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Pop-up produce swap spotlights need for healthy food in San Fernando Valley communities

More than half a million households in Los Angeles County experience what’s known as food insecurity — lacking consistent access to healthy, fresh food, not having enough food, or both, according to 2015 data from the county Public Health Department.

In the San Fernando Valley, almost 100,000 households fell into these categories.

That might explain the popularity of a new effort by a local health clinic to bring fresh fruits, vegetables to one Valley community, Pacoima.

Using donations of produce from two local food charities, Food Forward and MEND (which stands for Meet Each Need with Dignity), the Northeast Valley Health Corporation held its fourth “produce swap” at the Vaughn Family and Community Center Saturday morning. The clinic serves low-income residents of the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys and started the produce handouts last fall as part of its obesity-prevention Champions for Change initiative. Since then, they’ve given away hundreds of pounds of donated produce, plus food harvested from the community garden at the center.

The success of the produce swaps show there’s a demand in the San Fernando Valley for fresh food, said Denise Torres, program manager at the clinic. During the first produce swap last October, all 740 pounds of donated food were claimed in 30 minutes. At the second event, 1,500 pounds of produce disappeared in an hour and a half.

“We’ve never been out here for longer than two hours (handing out produce), so that just shows that there’s a need,” Torres said.

The community garden at the center and the produce swap are a continuation of the partnership the Northeast Valley clinic has had with Vaughn Next Century Learning Center charter school for several years, Torres said. The clinic and school have built four other gardens at the school, plus the garden at the community center.

As the light drizzle continued Saturday morning, it didn’t stop people from coming to the center to fill bags with free lettuce, Swiss chard, potatoes, celery, tomatoes, rosemary, thyme and mandarins. By 10:30 a.m., two hours after the produce swap started, nearly all of the food had been handed out.

“People don’t have access to healthy foods, (so) they’re buying foods that are unhealthy, and quick,” Torres said. The clinic, which also gives out produce at its health centers, teaches gardening and healthy cooking and eating classes at the community center to show people they can eat healthy on a budget and with limited time.

About an hour after the produce swap started, 30 people lined up to collect fresh food. They had come from across the street, where they were taking an American Red Cross CPR class at the school.

Leonel Valenzuela of San Fernando, the parent of a Vaughn student, was part of the group waiting in line for produce as pop music played from a speaker in the doorway of the center. He said his family gradually changed their eating habits as they learned about gardening and nutrition through classes at the school and community center.

“Before, we used to eat a lot,” Valenzuela said. “We changed our habits probably about two or three years ago.” They started a garden in their backyard, too, he said, planting lettuce, cucumbers, watermelons and chiles. “You can make a small garden. You don’t need that much space.”

Despite the rain, Melba Martinez came to the community center early to work outdoors in the community garden. Later, she picked up a bag of produce at the tables set up inside the community center.

Martinez, the parent of two Vaughn school students, said in Spanish that she loves to garden and she loves home-grown food. Like Valenzuela, she said she’s eating healthy as a result of the gardening and nutrition classes she attended at the community center.

“There’s always a need for families, especially right now, with food insecurity in the community,” said Alma Nava, coordinator for the community center. “Every time we’re able to provide a resource for them, it’s nice that they’re able to take advantage of that.”

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