This Giving Tuesday, Support Sustainable Solano Through Give Local Solano

By Sustainable Solano

Sometimes the gifts we get at Sustainable Solano are the small moments that come out of the work we do. While our work is focused on effecting change within our communities to build resiliency and sustainable living, what happens on the human scale is much more personal:

  • A woman getting to know neighbors and new friends while planning a resilient neighborhood.
  • A man planting in a community garden recalling how his mother prepared certain vegetables during his childhood.
  • Students researching and connecting with the food they grow on campus to send home for families.
  • Farmers connecting in conversation to share practices and ideas.

During #GivingTuesday, Dec. 3, we invite you to become part of fostering that human connection in creating a world that works for everyone. Sustainable Solano is participating in this year’s Give Local Solano. The program gives you a chance to give to area nonprofits that are doing important work in the county. All donations go to the organizations selected, and 100% of the donation qualifies as a charitable gift. Here are more details on Give Local Solano.

While we have a Donate button at the top of our website for any time of year, Give Local Solano gives us a chance to highlight our programs with people who may not have heard of Sustainable Solano and the work we do. We hope those of you who know us, volunteer with us and have joined us for workshops will help spread the word — while every dollar will help bring more programs to the county, every new connection is someone who can help us grow and spread the important work we’re doing to create sustainable landscapes, shape resilient communities, provide education and support local food.

See Sustainable Solano’s profile and donate here on Dec. 3!

Sustainable Solano Celebrates Our Beginnings At ‘Our Benicia Roots & Soil’

By Sustainable Solano

It’s been 20 years since the organization that would become Sustainable Solano put down roots through the creation of the first community garden in Benicia, and on Saturday, we recognized the most important element in making that happen: the people.

More than 50 people gathered at Harvest Presbyterian Church, the place where so many seeds of Sustainable Solano’s growth have been planted, to celebrate their involvement with the organization.

Special guests Dr. Erik Swenson and his son, Kai, attended in honor of Dr. Ed Swenson, the force behind the creation of Benicia Community Gardens, starting with the garden at Heritage Presbyterian that now bears his name.

“Dad loved this town a lot. He loved all the people,” said Erik Swenson, Ed Swenson’s son. “I wish he were here. He truly would have enjoyed this.”

Marilyn Bardet, Erik Swenson and Kai Swenson at the celebration

Board Chairwoman Marilyn Bardet spoke about the years of work that led to the 1999 groundbreaking of the intergenerational community garden at the church led by Dr. Ed Swenson and the Healthy Benicia Task Force as a way to encourage healthy food and community sustainability. She talked about incorporating that vision into the Benicia General Plan, which created a public-private partnership around the endeavor.

An important part of the celebration was to recognize the many volunteers, community partners, past board members and advocates who have helped to shape Sustainable Solano and given it the strong foundation needed to grow and flourish over the past 20 years.

“We’ve been very fortunate in the kinds of help we’ve received and the types of responses we’ve gotten,” Marilyn said.

Bits of history adorned the walls as participants nibbled on breakfast items from local shops and farms and discussed their roles with Sustainable Solano over the years. A slideshow traced the progression from Benicia Community Gardens through the creation of the orchard, numerous sustainable backyard food forest gardens and more.

Kathleen Huffman and Elena Karoulina at the celebration

As Sustainable Solano grew, it maintained its vision around local food, extending that concept from intergenerational gardening to community food access. This manifested into new programs: the CSA program; the Benicia Community Orchard, also at Heritage Presbyterian; and, with new attention to the tenets of permaculture, Benicia Sustainable Backyard.

Through such programs, the seeds were planted for the growth of programs in Benicia and throughout the county, Executive Director Elena Karoulina said, once again focusing on the people who made such things possible, including those volunteers who helped launch the programs and later made their way onto the organization’s advisory boards and board. She also discussed designers who have helped grow the reach of permaculture, such as David Mudge, who launched Benicia Sustainable Backyard, and Kathleen Huffman, who went through permaculture design training and then became the designer and contractor for Solano Sustainable Backyard that brought the concept to other cities in the county. The program now has 19 gardens and counting, has 1.2 million gallons of annual positive water impact, and thousands of people have been educated through the hands-on installation workshops. Kathleen is leaving in July to return to Oklahoma, where she plans to foster similar permaculture programs.

“Our Benicia seeds are going nationwide,” Elena said.

Seven new designers will undergo training in the coming months to take on Kathleen’s role here at home.

