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Collective Roots Helps Seniors Grow Vegetables and Income

AARP Foundation supports East Palo Alto program

East Palo Alto is just across the creek from Palo Alto, Calif. — and a thousand miles away in terms of its residents’ income levels and well-being. One of the biggest differences between the two towns is that Palo Alto’s citizens have access to all kinds of healthy foods from a number of sources. Until a few years ago, East Palo Alto didn’t even have a grocery store; today it has just one, which serves 32,000 people.

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Collective Roots is an organization that helps older people grow their own food- a man holding a basket of fresh-picked vegetables

The senior gardening program will teach people how to grow food and help them sell it at the local farmers market. — Photo by Helen King/Corbis

In 2008, a nonprofit called Collective Roots started a community farmers market to give East Palo Alto citizens access to healthy food. The market needed many different kinds of produce, because East Palo Alto is incredibly diverse. Hispanics make up 55 percent of the population, African Americans, 20 percent; whites, 11 percent; native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders, 8 percent; and Asians, 5 percent.

Some of the food for this farmers market came from seven gardens in the community’s elementary schools — Collective Roots taught young students and their families how to grow and nurture vegetables. Growing produce isn’t difficult in this area — its biggest industry was once farming. Garden by garden, Collective Roots is rebuilding a food system that is robust and local.

Now, thanks to an AARP Foundation Hunger Impact grant, Collective Roots is setting up a gardening program for East Palo Alto’s older residents. The project includes a 12-week cooking and gardening course, senior-center based and in-home gardens, and a transportation working group to bring public transportation to the many older people who no longer drive. But the focal point of the project is the Senior Growers’ Cooperative to help residents sell the produce they raise at the farmers market and earn some extra money at the same time.

Older gardeners will have a lot of help from Collective Roots, which is providing not only gardening classes but also soil, compost and seedlings to get them started, along with a tool library where they can check out equipment like shovels and rakes. Because East Palo Alto’s growing season is year-round, gardeners will have both winter and summer crops. Older people without a yard won’t be left out — the program is setting up three community gardens for them.

The Collective Roots gardening project goes way beyond healthier eating. It brings seniors in East Palo Alto the opportunity to meet new friends, learn a new skill and earn some extra cash. Moreover, over the next two years the East Palo Alto farmers market will be receiving a lot of new produce, which is good for people of every age.

Also of interest: AARP Foundation tackles hunger proactively. »

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