Natalie Flores has a green thumb and a heart of gold.
Last spring, the former garden manager at SMC’s Organic Learning Garden launched Nourish LA in response to the COVID-induced food crisis. Since then, every weekend the pop-up produce pantry has lovingly distributed more than a thousand shopping bags full of fresh food.
The bags are filled with organic fruits and veggies, grains, bread, eggs, desert, salad and sometimes cut flowers. The bounty comes from grocery stores, restaurants, farmer’s markets, local nonprofits, schools, urban gardeners and anyone else Natalie can cajole into getting involved.
The grass-roots project has attracted major media attention from the New York Times and CBS This Morning, as well as local outlets KCRW’s Press Play, LA Weekly and the Argonaut.
The idea behind Nourish LA was to gather food that otherwise would be thrown away
to people who need it. Natalie knew all about “excess food” through SMC’s Recycling and Resource Management Program.
“These courses had opened my eyes to the insane amount of these resources that we’re letting go to waste,” she says. “And here we are in the midst of a pandemic. I was thinking: ‘What? Why isn’t anyone doing anything about this?’ There’s plenty of food. What there isn’t enough of is people to gather it and systems in place to share it. So I decided I’m going to be part of the solution. I’m going to help create a system.”
Starting small with a drive-thru in the back alley behind her Mar Vista home, Natalie has grown Nourish LA into a grass-roots movement.
Every Sunday, her volunteers form efficient assembly lines in the parking lot of Wood Café in Culver City. They sort and bag the cornucopia received by the carload from Trader Joe’s, Bristol Farms and Whole Foods, to name just a few Nourish LA partners. Baked goods from Noah’s Bagels, Ceor Bread Company and Panera Bakery arrive courtesy of volunteer drivers. Waiting patiently for the bags is a long line of cars.
For those who can’t leave home–people quarantining or recovering from COVID, seniors, single-parents, folks with special needs—volunteer drivers will hand-deliver groceries in a 6-mile radius.
A few months ago, Nourish LA added a second food distribution hub on Saturdays at St. Mark’s Church in Venice.
If asked, volunteers will even arrive with ladders and fruit pickers to harvest overflowing crops at private residences.
“I always tell people, you have to physically harvest fruit trees,” she says. “If you don’t, they won’t produce as well next year. It’s nature’s way of saying, ‘Eat me.’”
In 10 months, Nourish LA has given away 32,000 bags of groceries, plus thousands of ready-to-plant fruit and vegetable seedlings in a bid to encourage backyard gardening among the food-insecure folks they serve.
At the same time, it has diverted more than 1.3 million pounds of food from going to waste and sent 8,000 pounds of compost (from spoiled food donations) to five local community gardens.
Born and raised in Tempe, Arizona, Natalie came to Los Angeles in 2007 fresh out of high school. She enrolled at SMC as a fine art major but dropped out after a semester. Out-of-state tuition put her so deep in debt that she lived in her car for six months while working two jobs as a barista and juice bar server. Her sunny disposition helped Natalie through that rough patch, and the next five years saw her exploring the world as an apprentice farmer. She spent a year “Wwoofing” on coffee plantations in Peru, Costa Rica and Ecuador, mastering the steps in growing and harvesting the beans. She also discovered how fermented cane sugar and milk from free-range cows can transform the “magical” brew. She spent a year in Hawai’i, working at a residential farming community for special-needs adults. She worked on farms in Northern California and San Diego, where a boyfriend trained in organic chemistry taught her the science behind growing organic marijuana.
When Natalie returned to Southern California in 2014, she put her know-how to use “guerrilla gardening” the vacant lot next to her apartment building off Abbot Kinney and launching the urban farming co-op, Sunshine Partnership.
She also threw herself back into SMC. A ball of energy, Natalie biked 7 miles to campus, ran cross country and marathons, weight trained and took yoga and pilates alongside her academic course load in sustainability, regenerative agriculture and environmental ethics. She got involved with the Center for Environmental and Urban Studies and became garden manager at the Organic Learning Garden, where she worked for three years.
“I fell in love with everybody at the CEUS,” she says. “The garden was my sanctuary. It was my place of peace and comfort, and it brought me the best friends. The people that came in and out of that garden, they’re like the pollinators of my life.”
Natalie was preparing to transfer to UCLA as an environmental studies and cultural anthropology major when her daughter, Iris Leilani, arrived in late 2017. She dialed back academics to focus on parenting—a joyous responsibility she shares with husband Mike Blackner. A self-employed IT broker and timeshare cancellation consultant, he doesn’t share Natalie’s passion for farming but will happily shovel mulch when asked. The two met at a Phish concert; both are ardent jam band fans.
When the pandemic hit, Natalie saw an opportunity to put her extensive farming experience, large network of sustainability activist friends and SMC education to good use.
“It was so fun to see Natalie take what she learned during the years she ran our free
farmer’s market at SMC and scale it up to help meet the massive need that was created
by a pandemic,” says SMC sustainability manager director Ferris Kawar.
An estimated 2 million people in Los Angeles County face food insecurity.
“There is a lot to be pessimistic and apathetic about in our world,” Ferris says. “Somehow Natalie has found a way to let the negativity bead up and roll off her back. She approaches each obstacle with glee. She doesn’t let anyone’s shortsightedness get in the way. It’s a great lesson to us all—not to take ‘no’ for an answer when we are certain of our goals."
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