Why some Black and Latinx families lose access to nature during pandemic

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LAUSD custodian La Shari Robinson hasn’t taken her family to the beach in months. Splashing in the waves is exhilarating for her 5 year-old son, King. But since the pandemic, Robinson has kept her son at home, even now that the beaches are open again. 

“I wanted to take him to the beach, but it was just so many people out there,” she says. 

Robinson laments that Black Americans are dying at higher rates of COVID-19, and while both she and King desperately crave some beach time, this South LA mother isn’t about to risk it. 

“I feel worried because it doesn't seem like an end [to the pandemic],” Robinson says. “We are not getting closer to it being better.” 

Yet Robinson knows her child needs outdoor time and exercise. So she transformed their daily two-block walk to get lunch from a nearby high school into a nature excursion. 

Along the way, she and King stop to look at bugs. “I see bees and butterflies and ladybugs,” King mentions on one of their walks. 

King has developed an affinity for ants. “I made an ant house for the ants,” he says. “What you need to do is to put a slide in a can, and then tape it up together, and then have a welcome sign saying, ‘welcome ants.’”

King with an “ant house” that he made. Photo by Deepa Fernandes. 

They also discuss tropical fruits they see. “I’ve heard of papaya before,” King says, “It's in California, Abu Dhabi, [and] South America.”

For some Black and Latinx families, shelter-in-place orders cut off access to nature. Neighborhoods without open green spaces or parks have been hit the hardest, along with areas where houses lack yards. COVID-19 disproportionately impacts Black communities, so families like the Robinsons choose to stay inside while the fear of the pandemic lingers.   

The time indoors can impact a child’s physical and mental health, according to Sarah Milligan-Toffler, executive director of nonprofit Children and Nature

“The people who are most impacted by systems of inequity, racism, and economic disadvantage are the people that are being most impacted by COVID-19,” Toffler says. “If children are not getting outside right now, it can have an impact on stress and anxiety.”

Robinson and her son exemplify how cooped-up families can find nature, Toffler says. “Just about 10 minutes per day, even looking out the window, connecting with the larger world … does wonders for our levels of stress and anxiety,” she says.

Yet Toffler says that even in the best of times, low-income children of color have had less access to open space. 

“We know that communities [of color] have also been intentionally disconnected from parks, green space, from farming, gardening,” Toffler said. She calls it “nature redlining.” 

La Shari Robinson makes sure her son King still gets some outdoor time during the pandemic. Photo by Deepa Fernandes. 

In South LA, a local food justice organization, Community Services Unlimited (CSU), builds small urban farms to reconnect communities with nature. Their Expo Urban Mini Farm lies on the edge of a community that is home to low-income families of color. It’s been very quiet since the pandemic started.

On a recent visit, Co-executive Director Heather Fenney is pulling out weeds. A plethora of fruits and veggies are sprouting. Normally, Fenney says, the farm is buzzing with activity.

“Young kids are frequent visitors to the farm,” Fenney says. “They come in and taste the leaves right off the plants, pick the berries right off the bushes, follow butterflies, dig for worms.”

CSU has cancelled all its summer programs for youth because gathering in groups is still too dangerous. It’s a big loss for kids in the area. Yet it’s not the only nature-based summer program being cut. 

“Due to COVID19, we are regrettably going to have to cut summer programming, in particular to homeless youth and foster youth,” says Gerardo Salazar, director of Outdoor and Environmental Education for LAUSD.

The Los Angeles school district has robust programs that bring kids to nature. “One of the highlights of that program is an overnight sail on a tall ship to Catalina Island,” he says. 

Salazar is afraid that further budget cuts might really hamper school year activities too. 

He worries that his students already miss out on nature. “Even though they can go outside and view the mountains from their neighborhoods, they've never been to the mountains,” Salazar says. 

Being in nature is critical for children’s well being, he says.

The budget shortfalls for nature programs have rippled through the state. In late May, the axe fell on one popular Central California program, the Rancho El Chorro Outdoor School . Started 49 years ago in San Luis Obispo, it offers day programs, week-long trips, and full-time outdoor nature summer camps. But COVID19 stopped all that. 

“We were notified that due to financial challenges as a result of the pandemic, that the program would be closed and the staff was laid off,” says Celeste Royer, director of environmental education at the Rancho El Chorro outdoor school in the San Luis Obispo school district. 

Kids of farm workers, Latinx children from surrounding counties, and children with special needs attended Rancho El Chorro’s nature programs. Royer says that for many of them, it was the first time they  ever sat by a campfire or took a nature hike. 

“I've had students ask me who they have to share a bed with because at home, they share two or three to a bed,” Royer says. “But at outdoor school, everybody gets their own bunk.”

Rancho El Chorro’s sudden demise in the midst of the pandemic is not unusual, according to new survey data published by UC Berkeley. In April, 1000 nature and outdoor education organizations responded to a survey, according to Craig Strang, Associate Director of the university’s Lawrence Hall of Science.

“About 30% of all the programs in the country would be definitely unable to reopen or very unlikely to reopen if they had to stay closed until December 31st,” says Strang. “Only about 22% of all the programs would definitely be able to reopen.”

And the programs that are confident about reopening will have to make cuts too, says Strang. Likely to go are scholarships, subsidized transportation, and other financial help to families who can’t afford full price. 

“It is a devastating outcome,” Strang says. Nature may become a luxury item. 

However, Sarah Milligan-Toffler of Children and Nature believes there is a simple solution as educators plan the new school year: outdoor classrooms. “More and more, we're seeing that the relationship with the natural world actually matters in terms of our ability to retain information,” Toffler says. 

“Right now there's a particular case for greening school grounds because you can social distance on a school ground, and you're much less likely to pass or contract the virus in an outdoor setting,” Toffler says. “You can set up outdoor learning stations with handmade shelters that can be simple things put up with a tarp to protect kids and teachers from the sun.”

Toffler offers another suggestion to school districts: Hire some of the laid-off nature educators. They have expertise in how kids learn in the outdoors, and they can help classroom teachers transition to outdoor learning. 

Going back to school outside would be a win-win, Toffler says.

Deepa Fernandes is a reporting fellow at Pacific Oaks College, which is funded in part by First 5 LA.