UC Riverside’s ‘sustainability warrior’ fights for environment on, off campus – Press Enterprise | #students | #parents

Riverside environmentalist Fortino Morales III is inspired by his mom, Sofía.

Why? She was “sustainable way back before it was a thing,” he said.

“She made her own clothes, crafted things out of recycled material,” said Morales, who comes from a family of migrant farmworkers. “She still does this to this day. Making roses out of packaging paper for my daughter to wear in her hair.”

Morales himself is an advocate for sustainability and climate action. He works for UC Riverside’s Office of Sustainability, leading green initiatives on campus and working with students interested in sustainability issues, social justice and the environmental sciences.

Years back, as a UCR undergraduate student, Morales helped start the university’s R’Garden on campus, which now serves as a space for student environmental research and fresh produce for the community.

As a student and now a UCR staff member, Morales, 33, has worked towards building a sustainable, collaborative world for the next generation and fighting climate change.

“Until climate change affects them, people don’t want to make a change,” Morales said. “Let’s not wait until it affects us — let’s make moves now towards a better world for everybody.”

Morales was born in Blythe, in the eastern Riverside County desert, and grew up in the San Diego area. He remembers going to zoos and museums, having a garden in his backyard and being exposed to social and environmental issues in high school.

When he came to UC Riverside in 2006, he knew little about the environmental sciences, thinking it was “a hobby, something you do outside of your day job.”

“But I was always really interested in the social justice aspect of it,” he said.

Morales declared his major in environmental sciences and found himself involved in sustainable green initiatives, public policy and environmental groups on and off-campus, such as Sustainable UCR and Grow Riverside. He co-authored UCR’s Green Campus Action Plan, an indefinite $2.50 green fund for students that goes towards related projects, and helped launch sustainability and agriculture courses.

In 2009, Morales and others helped start a campaign to build the pilot R’Garden by Parking Lot 30, near Martin Luther King Boulevard. The idea was born from a desire for more “environmentally centered,” agricultural spaces on campus.

In 2012, Morales became director of the R’Garden and over six years helped it grow into a resource center for student-led agriculture projects. The 8-acre R’Garden now includes a solar-powered greenhouse, Valencia orange grove, community plots and crops that feed the UCR community with fresh fruits and vegetables.

Food security is a big issue in Riverside, Morales said.

“One of the major food deserts is the Eastside, our neighbors,” he said.

The R’Garden provided over 1,200 students with fresh produce during the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic, when the UCR campus was closed.

Dawn Carter, who met Morales in 2014 while helping plan a Grow Riverside conference about urban agriculture and sustainability, was inspired by his work with the R’Garden.

“He is a sustainability warrior who just genuinely cares about doing the right thing,” Carter said. “It was cool to see young people (like Morales) giving back to those without access to food.”

Morales said everyone in their respective fields — from policymakers and teachers to artists and engineers — can do their part to fight climate change and reduce their carbon footprint.

“It’s not just a Riverside or a California problem — it’s our world, our home,” he said. “The next generation will be inheriting the earth that’s passed on to them, so I think we should do our best to make this world better for them.”

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