Seeds of change in East L.A.

There are no yoga classes on this side of town. No gourmet grocery stores, or bevies of wannabe actresses sipping low-fat chais. Instead, Mexican pop music wafts out into the streets. Massive, colorful murals - of the Virgin Mary or of strapping farmers harvesting green, faraway fields - adorn the walls. And down the main avenues, neon lights seduce passersby with: "Four bacon and three egg breakfast specials for $3.55."

Such offers seem especially attractive here in East Los Angeles, where most of the 125,000-odd residents are first- and second-generation Latino immigrants, working hard in low-paying jobs. Fast, calorie-laden food is abundant and cheap, and more than 20 percent of local children are obese. Obesity, a problem across the United States, is worse, according to studies, in low-income and immigrant communities such as this one, where fresh produce is unavailable or too expensive.

But one local doctor has taken an innovative approach to the problem. He started a half-acre community garden, and has watched the site - and the residents - blossom.

"I was working in the hospital, and in 10-minute visits was seeing many obese children whose real problem was overexposure to junk food and lack of physical activity," says Robert Krochmal, a physician at White Memorial Medical Center. "I felt very limited in my response, and wanted to find a way to make a bigger difference to the health of the community."

His solution wasn't far away. In fact, it was right outside his window. Dr. Krochmal - working with hospital colleagues, community leaders, some city charities, and several neighborhood families - turned a vacant lot owned by the hospital into a community garden - Proyecto Jardin - one of the first of its kind in this part of town.

Its gate is always unlocked, its seeds and tools are free to all, its produce is for the taking - and the garden is, in its own small way, helping change the way East L.A eats - all within the community's Latino context.

Today, four years after its inception, the garden has really grown. There are bananas and sugar cane, rosemary, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, and some basil left over from last summer. There is also more traditional Latino fare - nopal cactus leaves, herbs, and, in the proper season, different varieties of Mexican corn.

A play area has been created in which harvest celebrations take place, a colorful wall of tile mosaics has gone up, and an herb garden - designed with geometrical spirals of ancient Aztec society - has been planted.

"My grandfather grew corn, pumpkins, and squash, like everyone else we knew did," says Graciela Morales, who lives around the block from the garden, in a cramped apartment on Cesar Chavez Avenue. Here, in her adopted home, her husband works as an elevator operator in a factory and the only fields her five children know are the ones in the murals.

Krochmal can imagine what diet Mrs. Morales grew up on: Corn tortillas with no added fat and a high prevalence of fruits and vegetables. And he knows well what her kids could be eating today: "The first generation of immigrants switches to flour tortillas, and the second generation is eating double cheeseburgers with fries."

The garden, he explains, is a step toward introducing, or reintroducing, the idea of more nutritious options and then providing those more nutritious foods.

Morales passed by the garden a dozen times, on her way to pick up the children at school, before peeping in one breezy afternoon. These days, she shows up for committee meetings - giving her opinion about what should be planted and when - and picks all her seasonings from the herb patches.

A few months ago a visiting friend brought her some fava beans from Mexico to plant there.

"It's not an overnight thing," admits Krochmal, who is as likely to find himself alone in the garden as he is surrounded by a group of neighbors. "But I feel something powerful is going on."

Indeed, neighborhood schools are beginning to bring in classes, kids are signing up to take seeds home, and hundreds of people have been showing up for traditional harvest festivities.

Community gardens in urban areas exist, in one form or another, around the world. The American Community Gardening Association estimates there are close to 10,000 community gardens throughout the US and Canada.

There are 65 in Los Angeles alone, growing fruits and vegetables year-round, says Al Renner, president of the community garden council in the city. They range from small plots on back streets to one that covers 14 acres.

The goals of these gardens are diverse: They bring together neighbors to plant and sow, create community pride, improve the physical environment, encourage more active lifestyles, promote organic farming, reduce family food budgets, and give people from all walks of life something to do.

In a place such as East Los Angeles, the potential benefits - especially in terms of changing nutrition habits - are substantial, says Mr. Renner.

"In so many of the poorer areas in L.A., like all over the country, kids are just not giving their bodies what they need, and this affects their looks, and, yes, their behavior," says Barbara Boone. She is head of the Los Angeles County Nutrition Task Force, which works to plant vegetable gardens in probation camps for young juvenile delinquents.

"If there were more gardens like Proyecto Jardin," she says, there would be less need for her gardens.

"Yeah, it's been good," says Morales's 11-year-old son, Gustavo, of the community garden. "All those spices taste great with cheese and avocado."

Besides, the garden has become a fun after-school activity, Gustavo adds. He used to be on a football team, but then quit. There were no other interesting things he could take part in after classes end, so he used to do "nothing much."

Now, sometimes, he says, he and his buddies head over to the garden.

"We specialize in tomatoes," he explains. His mom tells him to bring the ripe ones home to be mixed with rice, or to go into a salsa, but sometimes he can't resist and just pops them all into his mouth.

"Good stuff," he says with enthusiasm.

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