- Author: Saoimanu Sope
The first time Chris Wong ever laid eyes on Romanesco broccoli was while he was selling it at a farmers market in Davis. Although the broccoli was marketed as locally sourced and organically grown, Wong remembers reading the label on the produce box: Holtville, California – 15 minutes from Wong's hometown, located more than 600 miles south of Davis.
Wong, CalFresh Healthy Living, UC Cooperative Extension community education supervisor for Imperial County, grew up in the community he now serves. In his role, he identifies opportunities to improve community health whether it be increasing access to healthy food, making neighborhoods more conducive for exercise, or simply educating the public.
But it was his college experience at UC Davis that catapulted his career focused on food systems and community health. Because he lived in UC Davis' Student Co-op Housing, he found himself surrounded by peers studying food science or agriculture.
“I was heavily influenced by the things they spoke about,” he said, adding that he was inspired to get involved with the local farmers market in Davis. “I started working at a farmers market, selling local, organic produce at very high prices to very privileged people in Davis, including students.”
He was troubled that the produce was transported from Imperial County – from towns like Brawley and Holtville, where Wong grew up – and yet he had never seen some of the products he was selling in Davis.
After spending a few years going back and forth between Davis and his hometown, Wong moved back home to Calexico fulltime in 2015. Eager to locate the nearest farmers market after his experience in Davis, he learned that the nearest one was in a city north of Calexico.
A grant provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture helped a Calexico based non-profit organization establish a farmers market in a neighboring community of El Centro, identified as a food desert, yet the farmers market was in a different city.
“It wasn't the same as the one in Davis. They didn't even have produce, just food and craft vendors,” he said. Wong felt motivated to make a change.
“I asked the coordinators of that farmers market if I could volunteer with them. I asked them about the process of establishing a farmers market. Then I started sending Facebook messages to city council members and other community leaders and was able to get a meeting with them,” Wong said.
A fresh start for his hometown
On Oct. 6, 2013, Wong and a few others launched the first-ever farmer's market in Calexico. Wong described opening day as “almost a failure” because of the lack of available produce. “It was really tough; we had a lot of build up for it. We had a distributor who came to provide produce, but it took a while before we got produce vendors to the site,” he said.
Even though Wong's hometown is also home to 500,000 acres of farmland, many of the farms in the Imperial Valley are commercial or industrial farms. This means that the crops have already been contracted to end up at stores like Costco before they're even planted.
“We even got the Romanesco broccoli to be sold in Calexico,” said Wong.
For six years, Calexico had a farmers market that community members benefitted from. When he wasn't securing vendors, Wong was attending community alliance meetings to promote the market and its effort to bring healthy, fresh options to the kitchen table. In 2019, the market shut down after the City of Calexico's Community Services Department Director retired and the department restructured.
Determined to succeed
During his first year at UC Davis, Wong, an anthropology major at the time, struggled as a student and felt ill-prepared to manage the intense coursework that lay ahead. “I just couldn't get the right grades or write good papers,” he said. Before the spring semester of his first year concluded, Wong was academically dismissed from UC Davis.
“There's a joke in my hometown that people say to students who go off to college,” said Wong. “Before you leave, people will say ‘see you next year' because a lot of us don't finish college and return home.”
Returning home was never an option for Wong. He was determined to stay the course, noting that he couldn't return home with student debt and no degree. To get himself back on track, Wong took summer courses at UC Davis and enrolled in remedial English classes at Sacramento City College. In total, he spent an entire school year and two summers making up for his academic shortcomings.
Wong's efforts at Sacramento City College paid off. He was able to reenroll at UC Davis and graduated with a bachelor's degree in Spanish Literature with a minor in Latin American Hemispheric Studies.
Remembering his roots
There's no doubting that the California/Mexican border holds a special place in Wong's heart. His father, of Chinese descent, and his mother met in Mexicali, where Wong's mother is from, and got married against their parents' will.
“They got married in secret and had me in secret because my Chinese grandmother did not approve of the relationship,” said Wong, describing her as “traditional.”
Growing up, Wong remained connected to his Mexican heritage but not so much his Chinese culture. Wong, along with his three younger siblings, are all fluent in Spanish but if you speak to him in Cantonese, like his paternal grandmother does, he'd only be able to make out a few words and phrases.
Wong's father grew up speaking Chinese in his home in Mexicali. When he would attend school in Calexico, however, most students spoke Spanish. The constant shift in language confused Wong's father, causing him to flunk the third grade. To ensure his children didn't experience the same challenges, Wong's father purposefully withheld from teaching Wong or his siblings Cantonese.
Wong's ability to speak Spanish, the language of the community he serves, has empowered him to connect with residents on a deeper level. Of the many things that Wong has accomplished, he is most proud to be giving back to the community that raised him. In 2017, he joined UC ANR as a UC Cooperative Extension community education specialist for Imperial County before becoming a community education supervisor in 2022.
Despite the setbacks that could have easily derailed Wong, he remains steadfast and is always looking for ways to improve his community's health. “I'm eternally grateful for the opportunity to serve my home community as a representative of the UC,” Wong said. “Visiting my old classrooms and teachers to provide their current students with quality educational experiences I may not have had growing up, brings me the utmost joy.”