Akasa Community on Making Wellness Accessible for All
Nature and Intent Journal is a digital container featuring inspiring original content on conscious brands and individuals.
Our belief is that your unique background, perspective, and experiences shape uour authentic ‘nature’ which connects us to our purpose or ‘intent’.
Akasa Community is a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit providing a diversified wellness curriculum in partnership with public schools in low-income communities throughout Los Angeles. At Akasa, both students and families have access to healthy, affordable food options and education to best care for their bodies.
Established in 2012, the concept of Akasa stemmed from the growing inequality of access to healthy food in different neighborhoods. With a team of four including Ashleigh, the Founder, Veda Romero, Director, Nina Anakar, Lead Chef, and Amanda Beattie, Lead Gardener, Akasa aims to provide a preventive health model for the local Los Angeles community.
We interviewed the diverse, all-female team behind Akasa who educate and empower students and families by making 'wellness more accessible’.
Ashleigh, can you share your background in food, education, and wellness? How was your experience at Harvard and working at an after school program in San Francisco?
Ashleigh Parsons: I’ve been interested in education from a young age and during college, when faced with my own challenges in health and wellness, I was drawn to holistic practices that involved mind, body, spirit. I began practicing yoga for physical pain and quickly realized the positive effect it had on me. Soon after this experience, I began instructing yoga and fell in love with the practice of teaching. Upon graduating college and being unsure of what I wanted to do, I enrolled in an intensive yoga teacher training in San Francisco. For me, one of the most empowering tools gained during that training was the realization that these wellness practices were fairly simple and with the right training, could be done on your own at a very low cost. Eating well, moving the body, meditating - these practices that became integral to my own personal wellbeing can and should be accessible.
With an interest in psychology and education, my first job after college was working as a Program Coordinator at the Tenderloin Afterschool Program - a free after school program for youth ages 5 to 18. At that time in 2009, the neighborhood was known for its high crime, drug use and prostitution and our job at the program was to provide a safe haven for our students. Our center was often described as a family and it felt that way. During my time in the Tenderloin, I learned a lot about the importance of community. During that time, I also became intensely aware of the disparity and injustices that existed in our food system. As a white, educated female living in SF, I had access to an abundance of the most beautiful produce growing in the country, whereas my students living in the Tenderloin didn’t even have a grocery store within walking distance. The closest food was found at corner stores where Cheetos and soda were more affordable than water and a piece of fruit. At that moment, I understood the work that needed to be done in this space and felt inspired to work in this field but wanted to gain more experience and knowledge before pursuing anything on my own.
My experience at Harvard studying Human Development and Psychology was positive and there, I was able to study and examine the many ways in which people learn. I became more interested in how we can create environments that set up youth for success in our schools and after school programs. During my program, I also became the Principal Investigator on a research study at Harvard Medical School investigating The Efficacy of Yoga in the Schools - a research study that examined the positive outcomes of yoga for high school youth. This experience made me become deeply interested in studying the benefits of holistic practices for youth specifically focused on low-income youth that may not otherwise have access to practices like these.
Ashleigh, what does “Akasa” mean? What is the significance of this name in alignment with the mission and offerings?
Ashleigh: It’s pretty simple. The name is Pali for “sky” or “limitless being”. The idea is that we as an organization are providing a space where students and families feel safe, supported, nourished and able to be themselves. The goal is to encourage and empower them to be agents of change in their communities and pursue their own dreams and passions.
Veda and Ashleigh, what inspired you two to conceptualize the current AKASA program to offer a wellness curriculum promoting cooking, gardening & mindfulness for low-income youth & families?
Ashleigh: The program is always evolving and this year has been our most successful year to date. The most important piece for me is that we’re always listening to the youth and families that we serve and addressing their needs. For example, we’ve had more parents attending our parent workshops led by Veda, so we’re working on increasing the number of parent workshops we offer. Often, Nina will create a recipe that’s inspired by something a student requested in a class or Amanda will plant a particular item that students want to see growing in their garden. It’s important to me that we listen to the needs of our community and create programs and workshops that address those particular issues.
