- Author: Madison Sankovitz
When stay-at-home orders went into place in March 2020, many of us took up newfound pastimes and reprioritized the tasks that filled our days. It wasn't all about baking sourdough bread and fulfilling TikTok challenges - the pandemic also ushered in a new wave of novice gardeners looking for help and advice on how to delve into home horticulture.
The perfect group to aid in this mission was the UC Master Gardeners, a program that has focused on sharing research-based information about gardening and pest management with the public since 1980. At the start of the pandemic, Master Gardeners were suddenly bombarded with a higher volume of calls and emails seeking gardening advice. This public service and outreach program under the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources (UCANR) is usually administered in person by participating UC Cooperative Extension county offices, but COVID forced Master Gardeners to rethink their strategy for disseminating critical horticulture resources. Volunteers across the state showed continued to extend information by using new digital platforms and technology, efforts that have helped the program stay connected to California communities.
Gardening resources in Spanish
One significant digital resource developed by Master Gardeners during the pandemic has been the addition of gardening videos in Spanish. The majority of resources offered through the program are only in English. But according to the 2019 census data, the most common non-English language spoken in California is Spanish; 28.8% of the overall population are native Spanish speakers. An internal UC ANR grant to develop online educational resource materials in other languages proved to be the perfect opportunity to expand gardening resources for Spanish speakers.
With a spirit of collaboration, Master Gardener volunteers, local community organizations and partners, and UC News and Outreach in Spanish staff created and released a series of food gardening videos in Spanish. In addition, they are working on translating the entire California Master Gardener Handbook (the chapter dedicated to food gardening is already completed).
Visit the statewide UC Master Gardener YouTube channel at youtube.com/c/UCMasterGardenerProgram to access the playlist of videos in Spanish. These videos are available for sharing on social media, websites, or anywhere the program reaches the gardening public.
The Spanish translation project has provided aid to countless community members looking to start gardens during the pandemic, but hope and resilience during COVID-19 are arguably even better exemplified through individual volunteers who have spearheaded digital initiatives through the Master Gardener Program. Some volunteers stand out as digital superstars.
Allen Buchinski joined the program in 2003 with a love of gardening and its sense of community. Buchinski has played an instrumental role in developing and maintaining the UC Master Gardener Program of Santa Clara County's website (mgsantaclara.ucanr.edu). He aided in bringing the program's help desk online, and he also coded an online storefront for selling seedlings and scheduling pick-ups.
“The help desk has been especially interesting during the past year because of the pandemic,” says Buchinski. “We needed to adjust our processes to work from home as well as deal with a 50% increase in the number of questions. We answered more than 2,100 questions from March 2020 to February 2021!”
While Buchinski's expertise focuses on web development, digital communication also relies on social media. Social media expert Michele Willer-Allred joined the UC Master Gardener Program of Ventura County in 2020 and became co-chair of the communications committee shortly after.
“Social media has been a great tool, especially with promoting our virtual workshops and interacting with other Master Gardeners throughout the country. But there is so much more we want to do,” explains Willer-Allred. “We plan to start an email newsletter; create educational gardening videos and virtual tours of local gardens; profile more of our amazing garden volunteers; and go outside our county and visit with other UC Master Gardener Programs. We also hope to increase our reach to a broader, more ethnically diverse audience, as well as younger gardeners in our community, since they are indeed our future!"
Long-time volunteer Rita Evans has been an active UC Master Gardener volunteer in Fresno County since 1993. When the pandemic hit, the county office closed, and most volunteer activities ceased. Evans immediately came up with a plan for how volunteers could stay connected and continue to earn hours.
“When the pandemic hit, our online refresher course was born. It is a 16-session 'refresher' using the UC Master Gardener Handbook with our own UC Master Gardener volunteers being the featured speakers,” explains Evans. “It is providing a path for volunteers to earn their required hours, to socialize virtually with a study buddy, and to refresh their horticulture knowledge ... it's a win-win.”
Buchinski, Willer-Allred and Evans are a few digital superstars shining among many volunteers who have given countless hours toward increasing access to gardening resources for communities across the state. Their efforts, in addition to the Spanish translation team, are true stories of hope and resilience during this pandemic and represent the beginning of a new era of increased access to resources./h2>/h2>
After harvesting and cooking their produce, students ask for seconds of kale
How do you get notoriously finicky sixth graders to eat their leafy greens? Have them grow the vegetables themselves.
Students in Riverside have that unique opportunity through a hands-on gardening and nutrition class at Ysmael Villegas Middle School, with help from CalFresh Healthy Living, University of California Cooperative Extension Riverside County (a part of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources).
