As part of a series to shed light on food insecurity at UC Riverside and in the UC system as a whole, the Highlander sat down with Fortino Morales III, director of the UCR community garden, R’Garden, to discuss the R’Garden’s action and influence in combatting food insecurity. The 3-acre garden opened in December 2012 but Morales had been pushing for a garden since 2008 after the Salvation Army and Sustainable UCR, a campus-oriented sustainability advocacy group, had to pull funding due to the 2008 financial crisis.

The R’Garden consists of a 60 to 70-tree Valencia orange grove that occupies just under an acre, crops dedicated for distribution to the R’Pantry and dining services, as well as private plots for students and faculty to cultivate their own crops. Morales emphasized that anyone can come and pick fruits and vegetables for free but asks that people stay to help harvest or plant new crops if able.

Morales discussed three ways the R’Garden is striving to alleviate the burden of food insecurity: By giving fresh produce to the R’Pantry, allowing student volunteers to harvest produce to keep at the end of the day and sectioning off community garden plots for individuals to grow their own produce. “It starts to change the culture around food which is a pretty important thing because there’s that right of passage where you go through college and you eat Top Ramen for four years but the reality is that’s something that we’ve created and that’s not true or even a healthy thing for a culture to be putting out there,” Morales said. He went on to explain how having nutritious food is a key step in ensuring that students develop themselves in a successful manner.

“I think it is possible, it’s not going to be easy … It’s going to require a lot of conversation and changes but if it’s going to happen, UCR is going to need to take leadership in the region for that to happen because food insecurity is not just on campus but it’s in the community.”

Food security is very closely tied with financial security. “It’s all rolled into one,” according to Morales, emphasizing that to begin to understand food insecurity, “we have to start thinking about things differently. There’s a limit to how much the garden can do,” referencing the 62 percent, or around 13,000, UCR students who are food insecure.

“When you’re looking at that many students you have to think about and restructure institutions and systems like that,” explaining that he believes food insecurity and poverty are intermingled with society’s institutions. He elaborated stating that this is also a problem of access and that low-cost, unhealthy food is the only sustenance low-income communities can acquire. “I think it’s more of a financial and social choice than the fact they want to have food that’s not nutritious. I think that’s where the systemic things that the campus administration, UCOP and even on the state and national level is really starting to rethink how we develop our institutions.” Morales elucidated stating that, currently, low-quality food is valued more than healthy food, like fruits and vegetables, mainly attributed to present social structures.

Jeffery Chang/HIGHLANDER

The R’Garden’s efforts, however, have taken an impact from UCR’s administration. John Cook, the previous director of sustainability, was laid off in late 2016 and an outspoken supporter for the R’Garden who helped integrate the garden into the campus community. Morales responded by explaining that losing Cook was a “big blow for sustainability in general” on campus and how Cook had pioneered the idea of sustainability. Morales explained that Cook was “fighting upstream working to change the culture on campus.” He elaborated by saying that the future of the R’Garden is uncertain in terms of budget concerns and staffing. He mentioned that in spite of the budget issues, funding for the R’Garden is set to be permanent, emerging from the pilot program state it has been in since its inception.

Ultimately, Morales believes food insecurity can be fixed. “I think it is possible, it’s not going to be easy,” Morales began. “It’s going to require a lot of conversation and changes but if it’s going to happen, UCR is going to need to take leadership in the region for that to happen because food insecurity is not just on campus but it’s in the community.” Morales emphasized that it is ultimately UCR’s responsibility to solve food insecurity on campus and in the surrounding community.

When asked about the future of the R’Garden, Morales said he hopes it grows beyond its present three acres and that there are more programs for students and the community to learn about food systems and food security issues. Morales stated, “I’m excited to see us take up that land-grant mission and take it (R’Garden) to the next level.”

If you would like to help the R’Garden, you can contact R’Garden Director Fortino Morales at fortino.morales@ucr.edu. They offer open hours, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to sunset, to help with harvesting crops. Independent plots are available as well to grow your own produce. A year-long paid internship is also available through the Green Campus Action Plan to learn how to harvest food and plan events at the garden.

Watch The Highlander’s video coverage of the R’Garden interview on YouTube @HighlanderTV.