We've Got Her Back: Ashleigh Parsons of Akasa Community Outreach
Ashleigh Parsons is not afraid to get her hands dirty. She's the founder of Akasa Community Outreach, a nonprofit organization that provides food wellness programming to low-income schools in LA. Not only is the work they do messy (as gardening can be), it's changing the way young students (ages 5 to 18) in these neighborhoods think about their health and wellness. Through a series of in-classroom and afterschool workshops, they teach young people about cooking and gardening. And in 60 or 90 minutes at a time, students learn the necessary tools to make informed decisions about their health.
"Pamphlets won't work to change eating or cooking habits," she said. "It’s really about the experience of going to the farmer’s market, the process of cooking, and the process of getting your hands dirty in the dirt.” This philosophy is what drives Ashleigh and her team, which she attributes to an experience she had working at an afterschool program when she was fresh out of college. Her work was based in Tenderloin, one of San Francisco's roughest neighborhoods known for prostitution and drug trafficking at the time. On one particular day, she decided to take a group of 25 kids to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. The experience would prove to be much more than a simple outing for all of them.
"We wandered around the farmer’s market, and these students that are typically eating cheetos and Coke for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, just lit up.” She said they took turns tasting dates, different kinds of carrots, and eating honey sticks. By the end of the trip, farmers had given them enough fruit to take back with them and make into a fruit salad. "[The kids] wanted seconds and thirds, and wanted to go back to the farmer’s market," she said.
Experiential learning is one of the subjects Ashleigh would later study while she pursued her master's degree in education at Harvard. Akasa's emphasis on hands-on learning is not accidental, and is truly what makes a lasting impact in these students' lives. Perhaps the best example of Akasa's work is their wildly popular parent workshops. Once a month, 30-35 parents come together with their children and school staff for an interactive workshop that includes conversations about food, potential challenges in the industry, and even job opportunities in the industry.
Akasa takes a different approach to its curriculum, compared to a lot of healthy eating-minded organizations. Rather than a plug-and-play model where schools simply adopt an existing program, Ashleigh and her team tailor their offerings to the school's unique needs. Since every neighborhood in LA is different, obviously the students and their lifestyles are too. That's why Akasa meets with each school's administration to figure out the best approach. That means hosting in-classroom workshops during the school day for some, and afterschool programs for others. Two of their four schools have an urban agriculture component that includes raised gardening beds and hydroponic towers, while the others weren't the right fit for such an addition. As we know best in LA, hardly anything is one size fits all.
Akasa is currently raising money to expand its food justice program to more schools in LA's low-income neighborhoods. You can donate to their Crowdrise campaign here, or volunteer your time. Just use the contact form on their website to get in touch.