’re incredibly active in listening to the people coming to these working groups. Their focus is based on what they are hearing from the people who are engaged. There is an Urban Agriculture Working Group, a Good Food Purchasing Working Group and so on. They are a really powerful organization in Los Angeles working for food equity and food justice in the city. I like making sure people know about them and use their resources. Their website is great. They have public meetings, most of which are free. They passed the food vendor legalization after eight years. They’re committed to policy and equity. They are really leaders in the nation in terms of their actions and activities. If families have youth, I would invite them to come to camp this summer. Especially the ones here in the neighborhood. We work hard to make sure we have young people they can relate to. Great chefs come in, and they cook their own lunch. Harvesting happens, and they spend time with the animals. Really just getting connected to the land. They do art projects that are related to nature and land-based learning.
V: What do you grow on the property?
K: It is a small space, so it is a little bit of a lot of things. For summer, it’s always lots of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and add-ons like okra and raw herbs. Using herbs to make food taste good and understanding that just a little bit of fresh herbs can make anything taste better. Lots of flowers, edible flowers. The kids always love that. So we’re eating nasturtiums, fennel flowers, calendula, and medicine flowers. Medicine-making goes on too. Not so much with the kids but with adults.
V: So there are opportunities for adults to come and learn too?
K: Absolutely. I haven’t had a scheduled open house in a while, but we have an open house that is free, and we usually run a workshop. From time to time, we will run workshops for adults as well. I’ve had so many requests, and I would have to say that I am overdue for scheduling something like that.
V: How important is it for people to shop and eat locally?
K: That is a very interesting question. What is local? In California, we live in an urban space, and there aren’t very many farms within a hundred miles of our city. So in an urban space, eating local probably has a different definition than a peri-urban or rural space. Also, is eating local a privileged space too? These are things that I have started to uncover in my own research. I really began to question nomenclature and whether it’s serving this equity conversation. I know we need to be resilient in our urban spaces. I really believe that with our communities and networking, we can have things like crop swap. I love the Long Beach crop swap, and I go to that as often as I can. It is where you are growing food and you meet with other folks that grow food and are literally trading. You put it all out on a table, and you take what you want. If I have too many grapefruits, maybe I will be able to go get oranges or spring onions. Whatever else the neighbors are growing. I think that is a really effective way of building community resilience and meeting others who grow food. But really, how are we serving folks who live in apartments and don’t have access to this conversation? I’m not sure I’ve got a good answer at this moment and time. I think weaving urban agriculture into our concrete jungle is an urgent action item. There is a lot of research that shows that green space reduces a whole lot of personal psychological stress, and if we’re in this wellness conversation, it can be a very interesting addition to the landscape that is currently not there.
There are still these gross inequities that we need to address. When Mayor Brown had the free food giveaway—with all of the fruits and veggies—I think 3,000 people showed up over there. So this notion that people don’t want it, is just that. People want good food. The reality is, can they afford it? If you’re a single mom and your workday is 12 to 13 hours either at your job or traveling to and from, do you have the bandwidth to come home and put dinner on the table? That is an extraordinary weight to have to produce a meal at the end of that kind of day.
There is just a lot to unpack. I think that is the real issue. It is a fabric of support that we have to weave. We can start by having access to healthy fruits and veggies. You know, around the corner from the farm there are two Latinx grocery stores, and they do have a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables. Now, they’re not organic, and I’ve asked. He has said, “My customers won’t pay those prices.” But they are buying fresh food. That is certainly on the continuum. Better than going to McDonald’s.
V: That is so important to share because there is so much hanging on labels, especially in privileged spaces. I think the root of it is that we just need to get people fresh food to start.
K: Right! Fresh, healthy food. The LA Policy Council is very good in its language and positioning. One of the reasons I love them so much is because they’re an arbiter of the food system. They really practice in understanding the systemic issues that have created the situation that we are in and then through policy. They have wholesale changes in the bodega and the corner store. So it changes from a liquor store to a corner store where you go and buy your tomatoes and lettuce. They’ve done some very interesting work in that space.
I’m thinking that would be a really interesting project—to find some of these liquor stores in Compton and say, are you prepared to bring in some fresh healthy food?
V: I think there is space for that.
K: I do too. Meet people where they are. Make it as easy to get an apple as it is to get a candy bar. Create more spaces like Moonwater that are intimate, beautiful, and provide refuge for folks that don’t always have access to green, open space. So you have it in every neighborhood.
V: Yeah, and you don’t have to pay $300 a month to get into it.
V: How do you guys feel that you are undoing ordinary?
K: I hope that we are setting an example of what folks can do with their privilege to create more equity in this world. Focus on community. Build we, not me.