Sitting in class over three years ago, Joanna Farias was skeptical about a classmate’s idea to start a vegetable garden. These days the tables have turned, and Joanna is the one spreading the word about gardening.

But back in 2010, Los Angeles public schools had just been hit hard by budget cuts. The waitlist at Joanna’s first-choice high school, which emphasized visual and performing arts, was more than 60 people deep, so she ended up instead at a continuation school. There, she heard from teachers how things used to be: “I was always hearing about all these programs that were cut,” she remembers.

Starting a new garden at their school seemed a little far-fetched. But one of her teachers ran with the idea, and a few weeks later, the American Friends Service Committee’s (AFSC) Crystal Gonzales and Anthony Marsh showed up to talk about creating a garden.

“That's when I thought to myself, ‘This is really happening,’” Joanna recalls. “We set a date to start building a raised bed.” [Read more about AFSC’s Peace Gardens at L.A. schools.]

In the garden

For Joanna, the garden became a classroom where she learned lessons about community, health, and justice in addition to gardening and cooking skills. It was also a creative outlet where she learned about herself.

Now, she’s carrying these lessons to more people through her new role as garden manager at a community garden in South Los Angeles, which has plots available to residents of the adjacent building and surrounding neighborhood.

"My job is to assist anyone here with any gardening help that they need,” explains Joanna. “If they're not sure but are interested, I help them out with that.”

With 31 beds, each covering 32 square feet, there is plenty of room to grow. In the plots that are already planted, people are growing collards, tomatoes, squash, cactus, bell peppers, chilies, and cantaloupe, as well as a few grapevines and flowers.

“It's a big project. There’s a lot of work to do,” Joanna reflects. “I was shocked that they gave me the job. They were like, ‘We know you know a lot about gardening, so here you go.’” Her boss told her to make the garden her own and set the standards.

Beyond helping out green-thumbed neighbors, a large part of Joanna’s job is community outreach.

Once the garden is established, she will be bringing in elementary and middle school students for lessons on growing and eating healthy food—lessons she thinks are particularly critical for school children, who are served frozen meals and soda at school.

Joanna graduated from high school in August and immediately enrolled as a full-time student at Los Angeles City College, starting her job at the community garden at the same time. She’s paying her tuition and living expenses with her income. It’s hard work, but she is grateful to be working outside, doing something she loves, instead of in a clothing factory like many of her peers.

Building a healthy community

In her time in AFSC’s program, Joanna witnessed a lesson about the power of community that she is now carrying forward. She explains:

If you’re going through a hard time, and obviously you want change for the better…come together as one, for a good reason, for a common goal that you want to achieve. If we come together as a community...then we can impact the community real big.

It's actually true: We used to have a high school garden, and now we have a community garden across the way.

She hopes that this trend will catch on as more people become committed to creating a healthy community.

“We can have another garden elsewhere, and start impacting one community at a time, making it bigger knowing that your resources are going to grow because you're going to have more people—ones who are committed to it,” she says. “This could be a bigger garden.”

If Joanna’s vision for building community through gardening keeps growing, not only will individuals be eating healthier food—the community could be healthier if there were more gardening jobs for young people like her.