Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Mother Lode attracts emerging leaders in the Farm to School movement by keeping it local

UCCE and FoodCorps expand their reach in the Central Sierra with locally grown service members.

“Locally grown” has a new meaning for University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) and FoodCorps in the Mother Lode region of the California Foothills.  In their second year as a FoodCorps service site,  the UCCE, in partnership with Gardens to Grow In, now has two locally grown service members -  one in Calaveras and the other in El Dorado.

Now in its fourth year, FoodCorps, a national service organization, has grown from 50 service members in 2011/2012 to 182 service members this year.  As a member of the AmeriCorps Service Network, FoodCorps addresses childhood obesity and food insecurity by recruiting and training a team of emerging leaders to work in underserved areas for a one year term of service, where they focus on FoodCorps’ three pillars: Knowledge of what healthy food is; Engagement with fresh fruits and vegetables in gardens and kitchens; and Access to healthy food from local farms in school cafeterias.

In 2013/2014, FoodCorps first year in California, the UCCE Central Sierra (serving El Dorado, Amador, Calaveras and Tuolumne), in partnership with Gardens to Grow In, hosted one service member in Calaveras county, and was selected to host a second for 2014/2015.

“We are thrilled to have been chosen to host a second service member this year,” said Wendy West, CalFresh Nutrition Education Manager for the UC Cooperative Extension Central Sierra. “We strategically placed this service member in El Dorado county to compliment the position we have in Calaveras and help support the development of a Mother Lode Farm to School Network so we can all learn and grow together.”

FoodCorps California is being managed by co-hosts Life Lab and the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF).  There are currently 15 service members serving at 11 service sites in California.

FoodCorps recruits nationally and had well over 1000 applications for the 182 service positions in 16 states and the District of Columbia for the 2014/2015 service term.  Last year’s UCCE service member Noah Crosson, was from North Carolina, but is continuing to lay roots in Calaveras as an intern on the Metzger Family Farm in San Andreas.

This year, on the other hand, both UCCE service members, Emily Metzger (Calaveras) and Monica Drazba (El Dorado) are starting their service deeply rooted in Northern California.

“One of the goals of FoodCorps is to help build capacity within the communities that they serve.” said Kevin Hesser, co-founder of Gardens to Grow In and a FoodCorps service site supervisor.  “By recruiting locally for these positions we are able to take advantage of an incredible training and service opportunity for people in our community, which will hopefully keep the knowledge, skills and attitude gained through the FoodCorps’ partnership in this community for the long haul so these programs become sustainable.”

Metzger was born and raised in Calaveras County and is a graduate of Bret Harte High School in Angels Camp.  She got her BA degree in Liberal Studies/Education at Westmont College in Santa Barbara.

During college and after graduating, Metzger taught for Mind Matters Clinic, interned at local farms, worked at the Metzger Family Farm, and spent a year interning on organic farms in the Western United States, including Alaska, through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF).  She then returned to Calaveras County and became the manager, wine club coordinator and event planner for Hovey Winery Tasting Room in Murphys.

“I went to school with the intention of becoming a school teacher, but then found a real love for growing food and local agriculture,” said Metzger. “I have seen first hand the powerful effects that spending time in the garden and eating local, healthy food can have.  Healthy food systems are important to the health of individuals and communities as a whole.”

“FoodCorps is the perfect opportunity to merge the two things I am most passionate about, teaching and growing healthy food, and make a difference in my own community – in a school system that my own children will attend and hopefully benefit from the programs I help to implement,” Metzger added.

Metzger will be spending her time in the Calaveras Unified School District focusing on five major goals for the year: Implement Garden Enhanced Nutrition Education, cooking programs, garden maintenance and planning at two elementary sites (VSE/SAE) and one middle school (TMS); revitalize the farm and greenhouse at Calaveras High School with FFA members; develop a garden volunteer recruitment and training program district wide; use food from local farms and school garden produce for classroom tastings, salad bars and Harvest of the Month; and work with food service to track purchases to get a baseline for CUSD and help develop a plan for increasing local food purchases in the future.

Metzger will also be participating on the district’s Wellness Committee and helping out on many other projects and community work days during her one-year term of service, with the option of a second.

“Even though it is only a one-year term of service, I have to look at it as two at this point,” said Metzger.  “There are just so many things that I want to get done.  Doing the projects and teaching kids is so exciting, but the real, lasting work will be building support and community around the projects and activities...and that takes time.”

In El Dorado County, first year FoodCorps service member Monica Drazba is building on her nutrition background and Peace Corps experience to establish a thriving program and set roots of her own.  

Drazba was born and raised in Pinole, California. She graduated from UC Davis with a degree in Nutrition Science and a passion for growing food, tending gardens, and building community.

After college, Drazba served twenty-seven months in Fiji as a Community Health Promotion volunteer in the Peace Corps, where she collaborated with the Fijian Ministry of Health to design and implement an Organic Garden Outreach Program to deliver nutrition education to communities and establish vegetable gardens in villages, homes, health centers and hospitals.

“My Peace Corps experience motivated me to come back to the United States to broaden my knowledge of food security and agriculture, so that I could one day be in the classroom to serve as a more qualified organic gardening educator,” Drazba said.

