Something had to be done. After living through the Los Angeles riots after the Rodney King verdict in 1992, Anna Marie Carter was shocked at how dependent her community - Watts, California - was on outside help for basics such as food. All the food was imported into Watts from outside the city. During the riots stores were closed and people stayed indoors. For days the only food people had was what was left on their shelves. It was at that point that Anna Marie Carter decided to combine her love of cooking and food and her dedication to her community to create a better way of life in Watts.
In 1994 she completed a small business entrepreneurial course at the University of Southern California. As part of her course, after graduation Anna Marie was obligated to start a small business in her community. She began simply by selling organic seeds, seedlings, and produce in Watts. As her business quickly grew, she became known as the "Seed Lady of Watts."
It wasn't just the produce that attracted people to Anna Marie. Her neighbors' (especially the kids) thirst for information was so great she ended up spending most of her time teaching about the benefits of growing your own fresh, organic produce. In 2001 she formed the Watts Garden Club to spread the word about organic gardening. The club consists of almost 200 volunteers that build gardens for others in Watts, teach about nutrition and gardening, and develop entrepreneurial, garden-related businesses for young people. These businesses sell garden products such as herbal soaps and lotions.
It's the young people that Anna Marie mostly wants to reach. "Watts has a cycle of welfare," she says. "Some families have been on the system for three or four generations. I want to teach the young people they can be self-sufficient and support themselves." All the money the kids make in the gardening business is put into a fund until they're 18. Then they will receive a cash grant to help them start their own business, go to school, or do whatever they need. "We don't accept any city, state, or federal monies. This project shows us we have everything we need right here in Watts," say Carter.
To get more fresh, organic produce to more residents of Watts, Anna Marie has formed a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) with a Malibu organic farmer. Twice a week she brings fresh produce to the inner city. Not only do residents pay for the produce, but they also chip in a little extra to buy produce for shut-ins. There are many Watts residents that physically can't or don't feel safe leaving their homes. Bringing these shut-ins fresh food not only gives them something nutritious to eat, it also makes them feel more connected to the community.
Anna Marie is constantly thinking of ways to help her community. She recently went on a tour of Cuba with the non-profit organization, Food First. There she learned about "organaponicos" - a system Cubans developed after the Soviet Union stopped providing aid in 1990 to grow organic food on old abandoned Soviet-era concrete foundations. They use recycled materials for containers and soil mixed with worm castings. Anna Marie plans on bringing this simple, yet effective technology to Watts. "This will take away one of the barriers we have to growing more food - lack of land," she says. "Plus, all the materials needed to grow it can be found right here, and the food is organic," she adds.
Through just one woman's efforts, Watts is turning away from fear, crime, drugs, and poverty and towards self-sufficiency in a basic human need: food.
Article published on September 13, 2004.