September Partner Profile: Mesa Verde Gardens
In this month’s Partner Profile, we are excited to introduce you to a fellow Food Systems Leadership Network organizational partner based in Watsonville, California: Mesa Verde Gardens (https://www.mesaverdegardens.org/). MVG is a community-based organization that works alongside with residents of Santa Cruz County to improve food security and nutrition through co-creating edible community gardens – empowering community members to grow and produce food themselves, for themselves. Sounds awesome, right?! We think so too. Read on for our interview with Vicente Lara, Mesa Verde Gardens’ Executive Director (pictured above), who gave us the scoop on all things MVG. Let’s get started… give us your best elevator pitch! (What do you do? Why?) Mesa Verde Garden’s mission is to build and sustain a network of organic community gardens that promote the sharing of cultural practices and improves the overall health of families in the Pajaro Valley. A disproportionate number of our members, mainly Latino farmworker families, grapple with a variety of complex and interrelated socio-economic and health issues that contribute to food insecurity. More than half our community members face varying levels of food insecurity at some point during the year, while Santa Cruz County statistic reports only 12% of the entire county population face food insecurity. Yet, food insecurity goes beyond hunger. We know that food security is not just about access to healthy organic food. There are multifaceted reasons as to why community members are not able to maintain healthy diets. Here are a few: ● Watsonville is located in the heart of the country’s salad bowl but contains several USDA designated food deserts. With limited public transportation or access to a car, it is a challenge to get to a local grocery store that offers healthy food options. ● Our members often lack access to a kitchen due to multiple families sharing a house or apartment in response to the high cost of housing in Santa Cruz County. ● And even when our member families have the means to access healthy food, they lack the time to cook due to the long hours they work during the Valley’s growing season. As a result, many of our community members are forced to eat out or buy prepared food that is highly-processed, lacks nutrition, and is high in sugar and preservatives. This ongoing consumption pattern is a leading cause of the devastating health outcomes that plague our neighbors. In the Pajaro Valley, three out of every four adults and half of all children struggle with obesity and a host of chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. Those are some seriously troubling numbers. What does MVG do to combat this shocking level of food insecurity among farmworker families? We realize, as MVG staff, we can’t solve all the barriers to food security. However, we support what is already working––the informal networks and social capital that directly contributes to our members’ resiliency. We develop this social network, focusing on community building and gardener relationship development within the gardens. With some effort, our gardens become a town hall, plaza, or a center for social justice and community support for our member families to challenge the factors that lead to food insecurity. Wow! That’s awesome. We love your focus on leveraging the assets and relationships already active within the community and building on what’s already working… there’s no need to recreate the wheel. What are some strategies that you implement to do this? To do this, we: ● Maintain our network of gardens so that families continue to have access to fresh fruits and vegetables; ● initiate projects such as collectively managing a greenhouse and seed bank to inspire future member-driven initiatives that directly address food insecurity in our community; ● build a strong gardener community by hosting regular garden gatherings; ● and develop a variety of leadership positions for our gardeners within MVG. While there are many important programs in our community that offer food and shelter, our approach is different. At MVG, we strive to empower our neighbors by supporting one another at the grassroots level. Community support and empowerment are the key ingredients for equitable food systems development. It sounds like you are working closely with your community… How does Mesa Verde Gardens partner with others to catalyze systems change? Mesa Verde Gardens is a community organization that exists as a direct result of collaboration, community support, need, and demand. We would not exist without the ongoing commitments of our many community partners, donors, and board members. All of our gardens are evidence of such support. To build an MVG garden, we partner with our donors, as well as our land partners. We maintain partnerships with local churches, the Pajaro Valley Unified School District, and the City of Watsonville in order to build our gardens. This allows member families to work a 140 square foot plot of land. In these plots, they prepare and grow the fruits and vegetables of their choice. MVG also has strong partnerships with local, like-minded nonprofit organizations. Our collaborations with these amazing groups broaden our ability to achieve our mission. It's exciting to hear about the cross-sector partnerships you have going – MVG is definitely a systems change organization! Knowing where you are now, can you tell us a bit more about