Jen Nation: National City nonprofit rises to the occasion

We can say a lot of things about 2020, and most of them probably aren’t very positive. I’ve spent a great deal of time searching for silver linings amid a year of uncertainty, civil unrest, social injustices and blatant health inequity.

However, I’ve discovered it isn’t hard to find things to be thankful for if you look in the right spots. And I am most thankful that I found so many silver linings through witnessing the resiliency of a community.

As an executive director of a nonprofit in National City, one of the hardest-hit communities both from the COVID-19 pandemic and from unemployment, I witnessed our staff and board come together quickly and efficiently to work with the community to ensure access to healthy food. Within days, our staff shifted to maximize growing on our property and to figure out how to safely distribute food and communicate this shift to the local community. We went from seeing six to 10 families in a week to seeing 70 in that span. People were able to pay what they could — or not at all — with no questions asked. We shared recipes and built partnerships to ensure the food that was distributed could stretch as long as possible.

Through a partnership with Healthy Day Partners and Nan Sterman the Waterwise Gardener, we started offering “Grab and Grow Gardens” at our weekly produce stand so people could begin growing their own food. Week by week, visitors would share photos and recipes from what they had grown and harvested, and ask our garden staff questions to maximize their yield. Little by little, people were taking steps to have access to healthy food right in their own homes.

As members of an organization that has worked with the community for 10 years, we knew how critical it was to continue to listen. Our program participants were feeling the strain on their mental, emotional and physical health, and our team facilitated workshops to help people who were feeling socially isolated stay connected. Participants drove the topics and built a safe space to share feelings and thoughts as both the pandemic and racial inequities were front and center.

I’m proud and grateful that our staff and board invested in a three-month equity training certification through Fieldstone Network, and hosted book clubs in both English and Spanish to talk about race and inequity in our health system and food justice.

I’m thankful that two women who had never run for public office had the courage and strength to run in National City. Both graduated from Olivewood Gardens’ Cooking for Salud program. Both are advocates for a more just and equitable community. Both ran clean, positive, uplifting campaigns that give me hope.

Most of all, I’m thankful and proud to be part of a team that is passionate, dedicated and determined to take the steps necessary to make change. And whose members ask questions, include all voices and build partnerships to fight systemic racism and social injustice, and work for the kind of food system that ensures everyone has the same access to healthy, local food.

Nation is the executive director at Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center. She lives in Normal Heights.

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