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Eco Village efforts ‘improve the world’

on October 13, 2009

Chickens peck at tomatoes in backyard pens at the Eco Village Farm Learning Center in Richmond. A handful of goats, some sheep and one potbelly pig chow on hay in a nearby enclosure. Gardens planted around the property sprout vegetables, herbs and flowers.

This 5.6-acre farm on Laurel Lane is where Shyaam Shabaka launched Eco Village after retiring from decades of Bay Area public health work. He now runs volunteer and training programs to teach people how to live healthier lives, starting with fresh food.

Eco Village workers and volunteers harvest organic seasonal fruits and vegetables to sell at a stand in front of Kaiser Permanente Medical Center each Wednesday. They’ve also planted gardens at preschools so children can take home fresh veggies. And Shabaka is starting a morning exercise class for students before school.

“I try to keep things very, very simple,” he said. “Our mission is to just basically improve the world.”

Shabaka focuses on young people and works extensively with schools. High school students mentor “at risk” youth at the farm. And young people who have disabilities like autism and Down syndrome learn to feed and water the animals. At a De Anza High School club fair eight months ago, Shabaka met Omar Geisenger. The junior started volunteering at Eco Village and has since been hired to work on the farm.

Geisenger takes care of the plants and animals several days a week after school and sometimes on weekends. On a recent afternoon, he took a break before watering crops to talk about his goal of becoming a chef and his love of cooking.

“Everything tastes good to me,” he said.

During an Eco Village cook off last summer, Geisenger smothered chicken with herbs he picked from the farm. The dish won him a first place award.

Executive Director Shabaka said he hopes activities like the cook off and his summer cooking classes will eventually help ease some of the health issues afflicting Richmond residents.

A 2008 report on healthy food choices linked obesity and diabetes to people’s accessibility to healthy food. The study found Contra Costa County ranked in the top 10 worst California counties. Representatives from the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, PolicyLink and UCLA collected the data from fast-food restaurants, convenience stores, supermarkets and produce vendors around the state.

Contra Costa health officials followed up the study by training young people to survey food stores in Richmond, where residents have a higher risk of obesity, diabetes and chronic disease than people in the rest of the county.

The volunteers rated stores based on access to, quality of and promotion of nutritious food. They found that not one store in Richmond met the “quality” standard of providing healthy food at affordable prices. Some stores sold healthy staples but little produce. Others sold expensive produce. And some stores stocked very little healthy food at all.

Problems like that, Shabaka said, are why he located Eco Village in Richmond. “Historically, this area has been abused and neglected,” he said. “As of result of it, you have a pretty disproportionately high incident of violence in the community. You have low performing schools. You have poor job opportunities and poor health care.”

Shabaka said he gauges the success of his work by watching students mature and engage in helping their community.

“I started it as a vision, and the vision has turned into a reality,” Shabaka said. “And as a result of that, we hopefully have a more economic and socially just and environmentally healthy world.”

De Anza High School junior Rodney LaBlue got involved in Eco Village after his friend Omar Geisenger, the cook-off winner, encouraged him to give it a try. Watering crops after school one day, LaBlue said working at Eco Village has taught him a new habit. He said he used to litter sometimes but not anymore.

These days, LaBlue said he sometimes picks up trash and throws it away.

1 Comment

  1. Deena Miller on October 19, 2009 at 6:25 pm

    Thank you for this article! Reporting on positive change on a local level can only spur more. Your reporter did a great job capturing the scene and the subtle influence a place like this can have on its youth. I would love to see a follow up article…

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