The food justice work being done by local nonprofit Healthy Day Partners started by looking at a hyperlocal version of the issue — other kids who went to school with the founder’s son didn’t have the same access to healthy snacks.
“I noticed a lot of kids didn’t have food during recess, and I realized very quickly that they couldn’t afford it, so my co-founder and I … very quietly, supplied organic, healthy snacks in the classroom. It grew into really diving deep into school gardens and creating a 1-acre educational farm at the school,” says Mim Michelove, founder of Healthy Day Partners, an Encinitas-based nonprofit providing education and resources on starting and sustaining home and school gardens, and reducing food insecurity.
The program continued to grow. It gained state and national recognition for improving health and wellness in schools and providing environmental education. In addition to growing food for the school district and local food pantries, it expanded to 10 acres, with Michelove serving as director of the Encinitas Union School District’s Farm Lab. That eventually led to the formation of Healthy Day Partners as it functions today.
“After three years, I realized that I really loved what I was doing, but I wanted to focus on less affluent communities,” she says. “That’s when we relaunched Healthy Day Partners with a very personal focus for me, which was to try to reduce food insecurity and increase education and physical health in underserved communities.”
Michelove, who lives in Encinitas, took some time to talk about the organization’s food justice work and the passion she has for increasing equity in our food system. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For a longer version of this conversation, visit sandiegouniontribune.com/sdut-lisa-deaderick-staff.html.)
Q: What’s informed the way you approach the kind of food equity work you’re doing through Healthy Day Partners?
A: My philosophical perspective is that, particularly with the pandemic and Black Lives Matter, we noticed and talked about a broken food system, but it’s more than a broken food system. It is a classist system, it’s a racist system, and when I go to the grocery store in my neighborhood, it is completely wrapped in White privilege. For me, knowing that I have this ability to feed my family and my child healthy food whenever I want (and I also grow my own food, so it makes it really easy to do that), I think: “Well, everybody should be able to do this for their families. Everybody should have the same access.” When you look just around the corner, though, there are all of these pockets around us that don’t have the same access, and you can clearly see that people are hungry and that there’s food insecurity. There’s also this food system that has plenty of food and wastes it, throws it away, and doesn’t have the distribution system that is needed to feed everyone equally. It upsets me so much that I need to do something about it.
Q: There are numerous reports and studies about food insecurity and hunger — in San Diego County, as well as the state and the nation — including reporting from the San Diego Hunger Coalition that estimates one in three San Diegans are unable to provide enough nutritious meals for themselves/their families, as of March 2021 (which is up from one in four San Diegans in 2019). Can you talk a bit about your Homegrown Hunger Relief program and what kind of role it plays in addressing this issue of local food insecurity?
A: Our Homegrown Hunger Relief program really started with our Grab & Grow Garden program. As soon as (the COVID-19 pandemic) lockdown was announced, that was a time when a lot of grocery store shelves were empty and a lot of people were nervous about the food system and whether there was going to be access to food. My friend, Nan Sterman, and I were talking about what we could do. We both have expertise in gardening and growing food, so within three weeks, we put together the Grab & Grow Gardens program. We put together that program to help food insecure folks learn how to grow their own food. It’s more than just giving out emergency food, which is obviously critical, but it’s also empowering people with a life skill to grow their own healthy food, even if they don’t have land.
We were able to immediately get our garden kits into hunger relief agencies throughout San Diego County and at affordable housing units. We were getting feedback that it was an intergenerational activity, it gave people something to do during COVID, but I thought the food pantry lines were still too long and people were still having a hard time getting fresh food. What about empowering the home gardener who’s already growing food to take their excess bounty and donate it? We came up with a way for them to donate it and for us to collect it and get it directly to local food pantries, which is our Homegrown Hunger Relief program. We have donation stations around Encinitas and Carlsbad, and we really want to expand beyond that. I hope it’s helping people see that there’s a way for them to donate their excess bounty, and it’s a way for us to think about the health of our communities one garden at a time, one community at a time. It sounds so small, but it can add up to something that is truly life-changing.
Q: Why is this kind of food justice work — closing this gap in access to healthier foods — important to you?
I think, for a lot of us, it’s time for some self-reflection and taking responsibility to fix what’s broken that our society and country needs to address. For me, this is something I can help with because I have an area of expertise in growing food and I see the impact of growing food, having and increasing local food supplies, and having private and public spaces offering access to healthy food in order to eliminate food insecurity. I think we shouldn’t just be looking at our backyards to grow food, but our front lawns, side lawns, balconies and public parks. We have a lot of answers, they’re kind of simple, and they add up to having a real impact, so I hope that more people will adopt growing food as close to their plates as possible.