Students Take Pride in Connecting with Local Food in Pilot Program

By Stefani Iribarren Brooks, Youth Cooking Program Manager
Photos courtesy of Bridgette Chestnut / SPSV

It’s not every day that you find a job that aligns with your passion, skill set and values, so when I found the Youth Cooking Program Manager position I was over the moon. The goal of Sustainable Solano’s Youth Cooking pilot program is to teach Solano youth the foundational principles of cooking with fresh, local, seasonal food in the context of a local food system. I was ready to put my educational and food industry background to work. The first few months were all about outreach and connecting with interested partners and it was motivating to see how many groups were interested, but the first group from St. Patrick-St. Vincent Catholic High School has shown a whole new reality of the impact this program can have on our next generation.

From gathering ingredients from local farmers, to taking inventory of all the cooking supplies necessary to make the class run smoothly, I was eager to share my passion for cooking and supporting local food with hungry young minds. Seven classes were booked for the first session. Each meeting would focus on a culinary skill such as roasting, sauteing, stock making, etc. and an educational intent like seasonality, healthy eating habits, and farming practices. Our first class introduced the regional map of Solano County, showing where things grow and how fortunate we are to be surrounded by such abundance. The students then got to cooking, learning new knife skills and becoming comfortable in the kitchen. As we sat down to enjoy our first meal together, I asked, “What’s your favorite meal?” Their answers blew me away. Not a continent was missed; this group named dishes from Syria, China, Peru, just to name a few. Things I had never even heard of were being described; their connection to food was evident, so my goal of connecting the importance of eating locally sourced, healthy food seemed to work into conversations organically.

By our fifth class we headed to Be Love Farm in Vacaville, where we toured with owner Matthew Engelhart, who eloquently demonstrated the efficiency of his regenerative farming practices. We got our hands dirty harvesting popcorn, then ate a delicious lunch at the farmstead around a large table where we shared what we are grateful for. I didn’t think the class could get any better than this, but I was wrong.

For our last meeting we hosted a final feast, inviting parents to join us. Students chose recipes based on what was in season and each group was responsible for a course. Watching each student take pride and ownership for their course was awe inspiring. They focused on everything from taste to plate presentation, and were eager to share it with their guests. They exceed our expectations. What started as a basic cooking class evolved into a group of young people connecting with one another through food and an eagerness to learn.

This was just the first session of this pilot, and it most certainly set the bar high, but we are eager to continue working with Solano youth. Next up, we will be hosting Girl Scouts for a weekend intensive session; a day at Umbel Roots farm followed by a day in the Solano County Fairgrounds’ kitchen with Chef Stephanie Oelsligle Jordan and myself. Solano’s 4-H Club and the Vallejo Project are also in the works for sessions early next year. SPSV would also like to have us back for another round in the spring for the interested students that did not get the chance to participate.

I entered that kitchen with the intention of inspiring students to connect with their food and understand the impact that it plays on their lives, but I left it inspired by our next generation and their capacity to understand the importance of healthy food. I hope this experience is something they will never forget; it will most certainly last a lifetime for me.

Reflections on Environmental Injustice Research & Shaping New Fellowship Program

By Allison McCabe

Allison McCabe is a rising Benicia High School junior and passionate about environmental science. She won this year’s Solano County Science and Engineering Fair with her research on toxins found in soil samples in Benicia and Vallejo — research she undertook to examine environmental justice issues in Solano County. We are excited to be working with her to shape Sustainable Solano’s environmental justice fellowship in Benicia for the coming school year.

Allison McCabe and another Lawrence Hall of Science intern taking soil samples at Allendale Park in east Oakland

I stared at the X-ray fluorescence analyzer in shock to see the soil sample I had just collected at Nicol Park in east Oakland read over 700 parts per million of lead on the device, almost nine times the California Environmental Protection Agency standards. This discovery would lead me to think upon what this data meant for the east Oakland community, which was disproportionately affected by such toxins, and set me on a path to study environmental injustice there and here in Solano County.