Upon returning to the United States, she continued her work with agriculture, food systems and community service, working for City Slicker Farms in Oakland as a Food Justice Ally, and 49 Farms in San Francisco as an Urban Permaculture Intern.  

Armed with a desire to learn more about farming, Drazba spent two years on the East Coast as a Farm Apprentice at Chickadee Creek Farm in New Jersey.

“I learned a tremendous amount about what it takes to grow food in a sustainable way working on the farm, but I was ready to return home to California to pass this knowledge on to help develop systems where healthy, honest and local food is accessible to all people,” said Drazba.  “FoodCorps, and El Dorado County seemed like the perfect fit.”

Drazba will be focusing her work at Northside, Georgetown, and Camino Elementary Schools with the following goals: Teach weekly hands-on nutrition education using The Growing Classroom and UCCE developed curriculum; collaborate with the garden coordinator, students, parents, and faculty to expand and enhance the gardens; recruit a cadre of community mentors to support garden sustainability; and in concert with the Food Service Director, network with the agriculture community and generate a list of potential local food sources for the student nutrition program.

She will also be updating the database of active Farm to School programs in the Mother Lode Farm to School Network.

The first month of service, which began on September 1st, has been a full one for both first year service members.  From the National FoodCorps training in Portland, Oregon in August, local orientations and trainings in the Mother Lode, the state orientation in October to meeting many new people and learning about programs and community dynamics, Metzger and Drazba are elbow deep in the Mother Lode soil.

“It has been a really busy month, with a lot to take in,” said Metzger. “FoodCorps really believes in training and supporting us to be successful in the communities we serve, and this month has been filled with a lot of information, strategizing and planning to make the most out of our term of service.”

As part of their local training and orientation, the new service members were able to join FoCuS and Sonora Union High School students, staff and community members in Tuolumne County at Wildcat Ranch for the annual Potato Harvest.  They also attended the Northern California Farm to School Conference in Modesto and a community building workshop in Placer County, and visited many other school sites to observe lessons and get a sense of the scope of Farm to School work currently being done in the Mother Lode.

They have also had the opportunity to get their hands dirty in their first 30 days.

Metzger has been busy helping at Calaveras High School to rebuild the beds and clean out the green house.  She has cleared out the San Andreas Elementary garden to get it prepped for winter veggies, started the greenhouse, cooked with students and provided school wide tastings at Toyon Middle School, and has worked with students at Valley Springs Elementary to tend the garden and hold Farmers Markets each Friday in the Multipurpose room.  She has also been prepping and gearing up to start her official garden based nutrition education lessons in October.

Drazba has been busy at work getting to know the El Dorado community and has already taught her first classes, solicited seed donations and held a garden club meeting at Northside Elementary.

One of the highlights of the month was a guest appearance at the Valley Springs Elementary site training by 2013/2014 service member, Noah Crosson. The kids yelled “yeah….it’s Mr. Noah….we were hoping you would come back” following him through the sunflower maze they planted with him from seed in the spring.

“It was really motivating to see how excited the kids were to see Noah and the connection they had with him,” said Drazba. “It made it very clear that one person can make a difference in the lives of many and inspire lasting change in individuals, a school and a community.”

“Being able to come back to the school, see the students, and pass on some of what I learned as a FoodCorps service member to Emily and Monica was very fulfilling,” said Crosson.  “The students really love coming to the garden to learn and taste new things, and it is exciting to know that they will continue to have this experience with Emily and Monica this year, and for many years to come. With all the positive feedback from the kids, parents, teachers and staff, I think that more and more students across the county and state will be able to experience garden-enhanced education."

This may not have been the last special guest appearance for Crosson, born and raised in North Carolina.  As for now, he will be staying in Calaveras County as an apprentice on a local farm, with the hopes of one day providing agricultural education opportunities on a farm for youth.

As for post FoodCorps plans for Metzger and Drazba.

“In ten years I see myself still in Calaveras County and hopefully still involved in farming and school gardens. I hope to have found an opportunity to continue in this work and really make a difference,” said Metzger.

"In ten years, I see myself managing a small organic farm while mentoring youth who are interested in agriculture or ecology,” said Drazba.

In addition to Metzger and Drazba, the Mother Lode has a third local service member, Elizabeth Lane, serving in her home town of Nevada City with Sierra Harvest.

Metzger, Drazba, Lane, Crosson and FoodCorps are part of a growing movement of schools, youth, government  and community organizations across the nation that are on the forefront of solving the many social, food insecurity, and diet related health issues plaguing the United States.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, unhealthy eating and inactivity cause 310,000-580,000 deaths every year. According to the USDA, healthier diets could prevent at least $71 billion per year in medical costs, lost productivity, and lost lives.  That is an underestimate because it accounts for only diet-related coronary heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes and does not include Obesity, which is estimated to cost $117 billion. According to the CDC, state and federal governments spend one thousand times more to treat disease than to prevent it ($1,390 vs. $1.21 per person).

FoodCorps aims to be part of the prevention solution, which could save tax payers billions of dollars in the long run,  while at the same time create thriving, healthy children and communities all across the country.
For this year, Metzger and Drazba will be dedicating each of their days to making a positive difference in the lives of one child at a time - planting the seeds to create change, in the hopes of growing a healthy future for all.

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