how MVG has evolved over the years? When we initially launched our first garden in 2011, it was a community success. Stories from this site quickly spread, and the community demanded more garden plots. By 2012, we were able to expand to two new sites, and membership grew. In response to ongoing demand, we launched five additional gardens in four years and now, in 2018, we are working with 200 families. Over the years, MVG has been able to deepen its leadership and broaden its responsibility by building a strong, capable team of staff, an advisory board, and garden leaders. From 2010-13, MVG’s Founder, Ana Rasmussen, was the sole staff member with an operating budget of roughly $10,000. Currently, MVG has grown its budget substantially and has hired five staff including a Director, Outreach Coordinator, Facilities Specialist, Grant Writer, and an Administrative Assistant. That is impressive! What would you say are the three keys to MVG’s success so far? 1) Providing local families with a space to grow organic produce and develop our community, 2) Our commitment to building a member-driven organization, and 3) Creating empowering leadership opportunities within our organization. Speaking of empowering your staff… what’s it like to be part of the MVG team? MVG embraces a collaborative work environment. As a small staff, we work closely with our gardeners as a team to manage our network of gardens. We have a dedicated staff that works tirelessly on the ground, with the land, and in order to reach more and more member families in need by. It is only together, gardeners and staff, that we can nurture the seeds of change. We couldn’t agree more. We also know that this work is tough and there are ups and downs, successes and challenges. What are some of MVG’s proudest achievements? (We know there’s probably quite a few… but try to pick the top 1 or 2 that stand out!) Achievements: 1) We launched our first community garden in spring 2011. It was the Pajaro Valley’s first community garden and involved 30 low-income families, working land leased on the basis of a handshake agreement with a local church pastor. Success stories from this site quickly spread, and the community demanded more garden plots. By 2012, we were able to expand to two new sites, and membership grew. In response to ongoing demand, we launched five additional gardens in four years. In 2018 we now have eight garden sites and a community orchard. We are based in the community, for the community, and work alongside our neighbors to empower the community. 2) We have been able to make significant strides and grow as an organization. When we began it was one person building the gardens with about $10,000. We now have a dedicated and energetic staff, a small but significant operating budget, and are on our way to become our own 501(c)(3). Those are some major achievements and congratulations on accomplishing so much in such a short amount of time! If you had to point to one thing that you do really well, what would it be? Supporting community members who grow a heck of a lot of food! During the height of our growing season (May - September), gardeners are harvesting roughly 20 - 40 lbs of fresh produce a week! We got so good by trusting our community members and supporting them in growing food the way they know how. That’s a lot of produce - your community must be grateful for your encouragement and support! So what’s in store for the future of MVG? MVG’s new phase focuses on further developing the roles of our constituents in the organization and engaging our membership. If members aren’t inspired to join, or participate in programs, MVG is just making space available for gardens. While creating access to healthy food for our neighbors is vitally important, we want to do more. We are committed to empowering our garden members to take leadership roles in confronting food justice issues, thereby creating a strong MVG gardener community, focused on lifting up peers, neighbors, and family members. To do this, we recognize the need to shift our internal organizational culture away from the idea that we are only creating a space to grow food, and are becoming a member-driven organization with a more holistic approach to addressing food insecurity. That evolution in your approach and your theory of change is on point! It sounds like there are some exciting times ahead for the Mesa Verde Gardens community. Given your experiences so far, do you have any words of wisdom that you’d offer your fellow food systems leaders? Continually work to listen to and uplift the voices of those who are directly impacted by food insecurity and a broken food system that perpetuates inequality and poor health in our Country. And lastly, is there any area of expertise you’d like to tap into? The FSLN community is filled with knowledgeable, resourceful individuals and organizations – like yourself – is there anything your fellow FSLN members might be able to help with? We know that to preserve our work for the long-haul, we need to begin acquiring land to support our work for the next generations to come. If there are folks who have experience with community land trusts for sustainable agriculture, we would greatly appreciate any insight. Vicente and the team at Mesa Verde Gardens – it has been awesome getting to know your work better, thank you so much for taking the time to share out your experiences with the rest of us! We look forward to seeing MSG continue to grow in the years to come.