For more than 20 years, Diane Moss ran a teen pregnancy prevention program in southeastern San Diego’s low income, largely African-American and Latino neighborhoods.

But in the last few years, a new trend among teens presented a professional hurdle she wasn’t sure she could overcome. They were using cell phones to send sexually explicit messages or photos of themselves to friends, a phenomenon known as sexting.

“I’m in my early 50s. I’m not a technological person, and I couldn’t come up with a curriculum-based answer to that. I knew that perhaps it was time to do some other work,” she said.

So she started exploring. One day in September 2008, she went to a workshop in City Heights where local food advocates were discussing their burgeoning efforts to turn vacant lots into community gardens and to start farmers markets to increase fresh food access in low-income neighborhoods.

There was no one from southeastern San Diego at that workshop, and few ethnic minorities, Moss recalled. She realized she had found a new calling.

In the three years since, she has cut through bureaucratic red tape and worked with her city councilman, redevelopment officials and residents to begin transforming southeastern San Diego’s fallow landscapes and backyards into productive gardens. Almost a year ago, she opened the community’s first weekly farmers market in the Chollas View neighborhood. Last month, she broke ground on its first community garden in nearby Mount Hope.

We sat down with Moss this week at the Oak Park offices of her nonprofit, Project New Village, to discuss her efforts to make fresh food more accessible in a community often called a “food desert,” and the way she thinks agriculture can improve not only the lives of low-income youth but also relationships between neighbors.

What happened when you came back from that workshop in 2008?

I started seeing empty lots and seeing they could be used for other purposes. I saw that we probably had the ability to grow our own food.

I bet on any block in southeastern San Diego, somebody’s growing something in their backyard: collard greens, corn. We started looking at how we could take that talent and start having conversations about collective growing or community gardens. Even though we didn’t use the term “food desert” at that time, we talked about why we didn’t have the same markets everyone else has.

Why didn’t you like “food desert”?

I thought desert meant nothing — that you had nothing to build on. I said, well, we’ve got people who grow things. We’re not starting from scratch.

But I embraced it when I became familiar with another definition: that there are more fast food outlets than fresh food outlets.

You hadn’t thought about access to good food in this community as a problem before 2008?

Southeastern San Diego always gets tagged as a community with lots of problems. So here was another negative tag people put on this community. I saw that we didn’t have the resources we needed, but I didn’t think of it in terms of a food desert.

What have been the biggest challenges to getting people involved?

People say yes, we should have gardens. But it’s difficult for people to change their habits.

How do you change habits?

It takes time. Neighbors talking to neighbors. People taking a chance to do something different.

So you’re starting a community garden to work toward that. And the New Roots Community Farm in City Heights has been a big success. But there, many of the farmers are refugees who used to be farmers. They didn’t have to change habits. I imagine it’s harder here.

New Roots is all about the farming, and the connections made in that context. People here said they were interested in this garden being beautiful. It’s about the farming, but also about fitting in with the neighborhood.

The planning groups around here want a moratorium on chain-link fences. So we have to come up with another kind of fence.

The planning groups told you no chain-link fences?

No chain-link fences.

Is that because of southeastern San Diego’s reputation for vacant lots surrounded by chain link fences being another one of those negative tags?

Absolutely.

You plan to link that garden you’re starting in Mount Hope with the farmers market you already started.

If you have a plot in the garden you can become a certified grower and sell at the market. We want a market where neighbors meet neighbors, where they can recycle dollars in the neighborhood.

Your market’s been around almost a year now, but is still having challenges attracting growers and customers.

We’re comfortable now with the level of farmers. Something has happened in the last few months and we’re attracting small farmers from Jamul. They have less overhead and a shorter distance to travel.

Last week’s market, I just stood there and thought, this is it. Now it’s up to me to get more customer base.

Urban agriculture is seeing this boom nationwide. But it’s still largely the realm of a middle- and upper-class demographic, people who have the time and resources to invest.

I went to a workshop in Milwaukee last September to look at a farm that was working with young people of color, inner city youth.

I met these young guys from Chicago. They had pink shirts on. I said, “Who are you?” They said, “We’re farmers.”

I said, “Can I take your picture? ‘Cause I know folks who got your swagger, but they’re not telling people they’re farmers!”

I took the picture so I could come back and show folks: these are farmers! Eighteen- and 19-year-old kids who said they’ve got skills — in growing things.

Part of what we see ourselves doing is connecting southeastern San Diego to the greater local food movement. And there are not a lot of people of color in that mix. That conference let us see that people of color in inner city communities were really embracing agriculture as a new opportunity for job growth, skill development and prevention in high risk communities.

How will you do that here?

I was working with a young man, 22, a documented gang member. I paired him with an 88-year-old woman who likes to grow things in her yard, to see how the relationship developed. He had a 2-year old son. I said, “This is the picture you would want your son to see. Having a relationship with an elder and doing something productive, growing things, as opposed to other things you might be doing.” I’m not saying we’re going to take him away from that world. But clearly we’re going to show him some other opportunities.

I talked to people at the St. Stephen’s senior complex and they told me they’re afraid to come out of their apartments because they’re afraid of the teenagers in their neighborhood. Well, what about having a garden there that the seniors can show the teens, so people don’t feel afraid to come out? They thought that was a good idea. So we have a list of projects that we want to do. They involve food, but they’re really about engaging people who live here, so they can see their neighbors and their neighborhoods differently.

Interview conducted and edited by Adrian Florido, a reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego’s neighborhoods. What should he write about next?

Contact him directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.325.0528.

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Adrian Florido

Adrian Florido is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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