In Gratitude: Recognizing Board President Marilyn Bardet’s Selfless Service to SuSol

By Sustainable Solano

In January, Marilyn Bardet will step down from the board president role she has held for the past 18 years. Sustainable Solano would not have grown into the organization it is today without her leadership, guidance, wisdom and trust. We are grateful for all she has brought to the organization.

Back in 2005 a tiny fledgling nonprofit, Benicia Community Gardens, was going through turmoil — after the death of founder Dr. Swenson, the remaining board had no vision and no capacity to continue forward. There was just one garden then, at Heritage Presbyterian Church, now carrying the name of the founder, Swenson Garden. The board put out a call for help to the community, and one of the people who stepped forward was a local artist and environmental activist, Marilyn Bardet. The board dropped the documents on her lap and left.

That’s how Marilyn started on a difficult path of being board president. There was nothing glamorous about this role — it was a hard labor of love. Together with a small group of new board volunteers, Marilyn not only saved Swenson Garden and the community that formed around it, but secured funding for the second garden in Benicia — Avant Garden, now a beloved institution on First Street. Avant Garden started with a bare patch of land. The original garden beds were made of straw and each straw bale was laid down by the hard-working volunteer board. They carried soil, spread mulch, installed irrigation, built the fence and invited the community to join in. Hard work and a steadfast commitment to the vision made it a garden that became a true Benicia town square.

The work did not stop there — the nonprofit continued to reinvent itself in response to the needs of the community and a vision for a better future for all, expanding the vision to local sustainable food, planting a community orchard, running educational programs, developing a Community Supported Agriculture hub in Benicia, and envisioning and implementing a Benicia Sustainable Backyard program: permaculture-based demonstration gardens in private homes that became the base for community education and inspiration.

Marilyn was at the heart of all these initiatives. The programs were growing, the organization was rooting. It required dedication and more hard work to secure funding, build the board, support the team and develop relationships with key stakeholders in the county. When in 2016 we took a leap of faith to become Sustainable Solano, Marilyn’s authentic leadership and support for the vision led us safely and successfully through the passage of scaling up successful Benicia programs to the county level.

Slideshow

Board President Marilyn Bardet

Marilyn, you gave so much in all these years! Countless hours at the board and team meetings; scientific research and artwork; numerous meetings with, and calls and letters to the key stakeholders; late nights with grant deadlines; long (and sometimes difficult) conversations; personal funds, and wisdom, trust and pure love given so freely and selflessly.

As you are stepping down from the board president role, we want you to remember that your selfless service has formed the very foundation of the organization you’ve been leading for 18 years!

In deep gratitude,
The board and the team of Sustainable Solano 

Outgrowing Chicken Tenders

By Cecilia Abiva, St. Patrick-St. Vincent Catholic High School Graduate

Cecilia Abiva blossomed week after week in our six-week culinary class at St. Patrick-St. Vincent, gaining confidence, having fun and, as a senior in the group, stepping up as a sweet-natured leader bringing the boombox with music every week and oftentimes staying late to help with the dishes with her crew of friends. In the SuSol Youth Cooking Program, we seek to create spaces for young adults to explore their creativity in the kitchen while developing culinary skills they can use to feed themselves and their community. The program is rooted in the fresh food available from our local food system, and promotes health and community culture. Not every student will choose to become a chef, but we hope, like Cici, they will walk away empowered for their future path with a deep respect for where food comes from and an affinity for vegetables.

Cecilia Abiva, third from left, during cooking class

Like most kids, my diet consisted of only the crème de la crème: dinosaur chicken nuggets slathered in ketchup, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and pineapples cut by my mom (and my mom only). While such comestibles provided adequate nourishment for a child whose days were filled with endless hours spent outside playing hopscotch in the warm sunshine or building castles in the living room with couch cushions and pillows, the contents of my stomach became a concern when my juvenile palate neglected to mature with the rest of my body. I was an 18-year-old who scoured every menu for anything that consisted of or bore a resemblance to chicken tenders.