Veda Romero: Since joining Akasa over 2 years ago, through conversation with the community, I have been able to witness the need for this program. Students and parents attend programs eager to learn when they step into the classroom. We as a team work hard to make sure that the healthy food movement is accessible and achievable for all. I want to empower the community by giving them the tools to live healthier lives and empower them to make informed decisions about their overall health and wellness.
Nina, what is your favorite thing about being a Lead Chef at AKASA promoting healthy lifestyle and cooking to students?
Nina: I get fired up about the idea that wellness doesn’t have to cost as much as those who market it to us often make it seem, and that there are simple ways in which we can use the nature around us to feel good inside. I get really excited about the simplest ways in which we can feel nourishment and health, like cooking a simple vegetarian dinner for the smallest fraction of what you’d pay in a restaurant. I feel lucky to have learned from women who are very resourceful when it comes to cooking for their families, so sharing that information feels like a practical service that I can offer to my neighbors in this city.
Amanda, when did your passion about the importance of food and education begin?
Amanda: I started cooking for the joy of it in middle school. it was a tangible avenue into other times and places, which is one reason I loved and still love food & cooking. But it was in college that I was first introduced to the injustices embedded in our food system: the myriad ways our food system exploits both people and land to the detriment of us all. I grew a lot as a fellow for Harvard's Food Literacy Project, a group of peer learners and educators that dealt with everything from nutrition to social justice issues in the food system. That was when what was previously just an enjoyable activity (cooking & eating) and my desire to do my part to address oppressive systems fused for the first time.
Amanda, how has your personal passion for community and creating a conscious dialogue with others align with the goals and mission behind AKASA?
Amanda: My personal approach to things like community and growth these days is to start super-duper small: in my city, on my block, in my own life. I find myself going back often to the sixth principle of Kwanzaa, which is "kuumba," meaning "creativity." More specifically, it means to strive to do what we can with what we have to leave a space better than we inherited it. I feel that my micro-size approach to problems that seem insurmountable aligns with Akasa's: we're four women trying to do what we can with what we have to hopefully be collaborators in positive growth.
Amanda, how did you start working as the Lead Farmer and Gardener for AKASA? Please share any previous experience developing an urban farm.
Amanda: I reached out to Akasa when I returned to LA after an apprenticeship on a farm in the south of Morocco. They were looking for a gardener and I was looking for gardens so it worked out perfectly!
I had helped manage a quarter-acre hillside garden in Lincoln Heights a few summers previously and was excited to get back to growing food with students in my home city.
Amanda, what farming or gardening practices did you take away or learned previously that you continue to teach and cultivate at AKASA?
Amanda: All the agricultural sites I worked on were organic and I continue those practices in the Akasa gardens. I'm also a fan of the French intensive method of gardening - practices like integrated pest management, companion planting, etc. I'm working to incorporate as much of this as possible into the schools' gardens.
Can you expand on how AKASA is improving overall wellness for young people nationwide? What were the results of the Stress Reduction Research?
Ashleigh: We haven’t gotten there yet but research in this space is high priority for our organization. We’re lucky to have Professor Joel Gittensohn, PhD, Head of Department of International Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, signed on as a consultant for Akasa. He offers support in terms of research as an expert in the field of formative research and evaluation in public health as it pertains to food justice and food deserts. Thus far, we’ve gathered testimonials from students, parents, teachers and administrators in our community that suggest the positive outcomes of this program. Our goal would be to create a research study that examines the positive benefits of a program like Akasa and hopefully build a case for more programs like this throughout the United States.
Veda, what was your experience like growing up in the Rampart neighborhood? How has this contributed to your intention to support your local community through the Akasa programs?
