Karen Segura used to eat fast food on a weekly basis and constantly ate snacks when she started the 6th grade at Bell Gardens Intermediate, but like most of the students who joined the school’s garden club, her tastes evolved and health improved as she learned to grow and sell fruits and vegetables right out of her school-based community garden.
John Garza told EGP that he and his teaching assistant Eva Cupchoy started the club in 1993.
“When I came to teach here, literally all you could see was dirt and weeds,” Garza said. “That’s when someone asked ‘why are there no community gardens in Bell Gardens.”
The two former teachers, who now work as club advisors, thought it would be wonderful for every school in Bell Gardens to have a garden and a club so children could learn about nutrition.
“That was a dream that we thought we would reach someday, but we never thought it was going to be someday soon,” Cupchoy said.
Last month the garden club reached its goal of opening a garden at all seven public schools in Bell Gardens: Cesar E. Chavez, Bell Gardens, Suva and Garfield Elementary schools, Suva Intermediate, Bell Gardens Intermediate and Bell Gardens High School.
The first five gardens were financed with nearly $180,000 in grant money obtained by the Campaign for a Healthier Bell Gardens (CHBG), a non-profit health initiative aimed at reducing diabetes and teen pregnancy in the city. Lani Cupchoy, project coordinator for CHBG told EGP that in addition to funding the gardens for the last three years, the grant paid for educational outreach, nutrition workshops and regular farmer’s markets.
The gardens at Suva Elementary and Suva Intermediate were opened with funding from Lowe’s and the United Latino Fund.
What began as just cleared plots of soil have since evolved into gardens with gazebos and sidewalks; currently growing sunflowers, tomatoes and squash.
Student gardeners from all 7 clubs will come together this week for an end of the year celebration and the awarding of scholarships ranging from $5 to $1,000 to pay for school supplies and college tuition. The scholarships come from money made at the farmer’s markets they host each quarter.
“The money all goes back to the children,” Eva Cupchoy explained. “We think it’s important to help the student because by encouraging them to go to college they can continue to help the community.”
The farmer’s markets allow all the clubs to get together and sell the fruits and vegetables they have grown, even if its just one onion or a couple of tomatoes, Eva said.
“It’s mostly a pride thing. It’s for them to say, ‘look at what’s in my garden in this city.’”
Segura is now a freshman at the Applied Technology Center in Montebello but still volunteers with the club in her spare time. She told EGP she doesn’t mind waking up at 5:30 a.m. to help set up at the farmer’s market.
She says the garden clubs help students like her, who pull the weeds and maintain the plants, become more responsible and involved in the community. They also learn about the benefits of eating organic foods and how to communicate to others what they have learned, Segura said.
Eva told EGP that thousands of students have participated over the years, leading to a local “gardening fever.”
But the clubs are facing financial uncertainty again this year, as they try to find new funding resources.
The gardens costs a couple thousand dollars each to set up, but according to Garza, now that they are in place expenses are lower and what they need is gardening materials like seeds and soil to keep going.
Funding for the clubs must be found so they can continue to help students and the community learn more about nutrition, Segura told EGP. “I rarely eat junk food or fast food” anymore Segura said. “I’ve only had McDonalds two times this year.”
The clubs have also exposed students to yoga, art and music through discussion and field trips, according to Eva, who says the clubs have “made a difference in the community.”
Eva said she can’t claim Bell Gardens is now the healthiest city, “But at least in every school there’s a garden and the kids are very excited to work in it.”
A 2011 Los Angeles Times article cited Bell Gardens’ 36 percent childhood obesity rate as the highest in Los Angeles County. Eva said the article shocked people in the community and made them want to change the statistic.
“I’m still a kid, so when I read the article I realized I was in the statistic and so I needed to find a way to help,” Segura said.
Garza noted that a sixth grader at Bell Gardens Intermediate was diagnosed with diabetes. “That woke up a lot of people, that this could happen to anyone.” Garza said. “She’s off medication now and lost weight because she started eating healthy.”
BGI garden club members regularly talk about making healthier choices while grocery shopping and encouraging children to exercise. Over the years, the club has helped children who would first reach for potato chips and sodas change the way they eat, Eva said.
“Now the kids are eating healthy, they’re grocery shopping with their parents and the parents are now having a better dialogue with their kids about nutrition,” added Garza.
The lack of funds has led Eva and Garza to consider having each garden club work independently to keep their gardens going, perhaps with the help of their school or PTA.
“We would like to visit every garden to check up on them, to offer them support,” Eva said. “It might not be with money because we don’t have any, but with the knowledge we have.”
The BGI garden club hopes to obtain funding through donations in order to continue to grow enough fruits and vegetables to put on the farmer’s markets for the community.
“We’re waiting for a miracle,” Eva said. “Maybe somebody can make a donation.
For more information about the club or to make a donation contact John Garza at (562) 544-6684.