Unfazed by the criticism of my family, who always managed to point out the contents of my plate during family dinners, I did not make any drastic changes to my diet until recently. Following the flurry of events that transpired during the first semester of my senior year, I found myself with an abundance of free time. Finally unfettered by the stress of finals, college applications, and being a candidate for homecoming royalty, I decided to add a new skill to my repertoire: cooking! I joined a culinary class offered by my school with a few friends. And as you can imagine, it was no easy feat. Although I had found success in the classroom as I am the valedictorian of my graduating class, being a student in the kitchen was a humbling experience. The extent of my culinary expertise at the beginning of my cooking adventure was limited to the use of a microwave. However, I faced an even bigger dilemma: Would I actually be eating the food that I was cooking?

On the first day of class, I cooked tofu stir fry with rice. The preparation of the meal went rather smoothly. Other than a few near mishaps with a knife and the flame on the kitchen stove, everyone walked out with all ten fingers and eyebrows intact. I sat at the table anxiously awaiting our meal. There was not a chicken tender or bottle of ketchup in sight. But the moment that I picked up my fork and reluctantly shoveled the concoction of onions, carrots, spinach, and celery into my mouth, my mouth curled up when I began to chew. It was pretty good! With just a little taste, my love for cooking came to fruition and it provided a new outlet to relieve my stress. And with a little bit of practice and patience, however, cooking became less daunting and more enjoyable. Being able to cook my own food and making an effort to eat sustainably also had a positive impact on my health. I also shared my affinity for cooking with my family as I became in charge of making Saturday night dinners. The sly looks that I once received at the dinner table were replaced with hearty laughter and the sound of our mouths voraciously eating our food.

Discovering this appreciation for cooking not only expanded my taste for food, but it also fostered an appetite for adventure and service for others … two traits that I hope to explore more at UC Berkeley. If admitted, I plan on continuing to nurture my culinary skills by joining the Cal Cooking Club while also exploring new ventures like taking part in the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the Red Cross. I look forward to trying new things, ketchup or no ketchup.

Reflecting on the Youth Cooking Program

Lauren Gucik, Program Manager

As SuSol’s first year offering a Youth Cooking Program comes to a close, we can surely say that many meals were shared, lessons were learned, and the farmers and specialty crops of Solano Country were celebrated! We facilitated 5 unique courses with St. Patrick-St. Vincent (2 sessions), the Girl Scouts, 4-H of Solano, and the Benicia Teen Center. We spent hours in the kitchen developing culinary skills and exploring easy ways to enjoy healthy fresh food. During our farm field trips, students met with farmers and land stewards and saw firsthand where our food comes from and what it takes to feed the community. And at our final session, students planned and cooked for their own families, serving multiple dishes in a family-style gathering.

In the kitchen, students met regularly with local chefs to develop comfort preparing fresh easy recipes. We began with kitchen safety and knife training and introduced students to simple preparations such as sauteing, steaming, roasting, and making a simple vinaigrette. Each technique was paired with recipes that highlighted local foods grown in Solano. As the seasons changed, so did the recipes. Many students said their favorite part was working with the knives and learning the different ways you can cut and chop and how what lends best to different preparations. It was very inspiring to see how students blossomed throughout the course, gaining more confidence in themselves and their abilities in the kitchen. Their openness to trying new things was an inspiration.

At the close of each class, we dressed the tables with fabric and flowers and shared the meal they had just prepared, experiencing how everyone had the same ingredients but each group’s final dish tasted a little bit different as inevitably one group cooked the onions a little longer or someone was feeling extra spicy and added more pepper flakes. Even the shyest of students opened up around the table when our discussion turned to the food system at large. We spoke of the economic, ecological and community health benefits of supporting local farmers and shared maps of farm stands and CSAs available in their neighborhood. These conversations set the stage for our farm visits, where students picked strawberries in the field, hung out with chickens and lambs, and ate a farm fresh lunch outside with produce harvested right before their eyes. They had the opportunity to see firsthand the challenges and rewards of being a small scale responsible farmer in Solano County. One student even said “This is the best field trip of my life!” right before we encountered three large snakes on our path to the bus! The youth are as brave as they are inspiring!

