If you live in South Los Angeles and want fresh, healthy food, it is often necessary to leave the community to purchase what you need.

At the same time, the neighborhoods are inundated by fast food outlets; and to top it all off, the supposedly nutritious lunch that children in public schools are served often ends up in the trash can instead of their stomachs.

All of these factors prompted Neelam Sharma to take action.

“When I first moved here 12 year ago, my son would come home every day hungry even though he had lunch tickets,” explained Sharma, who was challenged by her son to try and eat the food.

“He was right, I wouldn’t eat it either.”

So she teamed up with some other parents and teachers and created an organization called the Healthy School Food Coalition.

“We got involved in a lot of policy issues, and that was how the whole soda ban happened.”
At the same time, Sharma was involved in an afterschool program designed to help black and brown children work through the issues that were causing some of the racial conflicts. One of the key facets of the effort was to teach the children their respective histories.

Simultaneously, the India-born transplant turned her own front yard at 49th Street and Halldale Avenue into a garden.

Where all of this collided was something Sharma noticed in the children during the after school program.

“The students could not sit still. When I looked at what they walked in the door with, it was canned sods, chips etc. I had conversations with them about what they had eaten all day, and found that most of them had sugar, sugar and more sugar in one form or another. Very few had anything really nutritious.”

At that point, Sharma said they stopped and re-invented the afterschool program.

“We began to talk about food in a different way, and that was the beginning of Growing Healthy,” said the healthy food advocate of the four-year-old program.

Today Growing Healthy has blossomed into a program that teaches students at Normandie Avenue Elementary and at John Muir Middle School about how to grow their own food.
Additionally, as part of the overall effort to improve nutrition in her community Sharma and a group of other parents and teachers conducted a food assessment to see what people wanted and needed.

Community Services Unlimited Inc. (CSU) grew out of that assessment.

This non-profit organization operates several mini urban farms including one at the Expo Center. Produce grown on the farm is sold at weekly farmer’s markets, and older students from the partner schools learn how to sell the goods.

CSU also holds community days, where anyone in the area is welcome to come in and learn now to maintain a mini urban farm.
The non-profit has also created a Fresh Produce Bag Subscription program that each week will sell community residents items from the CSU mini farms supplemented by produce from local farmers.

Among the other plans CSU has are to grow and sell produce to local restaurants and work with area chefs to plant items for them.

The growing program is part of a thrust to make CSU more self-supporting. Currently, the bulk of their $80,000 budget is supplied by grants from organizations like the California Nutrition Network, but Sharma said they are in the final year of funding for this grant.

Those interested in any of the CSU programs or in making a donation can contact Sharma at (323) 296-2038 or through the Web site at www.csuinc.org.