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—Sacramento, California 2016

SFUSA: Tell me about your work.

Chanowk Yisrael: I’m teaching people the secrets of the universe.

I got involved in Slow Food with Charity. I’m on the board of Slow Food Sacramento. I was a delegate to Terra Madre in  last year. Good, clean, fair? That’s not too far from what we’re doing here.

We’re constantly doing things in the community — teaching people how to empower themselves, cook meals, etc.  I got interested in gardening based on my parents, both of them had cancer. When I was young, that made me take a look at myself. The doctors told me I had a 95% chance of cancer early. So I started changing my eating habits, going to a plant-based diet. With a family, you find out that’s not sustainable. Even with a good salary, that wasn’t enough. I was sitting in my cubicle, at the start of the meltdown of the economy. What if I was in that position, how would I feed myself? I’m going to have to start to grow food in my backyard. I set everything up, bought a lot, then killed everything in two weeks. I realized I was disconnected from nature in general. Nature was a foreign thing to me. From there, I took a class, learned about the soil, so they have a good place to live. We went from there. First year, had 5% of food from garden, then 10%, 25%, now 1500 sq feet of vegetable crops, now have 40 fruit trees.

In 2011, I took this beyond the backyard and into the community to empower, engage and employ people — we live in the middle of a food desert. When we say food is security, it’s not being able to get healthy food into your family’s mouth. Buying organic is expensive. More people are food insecure than we know about. It doesn’t make any sense to me that I could do this in my backyard, but my community didn’t have people who understand the importance of growing your own food. I think this whole thing is a mental problem. It’s one thing to say, “here what’s you should eat, what you should do,” but it’s also about choices. At the end of the day, when you’re talking about food, you’re talking about changing people’s minds and how they think about food. It’s a strange thing. My question is, does anyone out there know anyone who is dealing with asthma, cancer, etc? Most of these are food diseases. If you’re eating good, clean, healthy food, you’re less likely to get these diseases. When you’re talking about changing the way you eat, you’re changing people’s mind. It’s a lifestyle change. It’s social. It’s economic. It’s political. It’s spiritual. People treat food as without value. In ancient times, there were big festivals devoted to food — now there’s an otherworldly character that’s given to food. Food is fuel and that’s all. Or just because it’s what you’re supposed to do. Look at access to food, but also education to food, and education to lifestyle — not eating the right food is addictive like drugs. Understanding and learning about all these things can’t stop with access. People have to move to a lifestyle change. 

At Yisrael Family Farm, we’ve had numerous educational sessions and community engagement projects, like:

    • Urban farm to fork dinners — we charge $25 for a five-course meal, catered, live music. We provided scholarships for people in the neighborhood to come for free. 
    • Classes at the local library — seed saving, food preserving, planting your fall/winter garden. Planting, preparation, pests. Composting…
    • We’re expanding garden sites and going to the corner site. There’s a closed school across the street with a kitchen. We want to add an edible kitchen and start an after-school program.
    • We’re going to start a chapter of the youth network and make sure they get paid. We want to connect with international work of Slow Food Youth Network and expose youth to all parts of the food system with a 3-day retreat. They’ll a whole day with a farmer, then a day with a chef learning food procurement, etc. — to give youth a full sense of the breadth of the food system. It’s a great urban agricultural situation. Also, maybe this group goes to Terra Madre to connect with international delegations?

SFUSA: Why is gardening important for youth?

CY: In Project Good (Growing Our Own Destiny) — growing food puts the power back in their hands. It’s healthier for our bodies and the planet, and positively impacts food deserts. Growing gives them independence and restores self-confidence, to take living thing from start to finish. We plant the living collective of responsibility and empathy. If you grow up with empty lots covered with trash, it taints your mind on what beauty looks like. If you can’t imagine what something better looks like, you can’t grow it. ‘Ok, there’s an empty lot. What do you see.’ At first, nothing. Now, ‘hm, we could put some fig trees on that…’

“Transforming the Hood for Good”

SFUSA: Why should youth become involved in Slow Food?

CY: Really understanding that it will connect you to different types of people. Here’s the thing, we’ve got some serious things going on. Monsanto wants to take control. Large MNC are polluting our natural resources and producing antibiotics to keep meat production going. When we talk about food insecurity, it’s ‘those people over there. But at the same time, if the grocery store shut down, people would be starving within 48 hours. It affects all races, colors, creeds, religions. There’s no one who’s not affected by it. You can slice that up however you want to, but there’s more people who want good, clean and fair food. But because people are divided by social class and status, most people don’t know that people living in a different place have the same ideals as they do. We’re connected to wide groups of people who believe the same things as we do. Connect youth in the US with youth in Uganda, or South Africa, or the Netherlands. When I started to describe the problems, people said, “Yeah, that sounds like my neighborhood.” This is a global problem that everyone is suffering from. Being able to have that solidarity with other people is great.

SFUSA: Why are you a member of Slow Food?

CY: Terra Madre opened my eyes to how people are involved in the Slow Food network, especially the Youth Network. It opened my eyes to the fact that people are experiencing the same problems. Instant solidarity. It’s not just me and my neighborhood fighting this fight here.

Another benefit is the many different people that you’re going to meet. Most people think of Slow Food as people who talk about wine and cheese. But once you get down to talk to people, there’s a deep, deep concern about not just Slow Food, but food in general and people in general. Food to every fork. Really understanding the dynamic to take what they have and give that back. Once you start to see it, there’s some serious philanthropy work going on here.

Learn more about Chanowk at yisraelfamilyfarm.net