In these classes, we focused on creating a future of health and wealth in our communities and for our planet. In addition to cultivating comfort in the kitchen for high schoolers, we aim to strengthen relationships between farmers and their communities and foster an authentic, lasting appreciation for fresh local food. By the final cooking session, students were ready to step up to plan the menu and cook for their friends and family members. They stood tall in their responsibility; providing for their community. It is our hope to expand this program to continue to instill this understanding of local, seasonal food in Solano youth, with the possibility of supporting a healthy meal service to bolster our local food economy and our collective immune system.

We are currently pursuing funding to continue working with youth in the kitchen and on the farm. Please contact lauren@sustainablesolano.org if you’d like to connect about future partnership opportunities.

Youth Environmental Leaders Seek to Shape a Better World, Starting at Home

By Allison Nagel, Program Manager

Environmental challenges and environmental justice issues can be overwhelming when first encountered. We are often left with a sense of hopelessness — we have a desire to do something, but not knowing quite what to do.

People often say the future lies in the hands of the next generation. That today’s youth will need to shape change and address environmental issues that previous generations have neglected or worsened.

That’s a heavy load to lay on the shoulders of youth — an unfair burden. But I am heartened by Solano youth who have taken it upon themselves to shape change, starting within their own communities.
We’ve just completed SuSol’s first two Youth Environmental Leadership Fellowships. The program delved into environmental and social justice issues faced by the world today and looked at environmental and health challenges within our own communities.

The high school students who participated in these programs are thoughtful, conscientious people who see the challenges ahead and are eager to find ways to improve themselves, their communities and the world. They are ready to meet those challenges and move beyond to a world that works for everyone.

Fellowship participants started with the foundation of Pachamama Alliance’s Awakening the Dreamer program for a global perspective, studied the One Planet Living framework for a systemic approach to sustainability and principles that can inform personal actions as well as organizational decisions, and then studied local environmental data to drive conversation around what the challenges are within our own neighborhoods and wider communities.

The Fellowship participants also came together for hands-on workshops that offered some research experience and personal connection with mitigation projects, from trees that cool our urban landscapes and improve air quality, to community gardens that make our landscapes more environmentally friendly and our food supply more stable.

They drew on what they had learned and their own interests and passions to create public presentations that addressed specific challenges and some of the individual, community and policy actions that could be taken to address these. Presentation topics (click on the links below to see the slides from each presentation):

Youth Environmental Leadership Fellowship Slideshow

2022 Youth Environmental Leadership Fellowships

Seventeen participants completed the Fellowships this April. We were grateful for the partner organizations and funding agencies that made these Fellowship programs rich and meaningful.
I want to offer special thanks to Alli McCabe, a Benicia High School student who volunteered her time, insight and community connections to help develop, promote and support the Fellowship program.

In Benicia, where there were 13 participants, organizations gave of their time and expertise to support the hands-on activities of students in this program. The Benicia Tree Foundation led two tree planting and tree care days, one at the Lake Herman Open Space and one for a tree planting project at Matthew Turner Elementary School, which opened its campus for the project and even had students who were passionate about trees there to plant with the Fellowship participants. The EBAYS program (East Bay Academy for Young Scientists) through Lawrence Hall of Science led the participants in how to collect and analyze soil samples and how to interpret and share the results. We had Benicia Council Members Lionel Largaespada and Christina Strawbridge and the city’s sustainability coordinator join the group for one of their meetings for a discussion around the environment and civic action. Ron Kane supported tremendously as a program volunteer, and we’re grateful to Republic Services, which provided lunches for each of the hands-on workshops. The Benicia program was funded through the second amendment to the Valero/Good Neighbor Steering Committee Settlement Agreement.

The Central Solano program had four participants. We are grateful to Solano County, which supported the Fellowship through the Solano Gardens program. Two of the hands-on workshop days for this Fellowship were held at Parkway Plaza, a retirement home in Fairfield. It was moving to see how the youth participants connected with the residents while helping with the garden. Vacaville City Council Member Michael Silva joined one of the group’s meetings to discuss making your voice heard in local government decisions. Solano Gardens Program Manager Michael Wedgley led informative planting sessions for this group and led both Benicia and Central Solano participants in a soil biology workshop at the Benicia Community Orchard. Sustainable landscaper Scott Dodson provided guidance and plant knowledge during the Parkway Plaza workshops for the Central Solano program, and Sylvia Herrera connected one of the students at Armijo High with the garden program for her hands-on activities.

