August 18, 2022

By Kimberly Shelby

Contributing Writer


Long before local grocer Vons donated an abandoned storefront, post-riots, as a safe space for his community meetings, Lou Dantzler, the beloved visionary founder of Boys & Girls Club of Metro Los Angeles’s (BGCMLA) Challengers Clubhouse, was gathering weekly with groups of kids under a maple tree in South LA that provided a respite from the sun and noise of the city as well as an opportunity to commune with nature.

It was part of his mission to provide exposure, mentorship, and support to youth in the Metro LA area.




It's fitting that the latest development at the BGCMLA’s Watts-Willowbrook Clubhouse, a sister site of the Challengers’ Clubhouse located in Watts on the border of Compton, is a multi-week curriculum teaching participating children the science behind their favorite plant-based foods, the connection between personal wellness and food advocacy, and the cultural significance of gardens and growth in their own neighborhood and beyond.

This program was developed in coordination with Support+Feed and Wild Elements. The 12-month pilot began last month, and it is the hope of all involved that the program will continue permanently.

“One of the most important aspects of youth development is food education and positive nutrition,” said Kimberly Washington, Vice President of Resource Development for BGCMLA.


“In support of healthy lifestyles for our kids, we partnered with @wildelements and @supportandfeed to teach hydroponic farming to the next generation.”

Wild Elements Founder and CEO Nikki Esmaji explained, “Hydroponics is one of the best sustainable farming methods, as it bridges agriculture, technology, and innovation to grow nutrient-dense produce anywhere and anytime. At Wild Elements, we believe that sustainable farming is key to protecting the future of our planet, as well as the health of our communities. Agriculture is responsible for 75% of global deforestation, and over 70% of our global freshwater supply is used for agriculture.”

This method reportedly uses up to 10 times less water than conventional agriculture, which is especially important in water-scarce regions like California.

At the Hydro-Wild Lab, Club members will benefit from hands-on exploration of farm-to-table and environmentalism through communal gardening, cooking classes, and field trips spent in nature—which harken back to Dantzler’s early meetings in the seventies and eighties.



Washington noted, “This unique program developed in partnership across all three organizations is tailored specifically for the Watts-Willowbrook Clubhouse students and community to address the nexus of food insecurity and the history of food systems, healthy eating, and climate change.”

Maggie Baird, founder of Support & Feed and incidentally Billie Eilish’s mother, added, “The food we bring to the program is nutritious, delicious and completely plant-based. We also bring vegetables and fruits that kids get to try, sometimes for the very first time.”

This presents another element of exploration for the children.

The hourlong weekly program is open to all Club members at Watts/Willowbrook Clubhouse, giving youth the time to seed, watch, and learn about plants prior to and during harvest.

“Our Watts community has been long challenged by lack of success,” stated Patrick Mahoney, President & CEO, Boys & Girls Clubs Metro Los Angeles.


“The Hydro-Wild Lab will provide an opportunity for BGCMLA youth to grow and consume healthy foods but will also serve as a critical tool for community and family dialogue around creating healthier eating habits. In a community where diabetes has a 72% higher mortality rate than the average community, the Hydro-Wild Lab will serve as a great education and awareness tool that can help save lives.”

Wild Elements, Support + Feed and Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Los Angeles plan to scale and utilize the Hydro-Wild Lab as a model to bring innovative solutions to other communities nationwide.

“This educational and collaborative initiative unites the strengths and networks of all three organizations and further expands critical conversations about nutrient-dense food access in urban communities,” said Eslami. “Through this program, we are aiming to educate and engage students to become the next generation of sustainable farmers, food scientists, and climate activists.”

A gala celebrating the donors, partners, volunteers, and youth who’ve made this and other programs possible for BGCMLA will be held on Friday, August 26th at 6:00 p.m., at the City Club of Los Angeles. There will be silent and live auctions, dinner and cocktails, partner spotlights, and musical performances from Club members.


Washington, who noted familiar non-profit challenges with funding, and sustaining on-going staff and volunteer support, said, “The pandemic has had its toll on not only our youth and community, but those who want to embrace our mission and ensure impactful work continues for youth in Los Angeles. 


We are celebrating……Homecoming 2022!”



Although Dantzler, a South Carolina transplant to South Central LA, passed away in the Summer of 2006, his legacy of innovation and providing a place for youth to grow and learn in a safe environment lives on.


Young people coming up through BGCMLA are being equipped with tools to break the cycle of hatred and bigotry and overcome challenges before them, including climate change.

That abandoned storefront is now a $6 million facility that has served thousands of boys and girls to date, yet through the Hydro-Wild Lab, the organic richness symbolized by that maple tree is not forgotten. 


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Category: Community