SAN DIEGO – Returning from Mexico, Michelle Obama made a brief stop Thursday in San Diego to visit a community garden farmed by international refugees that she called a model for building healthy communities across the nation and around the world.
Obama toured the New Roots Community Farm to promote her "Let's Move!" campaign against childhood obesity. The event kicked off a $1 billion project by The California Endowment to fund healthy living initiatives in 14 communities across the state, including the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego, where the community farm is located.
Obama's visit follows a week of travel that included a tour of earthquake-ravaged Haiti and a stop in Mexico to launch an agenda about inspiring young people around the world to become involved in their societies.
Some 80 farmers from a dozen countries work at the 2.3-acre farm, a project of the International Rescue Committee that started in June 2009 on city-owned land. Many grow vegetables, like kale, that they grew in the native countries they left because of civil wars and other violence.
"It's a model for the nation, for the world," Obama said after touring the 89 plots, where she hugged the farmers, including a Somalian woman who had President Barack Obama's picture and a map of Africa printed on her traditional bright blue dress.
The garden provides fresh produce to the refugees and their families. Some of the fruits and vegetables also are sold at a farmers market and to local restaurants, giving the refugees some income. About 90 percent of the farmers have been unable to find a job because they do not have the skills or do not speak English.
Millions of children in the United States live in what Obama called "food deserts," places where there is no easy access to grocery stores or farmers markets. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says about one-third of children in America are either overweight or obese.
Obama's campaign has teamed with The California Endowment to support initiatives that promote farmers markets, make neighborhoods safe and walkable, revamp city parks and get people — especially children — eating healthy and exercising.
The California Endowment plans to grant $100 million a year over the next 10 years to the initiatives designed by members of the 14 communities, said Dr. Anthony Iton, senior vice president of the foundation's healthy communities project.
The project seeks to change lifestyles in low-income communities. Iton cited new research showing people live as many as 14 years longer in richer communities that offer safe parks, inviting bike lanes and organic grocery stores.
"You can predict how long somebody will live based on their address, and we should not be able to do that," he said, pointing out that even in a physically fit city like San Diego where people bike, surf and sail daily, there are "pockets" where families have no access to fruits and vegetables and places to exercise.
Obama's campaign includes introducing healthier school lunches and encouraging food manufacturers to reduce the sugar, salt and fat in foods.
Obama said the San Diego farm shows that "farmers coming from different corners of the globe recognized a common problem here in America" — the lack of fresh produce in people's diets and the health problems that causes.
Refugees speaking different languages raised funds for the farm and then worked side by side, sharing two hoses at first. Since then they have started swapping recipes and losing weight, Obama said.
Tsitsi Mutseta, 43, moved to San Diego from Zimbabwe eight years ago. She said the garden helped ease her mind as she adjusted to her new life in the United States, far from her family. She told Obama it also has given her peace as she fights cancer.
"I told her I come to the garden to relieve my pain. I get food from the garden that is organic and it connects me with my family because I grew up on a small farm in Zimbabwe," said Mutseta, a tall woman who wrapped her arms around Obama and gave her leaves from her kale crop. "She said she would pray for me and she loved what I did in the garden."
On the Net:
Let's Move! campaign, http://www.letsmove.gov/