“Ripples keep going out y’all,” Kathleen said, talking about the knowledge she will take with her to share with a new audience and how much her involvement in the movement has meant to her. “I am so moved and so full of gratitude and honored.”

The celebration ended with a look toward the future as Sustainable Solano continues in its mission of “Nurturing Initiatives for the Good of the Whole.” Elena talked about how the organization continues to grow and add new programs that expand that mission in Benicia and around the county, such as the Urban Forest and Solano Gardens programs, Resilient Neighborhoods and the Local Food System program. And how new generations will gain valuable skills through planned high-school and workforce training programs, including the Community Land & Water Caretaker Program planned for Benicia.

“We believe, as Dr. Ed Swenson did, that hands-on learning through actual practice opens awareness when hearts, minds and bodies are engaged in meaningful work,” Marilyn said after the event. “Food is central to survival. We have to work to grow it. Doing the work helps us see the necessary changes we must make in the way we do business and conduct all aspects of our lives as lived in community.”

Saturday’s celebration was the first of several we plan around the county this year. Following this recognition of our roots, we plan to celebrate in the coming months the stem of growth throughout the county, the flower and seeds that are spreading far and wide. We hope you can be a part of these upcoming events as we honor the importance of the people who have shaped Sustainable Solano through the years and are moving us forward.

View a gallery of photos from the celebration below

Our Benicia Roots & Soil

Recognizing Our Roots As We Grow: Sustainable Solano Marks 20 Years

By Sustainable Solano

Sustainable Solano is 20 years old! We hope you will celebrate with us this year as we recognize how we have grown and changed over the years even as we hold tightly to the core values that led to our creation and drive our interwoven initiatives for the future.

To mark 20 years of dedication to promoting ecologically sustainable, economically and socially just communities, we plan to host several celebrations this year recognizing the communities and volunteers that have helped shape and support the organization. We would not be who we are today without the countless volunteers, community partners and advocates who have embraced the vision of what is possible when many people work together for the good of the whole.

Sustainable Solano owes its strong roots to its start in Benicia, where the very seed of what we have grown into today started with Benicia Community Gardens.

On March 30, we will host “Our Benicia Roots & Soil,” a celebratory breakfast in Benicia to recognize the importance of our history as we look at how Sustainable Solano has grown and spread throughout the county and set goals for the future. We hope you can join us at this or future celebrations we will hold around Solano County this year.

Part of recognizing this anniversary is the introduction of a new logo. Central to the new logo is the sunflower, its roots reaching down into the soil and its leaves spread to catch the sunlight as its many-petaled face turns toward the sun. The sunflower has been a key motif for Sustainable Solano since Benicia Community Gardens started, drawing together those who recognized the need to build community around the key elements of food, environmental stewardship and conservation.

Over the years, Sustainable Solano has grown to encompass a diverse group of initiatives that all work together toward nurturing the whole — recognizing what we need as individuals to thrive both within our communities and in harmony with the environment. Today, we are involved in programs that promote sustainable landscaping, building a local food movement, driving new conversations about the world we live in and bringing together neighbors to create a more resilient way of living.

That sunflower reflects these things, and has been a symbol for what nurtures us as an organization, as seen in this early sketch of what it means to us.

An early version of the flower used for board strategic discussions in 2011-2014

Its roots are set within the local community and environment, reaching down to soak up nutrients and pull in the funding that comes from our donors, grants and partners.

The strong core, the stem of the program, is people — our staff, board and countless volunteers and supporters — who define the resilience and vitality of the flower! The leaves stretch out, reflecting the board and community members who draw upon the rays of indigenous wisdom that is an integral part of our learning and insight from conversations and dialogue about problems and solutions. All of those help to nurture the organization.

The head of the sunflower centers around the different ideas and programs upon which Sustainable Solano’s initiatives are based, with each petal emerging out of those to form the different interrelated parts of the organization.

As we move into 2019, we hope that you will join us for a conversation, a food forest installation or a cooking demonstration to help grow this sunflower to its full potential, powered by the people involved.

We invite our friends, partners and supporters who have formed the roots of the organization through their dedication to our programs that have grown out of Benicia to join us March 30 for the “Our Benicia Roots & Soil” celebration or at one of the other celebrations around the county this year that will celebrate our growing organization as we take on new people and programs and plant the seeds for new opportunities and programs in the future.


Attention Benicia Community Garden members!

Our website for Benicia Community Gardens has officially been retired and information has been transferred to our main Sustainabe Solano webpage. Click here to bookmark this page now.