Veda: My experience growing up in the Rampart/Virgil Village neighborhood was a lot of fun! I was born in Mexico, so moving into a neighborhood filled with people who looked like me and came from similar backgrounds felt like home. There was a great sense of community. Many nights, we spent with other families having dinner and backyard parties. Although, the neighborhood had its issues with crime and robberies, we always looked out for each other.
Being raised by immigrant parents who worked two to three jobs made it hard for them to provide dinner for our family. I’m able to relate to a lot of the stories that the students share with me. Many live in food-insecure homes so I can see the importance of the work we do with Akasa.
In regards to gentrification, it’s a loaded question because this process often negatively impacts communities of color. For a neighborhood that is mostly populated by low-income Latino people, many of whom are undocumented, it is easy for big developers and powerful companies to take advantage of them. It’s been difficult to see the displacement of neighbors, the cost of living skyrocket and small mom-and-pop immigrant-owned businesses close down.
The food system in this country is out of balance and unfortunately low-income neighborhoods are the ones that suffer the most. When big fast food corporation target certain communities and grocery stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods only open in wealthier neighborhoods, the disparities become clear: people living in more affluent neighborhoods don’t have to think twice about access to fresh produce whereas low-income communities are just barely able to feed their families after working two to three jobs. Priorities are different if the only two options for dinner are to eat Cup N Noodles or take a bus 20 minutes there and back simply to buy healthy groceries. The system is out of balance and my goal with Akasa is to speak up about the disparity in my community while simultaneously educating students and parents about how they can take their health and wellness into their own hands and feel empowered to care for themselves as well as their families in ways that are affordable and sustainable.
Today, how many schools and students do you work with on a weekly basis? Can you also share about your intention behind the AKASA community dinner pop-ups in Los Angeles?
Nina, can you please share your experience working at Murad, Sweetgreen, and Soho House in NYC? How did this lead you to become a chef and launching Ziza Mediterranean?
Nina Anakar: I decided to make the switch to cooking full-time after growing up in a family full of hospitality professionals and home cooks. Throughout school and after college, I worked for seven years in the industry but was always in front of house, marketing and production roles. I've learned so much working for food service and hospitality experts, but a couple of years ago, I was feeling burnt out from working in NYC and started cooking more often for family and friends as a way to feel creatively stimulated, nourished and restored. A big part of my desire to become a chef was also driven by the fact that I love to spend time with nature, work with my hands, and use my senses. My food business, Ziza, came out of my love and respect for my Moroccan family’s rich culture of food and hospitality and my home of California’s bounty of beautiful year-round heirloom produce.
Nina, can you share your cultural background and travel experiences? How does this inspire your cooking?
Nina: I’m the daughter of a mother from Ohio whose parents migrated from Germany and a father who immigrated from Morocco. I spent some of my formative years living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I was exposed to the relationship between nature and food at an early age. My family eventually moved to San Diego, California, where I was lucky to grow up around a lot of beautiful local produce and comfort food, thanks to my mother (and both my Midwestern and Moroccan grandmothers’ recipes!). In my cooking, I love to draw connections between family recipes, traditional Moroccan food, California's seasons, and all of the flavor that Hispanic culture has offered to this state's cuisine. I think that having such a mixed cultural experience and heritage has really allowed me to develop a unique and specific perspective in the kitchen, and I’m constantly inspired by the ways in which food connects humans everywhere.
How do you maintain all the AKASA community gardens on a weekly or seasonal basis? Can you share what’s currently growing this season and your favorite harvest experience?
Amanda: On a weekly basis, I try to visit the gardens twice a week for weeding and troubleshooting any issues with pests, disease or irrigation. Seasonally, things are slower in the winter. Right now, it's early spring so we have some crops that came through the winter - fennel, brussel sprouts, spring onions, kale, various herbs, snow peas, swiss chard, cauliflower, broccoli, spinach, radishes. Our fava beans are flowering and we're just getting started planting carrots, beets, leeks, and more now!