“We have middle schoolers asking for seconds and thirds of kale – that's not something that's typical!” said Claudia Carlos, program supervisor for CalFresh Healthy Living, UCCE Riverside, which implements SNAP-Ed locally (the educational arm of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps).
Growing and tending kale, mint and snap peas in two wheelbarrow gardens on the Villegas campus, the second cohort of students capped their 12-week class with a cooking lesson. A simple recipe combining their kale with tomatoes, onions and coconut milk was a big hit.
“It's one thing to tell youth they should eat healthy, but not until they actually grow the food do they actually take a lot of pride in that food they've grown and harvested,” Carlos explained.
By the end of this school year, about 75 students (in three cohorts) will have taken the class, during which they explore career pathways in gardening, agriculture and nutrition – while cultivating new skills and healthy habits such as choosing nutritious snacks and incorporating exercise into their day. Techniques developed by the UC help encourage effective behavior change.
“In this exploratory class, I've learned how to plant, and take care of plants,” wrote one student, in evaluating the class. “I can use these skills later on in life most likely, and I also learned how to be more healthy.”
Teachers observed that other students also have taken steps to apply their new skills and knowledge.
“They become more confident in themselves and their abilities to make healthy choices for themselves and their families – and to advocate for their parents to buy that kale and actually eat it,” said Daisy Valdez, community education specialist for CalFresh Healthy Living, UCCE Riverside, who is helping teach the class.
Valdez also has been training Villegas teacher Kim Weiss, so that Weiss – a first-year full-time teacher – is empowered to teach future cohorts. Both Valdez and Weiss noticed that nearly all of the youth have been enthusiastic about getting their hands in the soil, watering and weeding regularly – even taking care of the “worm hotel.”
“Students are very invested in the plants, how they are doing and their well-being,” Weiss said. “They ask if they can come back to the class and help care for the plants and worms; students worry about who will take care of the plants and worms after they leave.”
In addition to basic gardening and cooking skills, the class also incorporates lessons about herbs and spices, beneficial insects and pollinators, and cultural dimensions of food. The kale cooking lesson, which recently took place during Black History Month, presented a chance to teach about African food and culinary traditions.
“It allows them to not just connect to the garden but also to connect to their peers and to connect to the world around them,” said Valdez, who added that the garden, planted in a pair of cheerful red wheelbarrows, also beautifies the campus and sparks conversations among their schoolmates about food systems.
The Villegas partnership with CalFresh Healthy Living, UCCE Riverside also benefits the entire school in other ways, with programs reaching hundreds of students and community members. In spring 2021, under Valdez's supervision, students created a “food access board” that shows how to obtain healthy and affordable food through CalFresh EBT, farmers markets, WIC and other resources.
The board, which has been set up in the library, cafeteria and lobby, is seen and used by students and family members. Valdez also engaged parents and the broader community by hosting gardening and nutrition workshops.
This year, Villegas students will have the opportunity to further deepen their cultural connections through a new Youth Participatory Action Research project, in which they explore their personal and family histories through the lens of a meaningful and healthy food item, practice or tradition. Youth will then share their findings with school peers and administrators.
As Carlos noted, these young people will not forget such engaging and immersive experiences with food any time soon. In their evaluations, many students wrote that they learned valuable lessons about compost, care for plants and insects, and healthy eating.
And, as one sixth grader said: “I also learned that kale and coconut milk is amazing!”
Lack of specific language for online context makes assessing compliance difficult
Beverages offered on fast-food restaurant websites and platforms such as DoorDash, GrubHub and UberEats often do not adhere to the spirit of California's healthy beverage law for children's meals, according to a new study from University of California researchers.
California's healthy-by-default beverage law (SB1192), which went into effect at the beginning of 2019, requires restaurants to offer only plain or sparkling water with no added sweeteners, unflavored milk, or unflavored non-dairy milk as the default beverage in “kids meals.” The law also requires that menus, menu boards and advertisements for those meals include only approved default options.
The law was passed to address increasing rates of childhood obesity and related chronic diseases, with sugary beverages factoring as a significant contributor to those poor health outcomes.
“Healthy-by-default beverage laws work by making the healthiest choice, the easiest choice for families,” said the study's lead author, Hannah Thompson, senior epidemiologist for the UC Nutrition Policy Institute and assistant adjunct professor at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. “Drinking sugar-sweetened beverages like sodas has been directly linked to health problems such as Type II diabetes, heart disease and cavities.”