Benicia Fellowship participants
Central Solano Fellowship participants

Through these Fellowships, I was able to learn a lot about what creates meaningful experiences for our youth participants and what could be improved. I appreciate all of the passion and dedication that participants in both of these groups displayed in their commitment to the program. I know how busy many of the participants were, but they carved time out of their schedules for weekly online meetings and the hands-on workshops and final presentations.

This experience will help to shape how Sustainable Solano will engage high school youth going forward. We plan to base future internships across our different programs on the foundation of the Fellowship activities that grounded us in looking at global and local environmental challenges and actions we can take in our own lives, in our communities and in advocating for policy change.

Many of the Fellowship participants asked about ways to stay involved and active around the environmental issues that speak the most to them. We are inviting those Fellowship participants who want to continue their involvement and dedication to a better future to help us create SuSol’s Youth Leadership Council. This council will give Solano youth an ongoing voice around youth engagement within the organization and to step forward as changemakers within their communities.

I look forward to sharing more with you as the council takes shape in the coming months.

DIY Sustainable Landscape Design Class a Hit for Homeowners

By Heidi Varian
Heidi participated in the DIY Sustainable Landscape Design class offered earlier this year. She wanted to use the class to gain design ideas for a historic home in Benicia that she is restoring with some friends to create a site people can visit for an “eco-vacation.” We appreciate her sharing her reflections on the class and process!
Heidi Varian (center right) goes over the proposed design for her site with other DIY design students and professional designers

A new DIY Landscape Design class from Sustainable Solano was a hit for homeowners.

I joined the class because I’m restoring a historic home in Benicia with some friends. Our interests are arts and music, health and healing, ecology and sustainability, food as medicine. We seek to model these community visions for future generations. The house we chose was built before the industrial revolution, and designed to take advantage of the elements. So we thought we would blend 21st century eco-conscious innovation with the era of conservation, where the houses were small, the land loomed large, and the same soap was used for the dishes, the laundry, and the conservator.

People could enjoy a learning eco-vacation right in the Bay Area. My son, Tyler Varian, touched on permaculture when getting his degree in landscape architecture, writing a book as his capstone, so we had a language. I reached out to Sustainable Solano about what we could learn and was overjoyed to meet such a thoughtful, conscientious team who gently guided me in the direction of best opportunities to facilitate the goals of both organizations.

The four sessions of the DIY class were split between online and in-person workshops. The first two online classes were a great introduction to the material as participants could meet in a COVID-safe environment at the height of omicron and learn to navigate the incredible online resources that the organization has amassed through years of community outreach and team-building.

Instructor Ojan Mobedshahi had to work fast to introduce all the tools he intended for the group to share, while encouraging hands-on learning from the outset, creating an online community, and facilitating collaboration and support. The shared folder of class work is a plethora of valuable information from class contacts and individual ideas and projects to videos and workshop presentations to DIY resources and contractors. The online class was a period of DIY observation and planning. The class materials introduced water reclamation and irrigation, solar and wind considerations, soil composition, tree guilds and planting, and methods of design.

Participants in the DIY design class tour El Bosquecito, a demonstration food forest garden, with designer John Davenport, who talked about how the garden captured rainwater and prevented flooding

When we met in person in Suisun City, it was as though everyone was already acquainted. Program Manager Nicole Newell heightened the feeling by creating a space that was comfortable and inviting, where participants shared ideas and plantings alike. Arranging to visit a recent Sustainable Solano demonstration food forest garden nearby was not only a helpful participatory excursion, but also a chance to feel welcomed by a host food forest family and feel a part of a project that was ongoing and alive. John Davenport, designer for the El Bosquecito (Little Forest) garden gave the DIY class a private tour explaining the flood zone design, laundry-to-landscape greywater system, swales and plant selection. Having an additional viewpoint from a second designer throughout to reinforce that permaculture is as much about the participants as the concepts was enlightening.

