Thomas Azwell, a 2008-09 Bay Area Schweitzer Fellow, has found that community gardens are linked to community health.
Thomas Azwell, a 2008-09 Bay Area Schweitzer Fellow, has found that community gardens are linked to community health.

Every Tuesday, Beyond Boulders will run a five-question interview with either a current Schweitzer Fellow or a Schweitzer Fellow for Life (ie, a Fellow whose initial year with ASF has been completed, but whose commitment to lifelong service continues).

For our inaugural installment, we chat with Thomas Azwell, one of our 2008-2009 Bay Area Fellows and a PhD student in Environmental Science, Policy, & Management at The University of California, Berkeley. With the support of ASF, Azwell—who believes that “the overall health of a community can be measured by how we care for our children”—developed a plant ecology and community garden initiative at Mt. Diablo High School that includes a health foods project in collaboration with John Muir Medical Center. (Azwell is also developing a safe disposal method for hair mats used to clean up oil spills—in fact, the California Academy of Sciences recently posted a video on Azwell’s work.)

Below, Azwell discusses his Schweitzer project, and the surprising ways in which community gardens can improve community health.

Why did you develop this particular project?

I have been building gardens for many years.  My father built a garden when I was young and I remember the amazement I felt when the plants began to fill with tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers.  Every once in a while a squash would go undetected for the season, hiding under vegetation.  Several months later, I would find the largest squash in the world!  I think this memory of having the ability to produce my own food stuck with me. 

As I work in communities, nutrition is often an issue. When I taught 9th grade students, by the time many of them graduated, they had a plethora of health issues. One semester, I had each student track their diet for a week, and what I discovered was unbelievable.  My students were surviving on several sodas, chips, and candy bars a day, with the only real meal coming at home for dinner.

I believe that the overall health of a community can be measured by how we care for our children. They are passive receivers, relying on adults for their health care, role modeling, education, etc. Teaching children how to grow their own healthy vegetables empowers them unlike any other lesson I have ever taught.  Plus, it is not difficult to use the garden as a hands-on, experiential learning environment for science.

What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?

My hope is that the gardens at Mt. Diablo High School and at Glide Memorial Church will take on a life of their own and continue to empower and inspire youth.  They will provide a peaceful space to escape, a stimulating learning environment, and a facility for having people of all ages come together to produce food—a basic need for life.  Once the infrastructure is built, the people always come. 

I continue to be surprised by who steps up and becomes immersed in these programs.  It is always someone unexpected—the building maintenance staff at Glide or the shy, withdrawn kid at Mt. Diablo High.

What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time?

Proper nutrition is key to good health. It is the fuel for our bodies, and if you add bad fuel, then your body will not run well. More than 650 million people in the world suffer from acute food shortage, while many others are food insecure or dependent on unhealthy options, such as low cost fast food or highly processed foods. This situation will continue to worsen as populations increase and global food production decreases due to climate
change, water shortages, and plant pathogens.

What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow?

I have been so impressed by the other Schweitzer Fellows. They are all maxed out with school work, yet make the time to create and devote to these amazing projects. The diversity of their ideas have inspired me to work harder and broaden my own individual contribution to the world.

What does Albert Schweitzer’s legacy mean to you, and how will you carry it with you after your year as a Fellow draws to a close?

Albert Schweitzer often spoke how a reverence for life will bring us into a spiritual relationship with the world.  For me, this spiritual relationship is based on both a connection to nature and to people. My spiritual relationship with the world will continue to deepen as I connect with nature through the community service of  building gardens and building relationships with people.  I will carry this ideal with me as I continue to
find ways that I can lead by example as a Schweitzer Fellow for life.

ASF’s Bay Area program was founded in 2006 with major funding from Anthem Blue Cross Foundation and The University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health. This year, 15 new Fellows from the Bay Area’s top colleges and universities have been selected to join the program’s ranks, each partnering with a local agency and devoting more than 200 hours of service—click here for details on the new Fellows’ projects.