Last summer I received the opportunity to intern at the UC Berkeley Lawrence Hall of Science through a program called the East Bay Academy for Young Scientists. I got to spend two months of my summer in east Oakland, investigating soil and air pollution with nine other Bay Area high schoolers with the guidance of three adult mentors from the Lawrence Hall of Science: Colleen Sutherland, Eric Campos and Kevin Cuff. Our team collected and analyzed over 500 air samples and 600 soil samples throughout the two-month period. I learned a wide range of skills and the program gave me insight on what it is like to be an environmental scientist. I got to use scientific equipment such as air beam monitors and soil pollution analyzers. I even learned how to statistically analyze large data sets and how to write a scientific abstract.

However, the most important takeaway from the program was the chance to address environmental injustice in the Bay Area. In particular, I looked at lead and arsenic contaminants in the soil, two toxic metals that bring devastating effects to the human body, including slowed growth and development, learning and behavior problems, and hearing and speech problems. My research found that soil samples collected in low-income and communities of color typically had higher amounts of pollution in the soil compared to higher income communities. This is because historically marginalized communities are more likely to be exposed to landfills, toxic waste, highways, and other environmental hazards. Factors such as old lead water pipes, paint mixed with lead, and factories that dealt with recycled lead batteries most likely contributed to the amount of lead in the soil I detected.

Lawrence Hall of Science interns collect soil samples at Verdese Carter Park in east Oakland
Allison McCabe and another intern record soil sample results onto a Google spreadsheet

I initially applied to the program to learn more on environmental science, sustainability, and climate change but by the time I finished my experience, I learned about the intersection between environmentalism and social justice. The interconnection between the two was so intriguing to me as it was something I never learned about before. I’ve always been passionate toward environmental issues such as climate change, but I never understood that historically marginalized people are disproportionately affected by it. I realized that combating climate change is vital to mitigate its disportionate effects on people of color and other marginalized communities.

After the program finished in August 2020, I had the opportunity to present my findings in the program at the American Geophysical Union Conference (AGU) through the Bright STaRs program. After the conference, I felt inspired to continue to investigate and learn more on the issue of environmental injustice even though my internship had come to an end.

Within those few months, my fascination for environmental justice grew immensely. I joined the Solano Youth Coalition’s Social Justice and Racial Equity Committee to continue my work in environmental justice. At the moment we are working on a podcast series, “Teens Talk Social Justice” where I hope to share my personal experiences and thoughts on environmental injustice.

Additionally, I have brought my experiences from east Oakland to Solano County. From October 2020 to March 2021 I worked on a project for the Solano County Science and Engineering Fair, “How do the poverty levels and race profiles of Benicia and Vallejo correlate to the amount of soil in public schools and parks?” (See the slide presentation here) I collected over 150 soil samples in the cities of Vallejo and Benicia for lead and arsenic. My research found alarmingly high levels of lead in the soil of public schools and parks in Vallejo. My goal is to collaborate with the Vallejo school district to replace the soil at parks and schools that exceeded standards to address environmental injustice in my community to ensure that everyone, no matter their race or income, does not have to face the burden of soil pollution and its effects.

Also, I have been working with Sustainable Solano to create an environmental justice fellowship program for Benicia high school students. I am extremely excited to launch the program in the fall with Sustainable Solano. It has been an amazing experience getting to shape the fellowship program. I have been brainstorming presentation ideas, interactive workshops, service opportunities, and the curriculum. I want to make the issue of environmental injustice known, and by helping to create the program, I get to bring my experiences from east Oakland to Benicia. In the fellowship, I hope to share my involvement collecting air and soil quality data in east Oakland and hopefully give the opportunity for the fellows to do the same in their communities.

In a few months I will be continuing my pathway in the field of environmental science. This summer I have the opportunity to intern and work under the direction of Dr. Pedro Monarrez and Professor Jonathan Payne to understand the evolution of biodiversity and body size as a Stanford Earth Young Investigator with 13 other Bay Area high school students. I am extremely excited to examine life during the Cambrian and Ordovician periods while getting to present at the AGU for a second time in a row. Last year the conference was virtual, however I am hoping that the meeting will be in-person this year so I get the chance to meet space and earth scientists from all over the world.

