Be the Change: RootDown LA

By Megan Hanson, MFTi

Half way through my masters program in clinical psychology three years ago, I still wasn’t sure I wanted to be a therapist. More so, I wasn’t sure I would be any good at being a therapist if it meant sitting in one room, talking with clients all day. I get a bit antsy in offices. After running away from corporate life in New York City in 1998, I spent the next several years traveling around the world as a cook on sailboats and as a freelance photographer.

In 2002, I landed in San Francisco, got myself certified as a holistic nutrition educator, and was soon developing slightly irreverent “nutrition” programming with jail inmates at the San Francisco County Women’s Jail, and for students at Mission High School. My experiences in the dubious arena of food marketing, the soaring rates of obesity and diet-related illnesses at that time, and the dismal food that public institutions were calling “healthy” made it very clear to me that old school nutrition education was not working.

Therapists know well that clients who are struggling with food issues have a whole host of challenges before them, both emotional and practical. The convoluted and complex food information and messaging that exists leaves many people feeling defeated around attempted dietary changes. It became clear to me, while working to convince jail inmates and inner city kids that healthy foods really weren’t so nasty, that there was an urgent need to simplify our attempts to help people shift their diets.

The USDA Food Pyramid was out. Hands-on cooking, food memory writing, and food justice conversations were in. In the jail, the women sang gospel songs while we grated beets. In high school classrooms, students were allowed to politely spit out the broccoli we were blanching, if they truly couldn’t get it down. Our program participants were allowed to have their aversions and we constantly pointed out their small successes. We were all in it together, and because of this, people started to trust us and open their minds to alternative ways of eating.

In 2007, a group of peer-to-peer teen nutrition educators from Manual Arts High School in South Central Los Angeles got wind of the work we were doing up north. They invited me down to help them improve their nutrition education game. I wasn’t really thinking about what I was getting myself into when these kids invited me to South Central, but I completely understood their frustrations. They were tired of living in a notorious food desert, and tired of seeing their peers stand around at lunchtime consuming copious amounts of Hot Cheetos they’d purchased at corner stores. Together, we got to work focusing on building demand for healthy food among their peers and teachers. There was no point in planting gardens yet or bringing fresh produce to corner stores if few were in the habit of eating fresh food regularly. In monthly visits that followed, the first students taught other students basic techniques to make veggies taste better, and to aggressively introduce them into health classes and at lunch time tastings. Soon, they were getting people to not just eat their veggies, but to ask for MORE! A year after I took that first bag of veggies, cutting boards, and chefs knives into South LA, we formally launched a non-profit and called it RootDown LA.

The Los Angeles food system feels like an entirely different beast from that of San Francisco. Yet the people I have worked with in both cities are very much the same. At the very least they want to connect and be inspired. At most, they are chomping at the bit to make their mark and give back to their communities. They want to be the change. Early on in this work, I started noticing the way in which particularly resistant and ornery kids would fight with us and then somehow, when we got right back in their faces with our broccoli and beets and handed them graters, mandolins and salt and pepper, these kids would calm down. The kids who fought us the most, invariably ended up being the kids who asked to stick around and help out, even years later.

In 2010, I fully relocated to Los Angeles to run RootDown, and we started developing programs that got kids growing their veggies, too. A multi-year federal grant allowed us to develop a 13-week training for youth to design, install and maintain networks of neighborhood gardens in what we now call Youth-driven Neighborhood Food Systems. We work now in three South LA neighborhoods, partnering with other non-profits, community centers, schools, and even the LAPD.

Working in South LA got me thinking a lot more about trauma and how so many of the young people I worked with, despite having experienced multiple traumas during their critical stages of development, somehow remained resilient. I started reading Peter Levine’s Waking the Tiger, and soon had new words to put to what I was observing at RootDown. I saw that when the kids felt seen, understood, and connected to a community, they tended to adopt the values of that community – including food choices. It got me wondering how we could use RootDown’s neighborhood networks to support kids from the foster and juvenile justice systems. Eventually, I enrolled at Antioch University, where my courses on trauma and community psychology corroborated much of what I was observing in South LA: young people are a reflection of their many complex systems and that, until they are surrounded by systems that are supportive, they are not likely to thrive.

Speaking of systems, it has been a tremendous learning experience the past two years, as I’ve started inching my way towards MFT licensure. I have been paying attention to the very systems in which we all work: Schools, community centers, non-profits, treatment centers. I have been working to understand how many of the dollars that support our work get distributed. Last year I split time between Los Angeles and Oakland, where I spent an unforgettable year under the supervision of the Chief Mental Health Officer at Pathways Counseling at Girl’s Inc., Rebecca Cannon, who also works on a task force to help shape juvenile justice reform in Alameda County. We had talks about how therapists might better reach and serve the most at-risk populations, outside of office walls.

Today, I’m starting to look at the mental health system the same way I have been surveying the food system for the past 20 years. I am wondering how we can loosen up and divert some federal and state dollars and drive them towards innovative programs that don’t just support individuals, but also the families and communities in which they are formed. I fantasize about putting together a dream team of other therapists who like me, are drawn to private practice but also want to reach those who can’t afford therapy. I want to work to develop nimble and profitable organizations that can benefit broader audiences. It’s a new year and I’m just getting started, reconnecting with other like-minded therapists back here in Los Angeles. I am grateful that those I have connected with at LA-CAMFT are curious about what we’re up to at RootDown LA.

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