If you have any garden or orchard related questions or inquiries, please use our new active email: Our old emails will remain active temporarily.

Stay tuned for details about our annual general garden meeting in February!

Our vision for Solano Community Food Centers is funded by USDA

Food, environment and human health, local economy and resilient communities

By Elena Karoulina

Executive Director of Sustainable Solano

Image from Pixabay

When was the last time you had Solano-grown produce on your dinner table? The most possible answer is ‘never’, unless you grow your own food in your garden or your backyard food forest. It’s a very unusual situation for a Bay Area county that is still largely agrarian, at least in the land use patterns.

Sustainable Solano is embarking on a new project to bring more local food to our communities and to connect our local farmers, chefs, and residents with the gifts of our land and with each other.

At the very end of September we received great news from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA): our proposal to further our vision by developing a business plan for Solano Community Food Centers was selected for funding! Annually, USDA funds about 14% of grant applications for local food projects, and we are honored to earn support on a federal level.

What is a Community Food Center? It is a hub for local food activities: CSAs deliveries, cooking classes, community education, and large kitchens where chefs and community members can cook wholesome nutritious meals. Larger Community Food Centers can include a food co-op.

Although Solano County produces close to $354 million worth of agricultural products and exports these products to more than 40 countries, only a fraction of that amount remains in the county due to weak distribution system, lack of sales outlets and somewhat low interest in local food. You can hardly find any Solano-grown products in our farmer markets, stores and restaurants. Small  farmers struggle to hold on to their land and to connect with local customers.

Where do we buy local food? People who can afford it obtain their local ag products in the markets outside our county: Napa, Sonoma, Berkeley (thus spending local money outside our local communities). Some cities in Solano are blessed with Community Supported Agriculture, but not many people know about this option and take advantage of it. People with low means have to go without local fresh food at all. Solano is a county of commuters, and unfortunately, the only option available for families on a go is fast-food restaurants and convenience stores (you cannot find local food there!).

We pay dearly for this lack of access to local food with our health: Solano County is among the sickest counties in the nation. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease rates are above national average in our home county.

Food, human health, the environment and local economies are all interconnected; by creating a network of city-based Community Food Centers, there is potential to re-envision and re-construct Solano County’s food system so that it works for everyone in the local food supply chain.

Sustainable Solano has partnered with researchers at UC Davis, Solano County Department of Agriculture and Department of Public Health to conduct a feasibility study, develop an effective business plan, and outline implementation for local food businesses that aggregate, process and distribute locally-produced, healthy food products. Our big vision is the environmentally and economically sustainable, equitable local food systems in Solano County.

We are looking for urban and rural farmers, chefs and local food activists interested to implement this vision. We’d love to hear from you with your comments, suggestions, reflections, and offers to help. Please email directly to me at

Let’s make it happen! I am looking forward to meet all of you at the official launch of the program on Wednesday, October 25, at 7 pm, at Benicia’s Heritage Presbyterian Church (doors open at 6 pm). Please join our Advisory Board members Dr. Feenstra and Dr. Campbell in the conversation about the future of food and why local resilient food system is so important. Come meet the project team and all of us interested to bring this vision to reality. 

Benicia Community Gardens Annual Meeting 2017

Share Plot Harvest, July 2016

Benicia Community Gardens Annual Meeting on February 18, 2017

After a brief welcome by Marilyn Bardet, Board President, our executive director, Elena Karoulina, explained that the Benicia Community Gardens and Orchard are now part of Sustainable Solano.  In the past few years Elena and the Board have added many new initiatives, including 7 food forests in Benicia and consumer supported agriculture programs to supply residents with sustainably sourced vegetables, meat, fish, and other food products.  The food forests have saved an impressive amount of water. These accomplishments caught the attention of Solano County officials, who asked our group to bring some of these programs to other parts of Solano County.  So the name change reflects the new and broader mission of bringing sustainable food (in many forms) to Solano County.

The group then heard from the coordinators of Avant Garden, Swenson Garden and the Community Orchard.  Avant Garden is almost full, but many of the beds at Swenson are empty.  The Share plot at Avant Garden provided over 700 pounds, an impressive amount of food!  All 3 coordinators requested increased participation in work days.  As discussed last year, people who did not provide the minimum hours last year will be charged extra this year.   Annual agreements were signed and the annual fees were collected.  Agreements and fees for 2017 are due by March 21.  Contact your garden coordinator if you missed the Feb 18 meeting!