Participants gather in groups to offer feedback on the designs created by classmates in the DIY design class

The final in-person workshop was the most exciting of all because the workshop attendees shared their designs with each other, offered ideas, and each received feedback from various professional designers specifically brought in for the class. This was extremely inspiring because everyone had an idea that was unique and intriguing, meaning that with the same material, each DIY home design had a personal artistic element. The flip side was that the professional contractors, designers, and design-build teams each noticed something or had a vision that the DIY classmates had not considered. It’s a very short time to cover a large body of material. I was asked if I felt empowered by the class and, in some ways, I did feel more empowered. In others, I realized that old adage, “You don’t know all that you don’t know!”

One of the best takeaways of the class is that I do feel that I can understand the language of sustainable design and the concept of permaculture. In that way, I can communicate in a more meaningful way with a professional that would potentially collaborate on a project if I feel overwhelmed at the prospect of tackling such a project on my own. And that’s a great takeaway. In the inaugural DIY permaculture class, we were lucky that a volunteer garden installation was happening concurrently. Being able to participate in the install definitely highlighted the lessons of the workshops, heightened understanding, boosted confidence, and offered an opportunity to experience the community and camaraderie of sustainability and permaculture.

New Program to Focus on Air Quality in Fairfield

Sustainable Solano Awarded 3-Year, $260,000 Community Air Grant

By Sustainable Solano

Photo credit: Visit Fairfield

A new program that will focus on air quality concerns, causes and solutions will help Fairfield residents to address air pollution within the community.

Sustainable Solano was recently awarded a $260,000 Community Air Grant that will support the planning and implementation of this new program over the next three years. The goal of the program will be to build public awareness around air pollution, its environmental causes and health effects, and engage community members in ways to monitor and mitigate air pollution on an individual and community scale. It will launch later this spring.

“From the crosswinds to the local environmental conditions, poor air quality impacts the population of Fairfield greatly,” Sustainable Solano Executive Director Elena Karoulina said, citing the grant and highlighting its importance. “Our goal is to increase public awareness and strengthen community capacity to monitor and respond to air quality issues in real time with help of local youth leaders.”

The program will engage high school youth leaders through a Youth Air Protectors program. These youth will research the air quality challenges for their communities, create outreach campaigns and support community-based projects centered around air quality. The program also will increase the number of air monitors in and around Fairfield, and will build community resilience through air quality mitigation projects, such as planting trees or improving community spaces to make them more appealing for foot and bike transportation.

Ultimately, the youth involved in the program will create an air quality plan for the City of Fairfield that incorporates what they have learned through research and community engagement and could set the foundation for future air quality improvement projects. This plan could serve as a model for other Solano County communities, as well as the greater region.

Sustainable Solano was one of 33 community organizations and five Native American Tribes that received a total of $10 million in grant funding from the California Air Resources Board (CARB) for projects that would help reduce air pollution in communities.

The Community Air Grants program is part of CARB’s overall efforts to implement Assembly Bill 617. Community Air Grants are designed to establish a community-focused approach to improving air quality and reducing exposure to toxic air pollutants at the neighborhood level. AB 617 is unique in that it requires CARB and air districts to work with residents, businesses and other stakeholders to tackle air pollution at the community scale. The current grants elevate community voices and their specific priorities regarding air pollution where they live.

As a result, the projects funded will help communities identify areas with the most harmful air emissions and then take actions to reduce exposure or address the underlying cause of the pollution.

“The Community Air Grants provided by CARB are an important tool to help residents and Tribal communities throughout the state identify and combat the harmful effects of local air pollution — and create a cleaner environment for their families,” said CARB Chair Liane Randolph.

Read more from CARB’s press release about the Community Air Grants program and find additional resources here: https://ww2.arb.ca.gov/news/carb-awards-10-million-grants-dozens-communities-statewide-fight-air-pollution

 

About Sustainable Solano

Sustainable Solano is a countywide nonprofit organization that is dedicated to “Nurturing Initiatives for the Good of the Whole.” The organization brings together programs that support and sustain one another and the Solano County community. Initiatives include sustainable landscaping, local food, resilient neighborhoods, youth leadership, sustaining conversations and community gardens.

For more information, visit sustainablesolano.org

About CARB

CARB is the lead agency in California for cleaning up the air and fighting climate change to attain and maintain health-based air quality standards. Its mission is to promote and protect public health, welfare, and ecological resources through the effective reduction of air and climate pollutants while recognizing and considering effects on the economy.

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.