Sipping on sweet herbal tea freshly sourced from the Isla Vista Food Forest itself, I chatted with the project’s founder, Anthony (Tony) Barbero, in his own lush back garden. A white cat wandered into the yard, and Barbero instinctually went over to pet and cradle it.
“Did you know that 48 percent of [UC Santa Barbara] students face food insecurity? And that’s just the students, who tend to have more financial support. Think of how many non-students there are living here,” Barbero said.
Barbero put the cat down and asked it politely not to hunt in his vegetable patch.
“[Isla Vista] is home to wage workers, immigrants, and many displaced, houseless people. Do you think they can afford to eat well in a place where to do so is so expensive?”
And Barbero’s right; over the past year, inflation has caused food prices in the western United States to increase by 7.4 percent. On top of this, according to data from the US Census Bureau, 71.5 percent of Isla Vista residents live in poverty. The conclusion here can’t be missed.
Starting the Food Forest in January 2021, Barbero sought to address local hunger from a tangible, grassroots position. In a corner of Estero Park that used to be a road, the project has reclaimed and revitalized the plot of land, turning it into a free public garden and food source.
Barbero plucks and offers me a leaf of a native lettuce species (Claytonia perfoliata), which tastes substantially better than your average grocery store lettuce. He tells me that the Santa Barbara area’s temperate climate makes it one of the best places to farm in the country. Despite this, 95 percent of food bought in the county is imported. Further, 99 percent of the food that is grown here is exported.
In addition, native plants like Claytonia perfoliata are, by definition, easier to grow and maintain in this area. Many, such as this one, entirely maintain themselves. Claytonia perfoliata is drought resistant, can withstand cool weather, and supports a wide range of animal life — humans included.
The Isla Vista Food Forest aims to help alleviate local hunger in a manner that simply makes sense all across the board. Utilizing public green spaces that would otherwise remain barren, the project grows food-producing plants that are native to the area, helping to feed those in need while simultaneously restoring the natural ecology of the land. This project, and the movement behind it, is a win on all fronts — for the environment, the people, plants, animals, the school, the rich, the poor, the students, and the houseless. It is a win for those who enjoy nature and everyone who needs to eat, and is simply beneficial to all. So, what’s next?
The only way grassroots projects like this can succeed is through the effort and attention of the people. Such is the nature of a community garden that is worked on by the community: us. There is always work to be done; if you are interested, follow the Food Forest’s Instagram to stay up to date on volunteer work as well as fun programming and events put on by the project.
I would also like to emphasize that there is a movement here greater than just this plot of land — that movement being the reintroduction of native plants into an area with so much ecological potential. If you have the space, go buy some seeds and get planting; the result will be free, organic food, a healthier local ecosystem, and simply more natural beauty in this already beautiful stretch of coast that we call home.