Maryam Suratwala is a seventeen-year old high school student from Fremont, California, who has spearheaded a community garden project as a part of her Girl Scout Gold Award community service project. Along with other Bohra children, she began planting tomatoes, garlic, green onions, zucchini, peppers and herbs at an unused plot near the masjid and has been conducting monthly workshops to educate young children about the practice. Her goal is to do something that creates a lasting impact on the environment we live in. In this interview we ask her about her thoughts on climate change, an organic lifestyle and sustainable food systems.

Why did you decide to revive a community garden for your community service project? What was the motivating factor behind it?

After volunteering at the Fertile Groundworks Community Garden in my local area for a year during quarantine, I fell in love with the rewarding process of gardening and loved how I could observe my hard work turning into fresh organic vegetables.

The experience of gardening helped me escape from my world of school and homework and helped me get outside and be with nature and appreciate the world around me. Gardening also helped me be more grateful for the vegetables I buy at the grocery store, as I realised how much work it takes to plant, grow and maintain the vegetables. Falling in love with the gardening process, I created youtube videos highlighting tips on how to prepare garden beds, how to plant seeds in planting containers, how to weed bindweed, purslane and other weeds, as well as how to transplant seeds into the beds. These videos were then used to help train first time volunteers at Fertile Groundworks.

It was clear that not only was there a need for clear instructions about gardening, but there was a need for outreach on the importance of sustainability and eating fresh. This was when I proposed to start a garden at the Masjid in Fremont.

How did you plan the entire project in terms of logistics, volunteers, etc.

I started brainstorming this project in June, 2020 and started cleaning out the garden space area in November that year. I first examined the area and then researched all the materials that I would need including fertiliser, compost, irrigation parts and seeds and bought the necessary items. With a team of my friends, I then added fertiliser and compost to the existing soil and prepared the beds.

Afterwards, I assembled a timed drip irrigation system with the help of family and friends for automatic watering of the vegetables in the garden. I then started to host monthly workshops, the first being on December 13th 2020, in which students helped to plant garlic, onions, spinach, greens, shallots and more. I put together a simple spreadsheet for young students to sign up and help with the maintenance of the garden. In order to maintain Covid health guidelines, we scheduled volunteers to attend in 30 minute time slots. The exercise was incentivised for the students by extra credit points for helping in the garden.

Growing up, what left a lasting impression on you with regards to climate change and the need to do something about it?

Growing up in the bay area of California, I have been surrounded by beautiful scenes of nature but these scenes have changed for me over my lifetime. I have witnessed the cycles of extreme drought which have gripped the area. We have had to deal with water shortages and restrictions on usage. Whereas in the past, February and March would bring lush green rolling hills as a result of the abundance of rain, our landscape now remains brown year round.

Our climate has shifted to a desert climate and we are witnessing the effects of that change. Our water is restricted, the water we do receive comes from further in the soil which increases the mineral content, leading to hard water. Worst of all, the once rare wildfire in our area has become a source of great anxiety. Over the last 5 years, I have witnessed firsthand the devastation left in the wake of wildfires which have become prevalent in our urban centers. These fires threaten our homes and livelihood and worst of all our health with thick ash raining down from the sky. On some days it is harmful to go outside because of the thick smoke that blankets the area. It is relieved only by a changing wind pattern which may move the thick air to another area but this is a stark reminder that we must protect our air.

What are the benefits of adopting a more organic lifestyle?

I believe it is important to use the best ingredients to nourish our bodies. Our diets have been shifting towards more processed foods containing all sorts of preservatives, chemicals and pesticides. All of these elements have contributed to the increasing rates of cancer, adverse autoimmune responses, diabetes and heart disease.

By adopting an organic lifestyle in which we minimise preservatives, chemicals and pesticides we will improve our quality of life and preserve our health. This was another important goal of my garden project, because not only did it help educate young students on the methods of gardening, but also explained the importance of incorporating fresh vegetables into our diets.

What are your thoughts about sustainable food systems? How do you think the younger generation will be able to make a difference in that area?

Creating sustainable food systems is an essential component for the goal of food security for all. I believe that one way we can create food security for all is by optimising our land for agricultural purposes. Small local gardens in backyards and next to community centers are very beneficial because they generate healthier soil which is important in the natural cycles of earth’s surface. Also, microorganisms in the soil help to destroy and modify many environmental pollutants.

Another way to ensure food security is making sure that the food produced is not wasted. Through initiatives such as the Dana Committee, I think we can really push to advocate for zero waste and teach the coming generations the importance of these practices. There continues to be advancement in research in this area and I am confident our generation and the generations that come after us, will be able to make a difference. It is important that society is educated about the benefits of sustainable food systems and everyone contributes to this ultimate goal.

Tell us how the Fremont community inspires you? Do you feel that if communities work collectively, it becomes easier to make a difference in terms of environmental action?

I am inspired by my community which first and foremost, was open to the idea of creating a community garden. The garden itself served the goal of providing a healthy and organic source of food. But above and beyond that, it has served as an opportunity to educate the community about the benefits of eating healthy, the work it takes to grow food and the value of the food we find on our plates every day. As a community that is passionate about gardening, we are stronger than any one individual. If all members of the community work in the same direction with the same goal, the impact is far greater in terms of environmental action.

What are your key takeaways from the community garden development project, both on an individual and a collective level?

I have learned that starting with an idea and continuing it through to completion is very rewarding and that all the hard work really pays off. I have also learned that with just a few resources and a place to learn, young students, who are curious and passionate about learning, form ready volunteers who are eager to help. Not only this, but helping them learn about how gardening can benefit them both with a yield of fresh vegetables and also as a fun time in the soil, is rewarding. I believe it is essential to engage community leaders with these ideas to get them off the ground and inspire others to pursue similar projects. It is also important to include the community as a whole so they benefit from the experience as well.

Now that the garden is done, what is next on your agenda?

Now that we have proven that this project can work and we can achieve our goals, I feel this is just a ripple in a coming wave. I hope to encourage other communities to take on these types of projects to create their own sustainable food sources in their backyards. I have already collaborated with a few people from the Houston and Chicago communities for the same. Hopefully, the word spreads and the actions amplify.