After looking back on my involvement in the environmental justice movement this past year, I now know that I want a career in the environmental field. I realized that it is essential for me as a future environmental scientist to look at the environment from a social justice perspective, and to make sure I am advocating for a world in which race and class do not determine the environmental quality of a community or the health of those living in it. I want to be a part of the solution, dedicating my life to work towards environmental justice and a sustainable planet for all.

Conversation Circles Program Creates New Opportunities and Environmental Resources

By Gabriela Estrada and Jonathan Erwin, Program Managers

While the Conversation Circles program in Central Solano (formerly the Listening Circles program) has come to the end of its grant term, our commitment to increase the understanding of environmental issues that affect Solano communities is ongoing. Using what we learned through the Conversation Circles program, we will continue to help residents access important environmental, health and other data that you can use to inform decision-making within your community.

Toward that end, we have created our Environmental Resources section of the website, where you can learn more about some of the environmental and health factors that affect our communities and see resources at the county and city level when it comes to addressing environmental concerns and preparing for disaster. The pages also list organizations that are working in our communities.

We have robust data for Fairfield, Suisun City and Vacaville out of the Conversation Circles program, and hope to build similar data for our other Solano County cities going forward.

As part of closing the Conversation Circles program, we created a Neighborhood Impact and Assessment Report where we documented the project, challenges and opportunities. Here are some of the newly created opportunities and lessons learned through this project: 

Connecting with Other Community Groups

Connecting with other organizations in each of the cities we worked with is key. These partnerships have opened the door for future collaboration efforts and further community engagement at a neighborhood level. Equally important, it also created an opportunity for us to combine efforts towards a common goal.

Building Trust and Showing Up

While we have a lot of partnerships with other organizations, this project brought us to a few neighborhoods that we’ve never worked in before. By collaborating with other organizations serving these areas, we were able to begin building trust and a sense of community. Sustainable Solano will continue to show up and create opportunities for engagement and will continue to work with community members in creating a happy, healthy and thriving community.

Connecting with Government Officials

Connecting with government officials gave the project manager a clear idea of the “lay of the land” to learn about the neighborhoods, the opportunities, the history and some of the potential challenges (both environmental and social) that a project might face. Connecting with government officials also created room for future collaboration efforts, including urban forestry efforts, community gardens and resiliency efforts through our other programs.

Increasing Reach with Support from Other Programs

We will continue to seek creative ways we can connect with community members through our other programs about the environmental data that affects their neighborhoods. 

For more details, read the complete Neighborhood Impact and Assessment Report

We plan on building on these lessons to inform the Environmental Resources pages and the rest of our programs, including the Resilient Neighborhoods program, now expanding to Suisun City, and the Youth Leadership program.

As we have continued to scale our Resilient Neighborhoods program and our research across Solano County, we realize that there is a disconnect in the information on environmental progress and the general public access to that information. City and county plans are often spread across many websites and buried with departments and commissions. Within this cacophony of public information, it can be difficult to find what is relevant and what is most up to date within the county and selected cities. As we found with last fire season, and potentially any upcoming disaster, knowledge is power and can mean the difference between safety and struggle. We will continue to find ways to make that information more easily accessible within Resilient Neighborhoods and beyond.

The Youth Environmental Leadership Fellowship now in development will encourage high school youth to examine CalEnviroScreen and other data, examine environmental justice issues within the county and their communities, participate in hands-on mitigation training, and present to city leaders and community members about the environmental information and possible solutions at the individual, community and policy level. This will continue to engage the wider community through the youth presentations and projects, and the data they collect will make our Environmental Resources pages more robust throughout the county. 

