Beneath the shadow of the L.A. Coliseum sits a modest, three-quarter-acre plot of land improbably studded with chayote, pineapple sage, amaranth greens, allspice trees, spiky mizuna, medicinal herbs including gotu kola and a fine example of the endangered California walnut tree.
Known as the Expo Mini Urban Farm, it’s one of two such enterprises that have sprung up in South L.A.’s food desert under the auspices of Community Services Unlimited (CSU), a nonprofit holdover from the community programs initiated in the 1970s by the city’s local branch of the Black Panther Party. Unsurprisingly, CSU's interest in cultivating healthy eating goes way beyond eschewing McDonalds — the nonprofit's mandate is to reintroduce culturally appropriate crops (more on amaranth greens in a minute) and cutting-edge, ecologically responsible farming into neighborhoods where locals are five times more likely to die of coronary artery disease than a gunshot wound.
Neelam Sharma, CSU’s executive director and de facto head gardener, has a long history of food-related activism — she’s one of the folks you can thank for L.A.’s first-in-the-nation ban on soda machines in schools. She also has agriculture in her blood; the Sharmas were farmers in Punjab before immigrating to the U.K. (she came to the states in 1996), and she grew up tending to the family garden under her father’s tutelage.
The rules she and her group abide by — including no pesticides and no tilling — are of the variety often labeled “beyond organic.” Here that also includes the strategic deployment of hollyhocks (to attract bees) and sheet mulching, which adds water-conserving layers to the top soil. They also recently began dabbling in aquaponics, a closed water system that, once fully optimized, is designed to reduce H2O consumption by 90 percent, with the added bonus of using fish poop to fertilize the plants.
The farms themselves are stocked almost exclusively with plants indigenous to the cultures of South L.A.’s diverse population. Take the tall stalks topped with green and purple leaves — those amaranth greens are a pre-Columbian crop once used in Aztec religious ceremonies. Containing more than double the protein of wheat and none of the gluten, the plant traditionally has been perceived as beneficial to pregnant women because it helps the body retain iron and calcium. Both the leaves and the seeds are edible, making amaranth suitable for soups, salads and baking. It has a grassy taste when raw and its leaves mellow out when cooked, especially if simmered in coconut milk. Other produce on offer includes the mild yet bright flavor of chaya (colloquially called Mexican spinach), collard greens and the less-thirsty variety of California native blackberries.
CSU hosts four farmers markets each week, where they sell their fruits and vegetables alongside homemade jams and preserves, straight-off-the-farm eggs and dried herbs. They also offer a weekly produce subscription service starting for less than $15 per week, available to those living within a certain three-mile radius and delivered by the fleet of bicycles CSU uses to transport their wares. While these bags of produce often include the likes of Brussels sprouts, beets and avocados, subscribers also get emailed weekly recipe tips — in case you ever get stumped on what to do with the hunk of purslane you just came into.
Business is currently going so well that CSU is gearing up to move into a building at Vermont and 66th Street, which will house not only the nonprofit's operations, Sharma says, but also a café featuring dishes inspired by her Indian heritage, baked treats and other goodies. With 5,000 square feet to play with, they're also hoping to set up South L.A.'s first beyond-organic market.
Here's when and where you can find CSU's weekly farmers markets:
Wednesdays from 4 to 7 p.m. at the CSU Expo Mini Urban Farm, 3990 S. Menlo Ave., South L.A.
Thursdays from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Magnolia Place Family Center, 1910 Magnolia Ave., Pico-Union
Thursdays from from 2 to 5 p.m. at the L.A. County USC Medical Center, 1200 N. State St., Boyle Heights
Fridays from 2 to 5:30 p.m. at the Century Market Parking Lot, 3894 S. Western Ave., South L.A.
Mindy Farabee on Twitter @mindyfarabee