Researchers at the NPI – a program of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources – found that most fast-food restaurants serving low-income census tracts did not offer beverages online in a way that is consistent with SB1192. The study focused on those neighborhoods because children from low-income families consume sugar-sweetened beverages in greater quantities, likely exacerbating health disparities.
Published online in the journal Public Health Nutrition, the study looked at a random sample of 254 “quick service restaurant” sites and collected observations from their restaurant-specific websites and three of the most popular online platforms that deliver their menu items – DoorDash, GrubHub and UberEats.
Researchers developed four increasingly restrictive criteria – incorporating beverage availability, upcharges and presentation of beverage options – to assess the implementation of SB1192 in these online ordering contexts. Half of their observations met their most lenient criteria, while less than 6% were consistent with their most restrictive – findings that Thompson called “discouraging.”
“It means families have to work harder to make the healthiest drink choices for their children,” she said. “This also means the law is likely not nearly as successful as it could be in its intent to help reduce sugary drink consumption by kids.”
The researchers had to create their own criteria for “compliance” with the law because, as written, SB1192 does not specifically mention online ordering, which has become increasingly popular due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Part of what makes it hard in the online context is that the law was written using language very specific to the in-restaurant physical space, making interpretation of compliance with the law for meals sold online challenging,” Thompson explained. “I'd love to see amended language in the law specific to meals sold online.”
Thompson also said she would like to see “clear and effective” communication with fast food restaurants and online delivery platforms so that they fully understand the healthy beverage law – as well as the use of a monitoring system that could help ensure compliance.
“Laws, which target system-level changes, are one of the most important public health tools we have to reduce sugary drink consumption and improve health for youth of all backgrounds,” she said. “But laws are only as strong as the structures in place to ensure their successful implementation.”
The other NPI-affiliated authors of the study are Senior Evaluators Anna Martin and Ron Strochlic, Evaluation Associate Sonali Singh, and Associate Director of Research Gail Woodward-Lopez, the principal investigator./h2>
Partnership with Esperanza Education Center provides blueprint for other adult transition programs
For students at Esperanza Education Center, an adult transition program serving students with disabilities in south Orange County, there was something deeply satisfying about handpicking 2,000 pounds of avocados.
“There's a tangible, visual element where you're like, ‘Wow, I did that – I did it, I can see it, I can feel it in my bones and my muscles,'” said Ray Bueche, principal of the school in Mission Viejo, within the Saddleback Valley Unified School District. “There's a real sense of accomplishment that you're seeing in some of these students.”
Ranging in age from 18 to 22, the students are in an adult education program that helps advance their independent living skills and prepare them for meaningful work and careers. They are able to experience the thrill of the harvest – and a variety of other farming activities – through the school's innovative partnership with UC South Coast Research and Extension Center, a UC Agriculture and Natural Resources facility that supports researchers and delivers outreach and education programs.
Given UC ANR's emphasis on workforce development, Jason Suppes, a community education specialist at South Coast REC, contacted Bueche in 2019 about a potential collaboration. While Esperanza has many partnerships with retail stores and nonprofits that give students invaluable work experiences, none of them offer the farm environment that South Coast REC could provide.
“Part of developing [our students] is getting a wide range of opportunities in a variety of vocational areas,” Bueche explained. “Agriculture is one that's very hard for us to find.”
Program ‘wildly successful' from beginning
Unlike other job sites that bring the students in less frequently, South Coast REC committed to hosting the young people every week for three hours (COVID-19 measures permitting), with Suppes and colleague Tammy Majcherek leading them in planting, weeding, maintenance, harvesting and more.
“We can provide opportunities for students to learn skills that could help them potentially find employment in a garden center, in a nursery, at landscapers,” Suppes said. “The program was wildly successful out of the gate.”
Mike Seyler, an Esperanza teacher who accompanies the students to South Coast REC, has seen firsthand the positive impacts of the partnership. He said one student – who at first balked at the idea of being outside, getting dirty and performing physical labor – eventually grew to like the work and took great pride in pulling carrots from the ground and sharing them with his family.
“To physically actually ‘see' the work you did – they don't always get to do that,” Seyler said. “It was cool to see someone, who didn't necessarily like being outdoors, really enjoy it now.”
The change of pace – and place – was especially beneficial for one young woman at Esperanza. Bueche said the nature of the work and the setting helped the student grow socially, as she relished the teamwork and camaraderie needed to accomplish their goals on the farm.
“We really saw a different person come out through her experiences there – she felt more self-confident; she was more personable with people; she was talking more,” said Bueche, who added that she has leveraged the skills she gained into a paid work-based learning experience with a local retailer.
