Califonia Bountiful

Farming it forward

March/April 2018 California Bountiful magazine

Students, volunteers grow food for those in need

Westminster High students Raquel Martinez (front), Brayan Hernandez and Wendy Mejia harvest food destined for the Orange County Food Bank from the school's 8-acre farm. Photo: © 2018 Lori Fusaro

Lined up like a bucket brigade at the Westminster High School farm in Orange County, students, teachers and other volunteers pass just-picked watermelons from hand to hand, then carefully place them into bins destined for the Orange County Food Bank.

By the time the inaugural harvest at The Giving Farm is complete, the group will have gathered nearly 40 tons of food.

A segment of Westminster High's 8-acre farm, which had been largely neglected because of budget cuts, reemerged last year as a farm-to-food-bank program. Now, The Giving Farm brings the community together to provide hands-on educational opportunities for students, while offering fresh, nutritious fruits and vegetables to those in need.

"The Giving Farm prepares students for their future by teaching them leadership and collaboration skills and making them do something they have never done before, like planting food to give back to the community," Westminster senior Arlene Carrillo said.

At left, Giving Farm partner and former California Food and Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura talks with school principal Joe Fraser. Right, agriculture instructor Dave Eusantos helps students Hanh Doan and Learsi Macias collect watermelons. Photos: © 2018 Lori Fusaro

A farm reborn

The farm at Westminster High School dates back to 1973—a time when manufacturing and tourism had already replaced the farms and ranches that once propelled Orange County's economy. Westminster is one of only eight high schools in the county that has maintained a successful agriculture program, but a loss of staff and resources had triggered a decline in the farm noticeable even from the 405 freeway that borders it.

"For the last few years, you would drive past this farm and there was very little activity," A.G. Kawamura said. "We thought, it's a diamond in the rough."

A third-generation Orange County farmer and former California food and agriculture secretary, Kawamura manages Solutions for Urban Agriculture, a nonprofit that seeks to repurpose urban land for producing food. He and likeminded individuals with the Orange County Food Bank and Orange County Farm Bureau saw potential in Westminster High's fallowed fields and partnered with the school to make a change. The Giving Farm was launched on the site early last year, giving students additional opportunities to learn by doing, while making a difference in their community.

"To teach all of the disciplines of science at work, with all of the hands-on learning, you have these life lessons that are right there for a new generation," Kawamura said. "If you can get that initial spark of interest from students—that is what is so great."

Using part of the farm to grow food specifically for the food bank is a primary goal of The Giving Farm, but Westminster High agriculture instructor Dave Eusantos said revitalizing the school's agriculture program is an equally important goal.

"It is a new chapter in terms of what is happening with our high school and the ability to produce food for the hungry here in Orange County," Eusantos said.

Agriculture instructor Dave Eusantos helps students Hanh Doan and Learsi Macias collect watermelons. Photo: © 2018 Lori Fusaro

Helping hands

Mark Lowry, director of the Orange County Food Bank, which distributes about 22 million pounds of food annually, said the partnership with Westminster High will allow the food bank to provide more fresh fruits and vegetables than the 6 million pounds a year it currently distributes.

"As the county has grown, so has the number of low-income families and others in need," Lowry said. "If now people are relying on food from food banks to meet their ongoing needs, we need to be much more attentive to what we're providing and make sure that the food is as healthy as possible."

The Giving Farm's inaugural harvest last fall resulted in the delivery of more than 20,000 pounds of watermelon to feed those in need, Lowry said. This, coupled with a subsequent harvest of butternut, spaghetti and acorn squash, yielded 75,000 pounds of produce during the farm's first year—enough to benefit 6,000 families.

This year, Giving Farm organizers plan to donate crops including the cabbage, broccoli and lettuce planted in the fall and harvested this winter, and the corn, watermelons and tomatoes currently in the fields.

Behind it all is the support of dozens of volunteers. Local farmers, for example, donate time, supplies and use of their equipment.