Through these pages, we seek to emphasize relevant local work and organizations that share our mission of nurturing initiatives for the good of the whole. See anything we missed? Let us know at


The Conversation Circles program and Environmental Resources page development was generously funded through the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Justice Small Grants Program.

Permaculture Design Course Graduates 12 in Benicia

By Allison Nagel, Program Manager

The 2021 Benicia PDC class participants, instructors and homeowners

Solano County’s first Permaculture Design Certificate course wrapped up on April 10, with 12 students presenting their capstone design projects and receiving their PDC certificates.

It was powerful to see how this group used what they had learned to shape plans for four very different projects: One on a gradual rewilding of an aging DMV site to create a city park space; one envisioning the transformation of bare soil and turf at a city park into a welcoming space for enjoyment and reflection; one creating a healing garden space at a veterans home; and one bringing regenerative farming practices to a homestead that could support the family that lives there and supply food for their restaurants.

It was also powerful to connect with a group of individuals that signed up for the PDC program for a variety of reasons, from professional advancement to personal goals, but who all brought their passion, knowledge and desire to shape a better world to the course and their projects.

2021 Benicia PDC Slideshow

2021 Benicia PDC

The program was offered in Benicia through a partnership between Sustainable Solano and Benicia Adult Education. The PDC, which is an internationally recognized certification program, has 72 hours of standard required curriculum, but instructors bring their own expertise and insight to each program. We were lucky to have Lydia Neilsen and Anne Freiwald of Vital Cycles lead the PDC class in Benicia, which had a hands-on component focused on putting permaculture principles to use in a suburban setting.

The PDC demonstration project sheet-mulched the grass on the front yard of a Benicia home, dug an in-ground swale to capture rainwater from the roof of the house, planted guilds of plants that work together and support one another for a healthy ecosystem in the front yard, and installed a laundry-to-landscape greywater system that will take the used wash water and run it into mulch basins on the side yard for the plants there.

Video courtesy of  PDC participant Sylvia Herrera

I had the unique opportunity to pursue my PDC along with the class, allowing me to reach a life goal I set back when I first started volunteering with Sustainable Solano and learning about permaculture. The program wasn’t without challenges. COVID-19 caused huge shifts in when we could offer the course, and then we had to make logistical adjustments to be able to offer the course safely under the state’s higher education guidelines. We were so fortunate that Anne and Lydia looked for creative ways to offer the class in a combination of online and in-person instruction; and that homeowners Chris and Megan, our newest Food Forest Keepers, generously made their backyard available for class instruction while the front and side yard were being transformed through the class’ hands-on projects. I appreciate the patience of my fellow students who pursued taking the course despite these challenges and worked to get the very most out of it. Along with the education that came from the program, I also feel we created a community among the class that comes from working so closely together.

The PDC course was offered as a part of our Workforce Development program, which has been a part of transforming three Benicia yards into food forest gardens that are edible, waterwise alternatives to lawns, while educating landscaping professionals, life-long learners and high school youth on permaculture principles and sustainable landscaping practices.

We are already starting to plan for our next PDC course! Interested? You can find details here in the coming months. And feel free to email me at to be added to the interest list.

Congratulations to our 2021 Permaculture Design Certificate recipients!

John Davenport*
Scott Dodson*
Jonathan Erwin
Clay Ford
Karen Lee Ford
Sylvia Herrera
Ron Kane
Jason Lingnau
Allison Nagel
Katie Rivera
Jaxon Shain
Susan Worden

*Learn more about these participants on our Sustainable Landscaping Professionals page

The Benicia PDC program and demonstration project were funded through student fees, Benicia Adult Education, the second amendment to the Valero/Good Neighbor Steering Committee Settlement Agreement, and the Solano County Water Agency.

Get Back in the Garden: 2021 Garden Tour Reimagined!

By Nicole Newell, Sustainable Landscaping Program Manager

Time in any garden is well spent, and we invite you to spend time in a local garden on April 24 for our Annual Demonstration Food Forest Garden tour in Benicia and Vallejo.

