The L.A. food scene is as trendy, tweeted, pop-upped, and profit-busting as it’s ever been, and yet more people are going hungry at a greater rate than perhaps any other moment in the city’s history. As the USDA has declared, Los Angeles is the nation’s “epicenter of hunger,” where the phrase “food insecurity”—lacking reliable access to nutritious and safe food—has become as much a part of the local vernacular for activists and organizers as sunshine and traffic. In a special collaboration with the Library Foundation to rediscover the Los Angeles Public Library’s vast archive, USC professor Josh Kun uses the Library’s menu collection to explore the shaping of Los Angeles. With vintage menus as our guides, join Kun for a conversation about the struggles and triumphs of contemporary food activism with urban gardener Ron Finley, the Healthy School Food Coalition’s Elizabeth Medrano and Community Services Unlimited Inc.’s Neelam Sharma.
Most widely known as the “Gangsta Gardener,” Ron Finley inadvertently started a horticultural revolution when he transformed the barren parkway in front of his South Central L.A. home into an edible oasis. Ron travels the world, speaking to people about the importance of growing their own food and reminding them that they have the power to design their own lives. By turning food prisons into food forests, the Ron Finley Project is transforming culture one garden at a time.
Elizabeth Medrano has a long track record of involvement in social and environmental justice work beginning in the mid-1990s. In her role as the Coordinator and Organizer for the Healthy School Food Coalition, a program of the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College, she focuses on organizing and training school populations on advocacy directed at full implementation of school food and nutrition motions adopted by the Los Angeles Board of Education. In 2012, Medrano authored the School Food Policy & Organizing Toolkit, and most recently, along with California Food Policy Advocates, she co-authored the School Food, Lessons Learned Report, which was released in 2014.
Neelam Sharma is the executive director of Community Services Unlimited, an organization she became acquainted with through her work with the Black Panther organization she founded in Britain in the mid-1980s. Upon relocating to the United States in 1997, her food justice work with CSU was birthed by her specific need to feed her family healthy food when she moved to South LA and was driven by her broader understanding of the basic human right to high-quality, culturally appropriate food as a critical element of social justice. She first became a community activist as a pre-teen in response to an attempt by fascists to organize in Southall, London, where she grew up. In addition to being an activist, Neelam loves dancing, reading, and storytelling and is excited about what the future has in store.
Josh Kun is a professor in the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. He is the author of the new book To Live and Dine in L.A.: Menus and the Making of the Modern City (Angel City Press) based on the special collections of the Los Angeles Public Library. His first collaboration with the Library was Songs in the Key of Los Angeles, an examination of the early sheet music of the city that resulted in an award-winning book, as well as new recordings, public concerts, and an online web series with KCET Artbound. He is also the author of the American Book Award-winning Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America, co-author of And You Shall Know Us By The Trail Of Our Vinyl, and co-editor of Tijuana Dreaming: Life and Art at the Global Border, among other volumes.