What better way to spend spring break than conducting on-the-ground research to build food systems that support the health and wellbeing of people and planet? That’s exactly what Conscious Kitchen did with our Organic Farm to School Mapping Project and a passionate cohort of six local college and university students this spring. This cohort came from various fields of study — including environmental science, food systems, global studies, nutrition, and geography — bringing unique perspectives and fresh ideas to the project.
This experience was eye-opening and grounding. It definitely solidified my passion for community based work and I greatly cherish the small conversations we had as a cohort with Conscious Kitchen staff and their enthusiasm to give back to students and stakeholders in our food system.” ~ Ximena Verduzco-Villanueva, Student, UC Berkeley studying Environmental Science, Global Public Health and Food Systems.
At Conscious Kitchen, we seek to propel sustainable change and school-supported agriculture while educating, empowering, and mobilizing diverse next-generation leaders around food and environmental justice – and we did just that with the following goals in mind:
- Work with organic farmers to learn about farming history, crop plans, and seasonal offerings
- Create a comprehensive map of organic farms in the region
- Understand the barriers farmers face and where support is needed (marketing, website, equipment, business plans, translation, processing, etc.)
- Create opportunities for organic farmers to sell into the school food marketplace
- Expand fresh, local, organic meals for California kids in California schools
One might think that interviewing nine small organic farmers in the same region of the same state might lead to repetitive conversations, but the opposite was true. As we spoke to different farmers throughout the week, we walked away with new learnings and moments of inspiration from each. Javier Zamora of JSM Organics taught us about the variations of intercropping he practices to keep pests away organically, such as planting sunflowers next to legumes and squash to protect them from cucumber beetles. Maria Reyes of Narci Organic Farm shared her experience as a female farmer driven by providing her community with nutritious food. Rigoberto Bucio of Bucio Organic Farm gave valuable insight into how recent storms have impacted agriculture and what we can expect in the months to come with respect to access and pricing of California-grown produce.
They discussed the challenges organic growers face in the industry, including a lack of support from government agencies, unfair prices for their produce, and the recent floods that have disrupted farm production. Despite these obstacles, all of these individuals expressed their dedication to organic farming, and the pride they had in their work, and we were grateful to better understand what moves them to dedicate their lives to growing food.
“The choice to be an organic farmer in a country that does not support organic farming is a very difficult and honorable one to make. It shows a belief in a movement, belief in a livelihood, and people willing to take on personal sacrifice to make sure that people they don’t even know are healthy. It puts faith into the quality over quantity argument. Cutting corners doesn’t get you, your people, or you land anywhere.” ~ Liam Chok, Student, UC Berkeley studying Geography, Society & Environment and Portuguese.
The team had a midpoint check-in during the week to sit down with one another and reflect on everything they had learned thus far. When asked to describe their experience in 3 words, we got responses such as connected, radical, privilege, community and grounding. These feelings led us to brainstorm ways to move this project forward, continuing to support the community of organic farmers, school district food service leaders, students and more in the Central Coast region of this state. We discussed different data points to map out (farms, coolers, processors, etc.), enrolling the farmers in USDA school food programs, and website strategies that farmers could utilize to advertise and sell product. This week was only the launch of the project, and we’re excited that the students feel inspired to stick around and see this work through, as well as more joining as we proceed, especially with another cohort trip in early summer at the close of the school year.
“Individuals can affect change, and collectives are unstoppable. Often, all that’s needed is leadership, collaboration, showing up, and follow through. Our goal is to support farmers excel in what they do best: growing. To tell their stories, to enact policy change to protect their lands and health, to connect them with new and expanding school marketplaces. Together, we CAN, as this week proved at an even deeper level.” ~ Judi Shils, Founder/Executive Director, Turning Green and Conscious Kitchen.
Below was the itinerary for our alternative spring break in the Central Coast of California. Stay tuned as we share in-depth farmer profiles.
Day 1 – March 27th, 2023
Bucio Organic Farm in Salinas, CA with Farmer Rigoberto Bucio
Induchucuiti Organic Farm in Salinas, CA with Farmer Celsa Ortega
The Queen of Vegetables Organic Farm in Salinas, CA with Farmer Yadira Mendiola
Day 2 – March 28th, 2023
Sun Valley Farms in Watsonville, CA with Farmer Rogelio Ponce
ALD&Y Organic Farm in Salinas, CA with Farmer Guillermo Lazaro
Day 3 – March 29th, 2023
Watsonville Coast Produce in Watsonville, CA with Organic Sales Lead Chris Little
Narci Organic Farms in San Juan Bautista, CA with Farmer Maria Reyes + her daughters; Yesenia and Angelica
Day 4 – March 30th, 2023
Live Oak School District in Santa Cruz, CA with Child Nutrition Director Kelsey Perusse and Child Nutrition Manager Sanra Ritten
JSM Organics in Royal Oaks, CA with Farmer Javier Zamora
Day 5 – March 31st, 2023
Land Trust of Santa Cruz County + Esperanza Community Farms in Watsonville, CA with Co-Leader Mireya Gomez-Contreras
Hikari Farms in Watsonville, CA with Farmer and Doctor Janet Nagamine