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Happy Half Hour: The World’s Happiest Rice Starts in National City

Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center help local kids and families cook up nutritious takes on cultural cuisine
Courtesy of Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center
Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center

Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center

Courtesy of Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center

Most of you know Troy as our fearless leader and a frequent flier—or as the guy you wish you could text for recommendations on where to take your finicky mother-in-law to dinner in San Diego. (I just asked him for you; he suggests Fort Oak in Mission Hills). His college classmates, on the other hand, knew him as the guy who couldn’t cook. “I knew how to turn the knob on the microwave to the right,” he admits on this week’s podcast.

The two women across from him on the mic are working to make sure more kids don’t turn out like Troy.

They are Jen Nation and Angelica Gastelum—executive director and marketing manager of Olivewood Gardens, respectively. Olivewood is seven acres of gardens and an agricultural learning center surrounding a historical 1896 Victorian home—the former estate of Christy and John Walton (you might have heard of their family’s company, WalMart).

It’s located in National City, an area with a disproportionately high rate of food-related health conditions, due in large part to a lack of access to healthy, affordable ingredients. The Waltons gifted the property to the International Community Foundation—so that the property could be used to “engage, grow, and promote healthy communities and dialogue through civic engagement and philanthropy in the San Diego-Baja California border region.”

Basically, show how real, nutritious food could transform a life. It was a personal story for the Waltons.

The Waltons’ son, Lucas, had been diagnosed with cancer at an early age. Traditional treatments failed, so a friend suggested removing processed foods from Lucas’ diet. Christy began her own farm-to-table system, growing organic fruits and veggies and transforming them into ultra-fresh meals and nutrient-packed juices.

And Lucas wasn’t the only kid in the neighborhood who benefited from Christy’s foray into homegrown fare. Locals still drop by Olivewood to reminisce about sipping juice with Lucas decades before—proof that shared culinary experiences form wonderfully sticky memories.

Olivewood launched its first programs in 2010, aiming to educate residents about nutrition and sustainability. Then they commenced their Cooking for Salud program, teaching men and women from the community how to create more nutritious versions of the traditional recipes that were important to their families.

Graduates of that program are known as Kitchenistas—and they now number 400. Every elementary school student in National City comes to Olivewood to learn about agriculture and environmental science. Some of the produce from the property is used in schools. Kitchenistas have filtered into every part of National City, passing on the healthier-food knowledge to neighbors and legislators.

We got to split a dish with the folks at Olivewood, too: a bowl of “Happy Rice” crafted with the help of fourth graders from a National City school. A blend of fluffy whole-grain brown rice, sesame oil, black vinegar, amino acids, and leftover veggie scraps, the adaptable recipe serves as a way to teach elementary-aged kiddos how to cook healthy meals while cutting food waste—and get them on board with eating their greens. Visiting Olivewood on field trips, nine-year-olds often enter the building adamant that they won’t go near a broccoli floret. They happily leave with bellies full of little trees.

“In a few years, we’d love to say that National City has the healthiest kids in the country,” Jen dreamed aloud, just a few moments before we hit record.

By Amelia Rodriguez

Amelia Rodriguez is San Diego Magazine’s Associate Editor. The 2023 winner of the San Diego Press Club's Rising Star Award, she’s covered music, food, arts & culture, fashion, and design for Rolling Stone, Palm Springs Life, and other national and regional publications. After work, you can find her hunting down San Diego’s best pastries and maintaining her three-year Duolingo streak.

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