Students bring produce to school, community
All students benefit from Esperanza's partnership with South Coast REC, as surplus produce from the center's fields is donated to make healthy school lunches. In addition, students use REC-grown fruits and vegetables at their monthly pop-up restaurant, where they hone skills in preparing and serving a three-course meal.
Their peers, who harvested the produce, derive immense satisfaction from seeing the fruits of their labor go directly to the school.
“They're able to enjoy eating the stuff that they're working for,” Seyler said. “And then they see everyone else enjoying it, and I think that really translates well for these guys.”
The students also played a prominent role in an avocado sale last summer, for which they picked 2,000 pounds of produce, bagged the fruit in 10-pound bags and then distributed preorders to the public from a stand at South Coast REC. Proceeds from the event were used to purchase farm tools, shirts and other gear.
“It was an incredible success – everyone loved the avocados,” Bueche said. “The students loved it; the parents came out; community members supported it.”
Those successes illustrate the power of a strong partnership; the South Coast REC team, in fact, received the school's “Community Partner of the Year” Award for 2020-21, for persevering through the pandemic to deliver the beneficial programs for students.
Over the last two years, Suppes and Bueche – through a lot of creativity and some trial and error – have sketched a roadmap for growing productive relationships between similar organizations and adult transition programs. And after presenting those results to colleagues, other local school districts and nonprofits such as Goodwill and My Day Counts have contacted South Coast REC to provide similar experiences for community members./h3>/h3>/h2>
Free downloadable curriculum recognizes diverse family circumstances
Not all young people are on an expressway to a four-year college, and a new publication from University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources acknowledges their many circumstances and possibilities. The “Pathways to Your Future” curriculum invites high school-aged youth – and their families – to map their unique situations and passions before embarking on their own road.
Whereas similar guides might convey advice on a one-way street, this free download outlines a “hands-on” experience – in school settings or out-of-school programs – to help young people steer toward their best post-high-school education, training and career options.
“We wanted to make a youth-centered publication,” said co-author Claudia Diaz Carrasco, UC Cooperative Extension 4-H youth development advisor in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. “A lot of the content out there is based on delivering content to kids – just like information on college and careers; with ‘Pathways to Your Future', it's actually a skill-building curriculum so that youth are doing research and having critical discussions and making comparisons.”
In a pilot program that engaged 228 high schoolers across California (primarily 9th graders recruited from local 4-H programs), many participants said they appreciated that the curriculum presented a variety of pathways, including vocational education, non-degree certificate programs, community college, on-the-job training or entering the workforce – as well as four-year institutions of higher education.
“They have been liking that it doesn't start with ‘pick a college and get there,'” Diaz Carrasco said. “But really it's a self-reflection approach, where they start going back to what they're passionate about and what they think they're good at – and how much money they want to make in the future – and really just having that opportunity to know themselves before jumping into college or a career.”
To help them attain that clear-eyed perspective, the modules in the curriculum also debunk myths about the college experience and incorporate budgeting activities.
“This program gives youth the opportunity to constantly reflect on their learning as they get more data,” said another publication co-author, Lynn Schmitt-McQuitty, UC ANR's statewide 4-H director. “In the beginning, youth may have a very rigid or glamorized view of their future; the ‘Pathways' program grounds things and brings reality into the picture.”
Parents of the pilot-program participants – who predominantly identify as Latino – were also thankful for opportunities to engage in “real talk” with other parents about the wide array of options. Acknowledging the diversity of families across California, “Pathways to Your Future” also includes several sections in Spanish to make essential information more accessible.
“The parents need as much – or more – education on the processes, opportunities and expectations to support post-high school life,” Schmitt-McQuitty explained.
In addition to integrating families into discussions about their future, the curriculum also provides spaces for the high schoolers to participate in panel discussions with their slightly older peers, who recently went through their own decision-making journeys.
“The youth really appreciate seeing someone like themselves talking about what they went through, how they overcame obstacles,” said Diaz Carrasco. “They feel really inspired that there is a pathway for themselves.”
For assistance and support in bringing the “Pathways” curriculum to your community, contact your county's Cooperative Extension office, reach out to the local 4-H program, or email Claudia Diaz Carrasco at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The other authors of the publication are Shannon Horrillo (College of Agriculture, Biotechnology, and Natural Resources, University of Nevada, Reno Extension), Darlene McIntyre and Nathaniel Caeton (UC ANR), and Martin Smith (University of California, Davis)./h2>