"I spend about five to seven hours a week at the farm, overseeing what is growing or what we're doing in regard to pest control," said Mark Lopez, Orange County Farm Bureau president. "I also hunt down supplies, like seed, or find a grower to donate a tractor. I beg and borrow to make it happen."

Eusantos, who acknowledged he's not an expert in growing crops such as tomatoes and corn, said he's grateful for the opportunity to work alongside fellow Giving Farm partners.

"It really does help when somebody else can help and devote five or 10 extra hours to produce these crops. It just makes a world of difference," Eusantos said.

Students and volunteers pass watermelons hand to hand at The Giving Farm, which provides educational opportunities for students as well as fresh, nutritious fruits and vegetables for those in need. Photo: © 2018 Lori Fusaro

Ahead in the field

For Westminster High School's 2,800 students, The Giving Farm offers hands-on learning in a variety of subjects, while also preserving the school's agriculture program, which serves more than 140 students.

Jackson Phan, a senior at Westminster and president of its FFA, might spend part of his school day tending to livestock, plowing the fields or maintaining the farm grounds. He said the farm lends itself to lessons in subjects such as horticulture, animal science, biology and physical science, arming students with real-world experience and a deeper understanding than a textbook can provide.

"Through my involvement in The Giving Farm, I learned about how crops grow and all the necessary things that the plants need," he said.

Calling it "a win-win-win for everybody," Eusantos noted how students and teachers outside the school's agriculture department benefit as well. Food from the farm stars in the school lunch program. In addition, the outdoor classroom serves as a venue for teaching science students about pest management, inspires culinary students in developing seasonal menus and provides a place where art students can paint murals.

"The school realizes that it has a wonderful resource with multidimensional training and teaching capacity," Kawamura said. "Whatever your interests are, you can find them at The Giving Farm—sciences, mathematics, sustainability, music and art—all of these can be brought into interpretive learning."

Looking to the future, Eusantos said the school intends to increase the amount and variety of food grown at The Giving Farm and expand other farming systems, including hydroponics, which is growing plants in water, without soil. Other possibilities are the creation of a mentoring program with opportunities for entrepreneurs, such as a student-run farm stand.

Senior Siren Taylor said she is excited about the possibilities.

"Each day that I show up to the farm, I feel an immeasurable passion for it," she said. "Not only is every day a learning experience, but The Giving Farm has brought together the community to help achieve a common end goal of feeding the hungry."

Christine Souza

Volunteers pack fresh produce for Ag Against Hunger. Photo: © 2018 Paolo Vescia

Farmers share the bounty

It's a fact: One in six adults and one in four children in California regularly go hungry. They are among the nearly 5 million state residents who struggle with food insecurity, defined as a lack of access to the food one needs to remain healthy. California farmers and ranchers strive to fill this need by partnering with food banks and other organizations across the state to provide fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, meat and dairy products.

The following is a snapshot of farm-related charitable efforts, in addition to The Giving Farm, that have made it their mission to help fight hunger in this agriculture-rich state:

  • Ag Against Hunger: The Salinas-based organization (pictured right) delivers surplus produce, donated by local farmers, to food banks and nonprofit agencies in the state. 
  • Farm to Family: Run by the California Association of Food Banks and supported by donations from more than 135 farmers and shippers, the program distributes approximately 164 million pounds of food each year to people in need throughout the state. 
  • Harvest for All: For the last 15 years, Farm Bureau Young Farmers & Ranchers groups throughout the nation have worked collaboratively with Feeding America to donate food, funds and manpower to feed more than 83 million Americans. California YF&R members donated more than 15 million pounds of food last year. 
  • Hidden Harvest: This produce-recovery program hires farm employees to glean produce from fields, orchards and packinghouses. Their efforts provide fresh fruits and vegetables to nearly 50,000 Coachella Valley residents each month.

Follow us on: Facebook Twitter YouTube Pinterest Pinterest