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Santa Barbara ecological and edible garden project funded by EPA

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has awarded the Santa Barbara City College Foundation a sizable grant for a project that will connect students and residents to a network of edible gardens, and foster a connection to local ecosystems.

The EPA has funded environmental education projects nationwide since 1992.

The Santa Barbara City College Foundation, in partnership with Explore Ecology, was granted almost $100,000 for a project that will introduce students and residents to food-producing gardens and raise awareness about the local environment.

SBCC Foundation Grant Director, Rachel Johnson submitted the proposal for the collaborative community project.

“This is the largest EPA environmental education grant that’s ever been awarded in Santa Barbara County,” Johnson said.

Johnson said the goal is to reach K-14 students and also the broader community. Along with school programs, there will be a speaker series and learning opportunities open to the public.

“The main goal of the EPA for this program is to create community members who are better informed, so that they themselves make better environmental decisions,” she said.

In addition to SBCC and Explore Ecology, Mesa Harmony Garden, El Centro Community Center, Westside Boys and Girls Club, Youth Drought Project, and the Botanic Garden are included in the plan.

Santa Barbara City College has gardens on campus. The gardens serve as outdoor classrooms for students studying horticulture, landscaping, and the environment. The food grown in the gardens supports the student food pantry.

Dr. Adam Green teaches biology and environmental science at City College. He said the EPA-funded project will create a network of local organizations that can share knowledge and resources.

“It's a larger scale community education that can be integrated across all these different levels of education from elementary school through college, multigenerational with kids, parents, and grandparents all together in these various garden systems,” Green said.

Green has been involved with many garden projects throughout Santa Barbara and said they provide valuable learning opportunities.

“Children really love being out in the gardens and you can teach them all manner of ecology, science, and math,” he said.

Green helped start the garden programs on local elementary school campuses, which are now run by Explore Ecology.

Explore Ecology took over the elementary outreach from City College in 2013. Executive Director Lindsay Johnson said Explore Ecology currently serves about 30 schools throughout Santa Barbara County.

“Our team of garden educators maintains the gardens, keeps them thriving and beautiful, as well as works with students in the schools,” Johnson said.

She said six schools near City College will directly participate in the grant.

Explore Ecology site coordinator Marla Greer oversees the garden at Monroe Elementary School.

Greer teaches students in grades K-6. When not working the soil, she gathers with students in a shaded circle made of tree stumps. She talks with them about growing healthy food, water conservation and much more.

“This is more than a garden — this is an ecosystem — so there’s lots of diversity, lots of habitats for different creatures, pollinators, there’s lizards that we see very often, birds come by and visit the garden,” Greer said.

The small plot includes fruit trees, flowers, and lots of vegetables. Greer said the young gardeners are especially interested in tasting what they grow, and that the garden is a place for kids to be curious and try new things – like figs and beets.

“I think planting and tasting, if you were to ask a kid, is probably what they’d say they enjoy most,” Greer said.

Greer works closely with teachers to make connections between lessons in the classroom and lessons in the garden.

Part of the plan, she said, is to involve the students’ families – whether that means coming to the garden itself, or sending home seeds and recipes. During the recent school closure due to the pandemic, Explore Ecology provided seed packs and a demonstration video, so kids could plant at home.

The grant is for two years, and the Santa Barbara City College Foundation must report back to the EPA. Rachel Johnson said she’ll provide quarterly updates on activities.

“We have a speaker series as part of this grant that is open to the public, and then there are lots of activities that are happening on City College’s campus, and also on the elementary school campuses,” she said.

The first public webinar was called “Monarchs and Native Pollinators.” You can find it by going to Explore Ecology.org and click Get Involved. Look for SBEE.

This report is made possible by a grant from the Community Foundation of San Luis Obispo County. 

Beth Thornton is a freelance reporter for KCBX, and a contributor to Issues & Ideas. She was a 2021 Data Fellow with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, and has contributed to KQED's statewide radio show The California Report.
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