We have reimagined the tour this year to safely open for private in-person, self-guided tours. In the past, our demonstration food forest tours have been a festive community event where many gather to tour. Last year, COVID precautions moved the event entirely online, but it was important for us to find a way this year to get people into the gardens. To do that, we invite you to choose an individual garden to tour for a 30-minute interval per household/family bubble. All participants will be asked to follow COVID safety rules, including wearing masks and staying at least 6 feet apart. You can select a garden and register here.

These diverse demonstration food forest gardens are on private and public sites and were installed by the community through educational workshops. They demonstrate how capturing secondary water, such as rainwater and laundry-to-landscape greywater, combined with healthy soil and waterwise drip irrigation can yield lush, food-producing gardens!

These gardens are so much more than examples of ecological features; they are a place to heal after a difficult day, a spot to watch seeds emerge, a place to grow food and pass on the excess, a place to gather to celebrate and to grieve, and a place where strangers become new friends. Each of these gardens has a name and a story and beautiful Food Forest Keepers.

A Food Forest Keeper is a caretaker of a demonstration food forest. Each year they agree to tour their food forest and to be an example on how to use space to create habitat, grow food and to educate and inspire others to do the same.

This is a rare opportunity to privately explore one garden within the safety of your family/friend bubble and to ask our Food Forest Keepers questions. Each garden is a unique experience: some are compact front yards, others are on a slope, some share space with animals and small children, some are allowed to grow without restriction, while others are more manicured. We hope you select a garden that interests you most and that you are inspired with ideas on how to work permaculture design principles into your own garden!

In 2022, we hope to go back to the tour being a community event where many can gather and we are looking for input from you. What would you like to see in the Demonstration Food Forest Tour in 2022? Please take this short survey.

The tour and Solano Sustainable Backyards program is made possible through the generous support of the Solano County Water Agency. The Resilient Neighborhoods program has been generously funded by the Pacific Gas & Electric Corporation Foundation.

Vital Cycles Brings Permaculture Instruction to Solano County

By Anne Freiwald & Lydia Neilsen, Vital Cycles

Vital Cycles is Anne Freiwald and Lydia Neilsen, permaculture educators based in Santa Cruz County. They bring together extensive backgrounds in community health and permaculture education and activism, and have taught classes to our local community through Sustainable Solano.

We are thrilled to be part of the diverse offerings Sustainable Solano provides the community! We have been consistently impressed and inspired by the commitment of Sustainable Solano and the larger community to regenerative practices and community resilience. Join us this January 2021 for Sustainable Solano’s first Permaculture Design Certificate Course (PDC), which we are kicking off with four free introductory classes so you can get to know us and get a taste of what permaculture is all about. See this link for more details.

Our first offering, Permaculture 101: Patterns and Principles, focused on three of our favorite patterns: the meander, dendritic branching and the keyhole bed design. Patterns provide tools for understanding the big picture as well as design ideas to integrate. Permaculture principles represent stories and ways of understanding that offer deeper perspective on how we interpret our landscapes and make design decisions. This shift in thinking is critical to our roles as members of and tenders within the ecosystems we inhabit. Missed this one? Check it out in the video above, or here.

This Saturday, Nov. 7, from 11 am-12:30 pm we will be taking a deep exploration of Soil, Water, and Plants. As gardeners, we are working with these three all the time, but do we really understand the nature of their interactions? How can we honor and enhance their interconnections and synergy on a backyard scale? How do they regulate carbon in our atmosphere and what is their role in maintaining local and global climate? Join us for an integrated perspective and practical examples for working with soil, water and plants, so that we can all move towards dynamic stability through ecological co-creation. Register here.

Our following talks will be on the parallels between our natural and internal worlds, particularly the cycles of sleep and water, and community and the permaculture concept of guilds (plants that work together to support one another). The sleep and water talk will be Dec. 12 and the guilds and community talk on Jan. 9 (registration will open soon). We hope you’ll join us for all of these informative talks and dive deeper into the study of permaculture with the PDC this January in Benicia!